The president of the United States is a criminal.
He conspired to use the power of his office to blackmail another country into inventing a fake scandal to smear one of his domestic political rivals, in the service of his own reelection.
And he very nearly got away with it.
With Russian invasion forces gobbling up the country and desperately needed U.S. military aid being held up, the president of Ukraine was backed against a wall. He was ready to give in and read a prepared statement on American TV, hostage-style, if a courageous whistleblower hadn’t come forward:
The next day, September 9, Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community, notified the House intelligence committee of a whistleblower complaint and three House committees launched an investigation of the White House campaign to press Ukraine to smear Biden. The investigation of the whistleblower’s complaint appears to have derailed the White House campaign to force Zelensky to make the statement to CNN at the last moment.
All of this has come out thanks to a heroic American diplomat, William Taylor, who testified to Congress with this and other smoking-gun statements:
William Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told him that “everything” Ukraine wanted depended on whether its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, pursued an investigation.
… Taylor said Sondland told him that tying military aid to efforts to kneecap political opponents didn’t amount to a quid pro quo. But it was exactly that, of course, and in his testimony Taylor didn’t hesitate to describe it as such. He said Sondland told him he needed to understand the give-and-take with Ukraine as a business transaction because Trump was a businessman.
“When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something,” Taylor quoted Sondland as saying, “the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.”
…And what motivates Gordon Sondland? Sondland is a wealthy hotel operator with no diplomatic or public policy experience who received his ambassadorship after making generous donations to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He reportedly aspires to a cabinet position. To get one, he was apparently willing to help the president abuse the powers of his office by strong-arming Ukraine to meet his personal needs.
I can’t imagine how terrible it must be for a person of integrity to serve under this filthy administration. If it were me, I’d have resigned in disgust long ago, or took a stand and forced them to fire me. On the other hand, if everyone did that, Trump would be able to pack the government with thugs and cronies like Sondland and would have gotten away with this and other crimes.
It’s an awful moral dilemma – quit and preserve your own conscience, or stay and try to be a bulwark against the tide of rot – and I sympathize with the people who are facing it. I don’t envy them their options.
We’re at a moment of national crisis. The question is: what are we going to do about it?
A lot of liberals on social media are frustrated that the House of Representatives is moving so slowly on impeachment, to the point of foot-dragging. I share that frustration. No doubt, the Democratic leadership is remembering the lesson of the Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, which backfired on them in a big way.
But there comes a time when principle has to take precedence over mere political calculation. If this doesn’t deserve impeachment, nothing does. If Trump can get away with such blatant thuggery, we might as well throw the Constitution in the trash and stop pretending we live in a democracy where elected officials have checks and balances on their power.
On the other hand, now that impeachment hearings have started, we shouldn’t rush them. Trump’s sycophants will shriek that it’s a partisan witch hunt, but they’d do that even if someone had been murdered and the president’s hands were dripping with blood (no, literally).
We should ignore these bad-faith objections. But to make sure they don’t gain credibility, Democrats have to act methodically and carefully. The evidence has to be scrutinized in detail, with no stone left unturned and no link missing in the chain of facts.
This is going to be slow, but that’s no bad thing. It’s important to remember that the Watergate scandal took two years to unfold. The five men who broke into DNC headquarters were arrested in June 1972; Nixon didn’t resign until August 1974. By that standard, this process is moving quickly.
Of course, the difference is that Nixon was facing certain conviction in the Senate, whereas the Senate we have is governed by Republican lickspittles who’ve been all too willing to turn a blind eye to Trump’s criminality until now. Why should this time be any different? Doesn’t this make the impeachment process an exercise in futility?
Admittedly, it’s not likely he’ll be removed from office. That being said, politicians are creatures of incentives; they respond to pressure. Right now, the pressure that Republican senators are facing comes mostly from their own party, from the rabid Trump loyalists who cheer his lawbreaking and venality. Even if Republicans despise him personally, they’re certain to face primary challenges if they break with him, so for now they’re hanging tight.
But they still have to win general elections. If Trump’s approval drops so low that it starts dragging them down, it’s entirely possible that they’ll throw him overboard to save their own careers. The GOP will march in lockstep behind him until he becomes more of a liability than an asset – but if that day arrives (and it could be closer than we think), they may do a sharp about-face.
That’s why it’s so important for the Democratic House to proceed slowly and carefully. Republican senators would like nothing better than a speedy impeachment. They can quickly vote to acquit him and hope that the whole scandal fades from public memory by the 2020 election.
The obvious counter-strategy for Democrats is to keep the story in the spotlight, keep up the drip feed of damning headlines and forge each link in the chain with ironclad evidence, ratcheting up the pressure on the Senate and making Republicans sweat. If we take the opportunity to revisit the Mueller report and other previous evidence of Trump’s corruption, so much the better.
I still think it’s more likely than not that he won’t be removed from office before 2020 (and even if he were, would Mike Pence be an improvement?), but America’s integrity and the rule of law is in grave danger. Now isn’t the time for quibbles or hand-wringing. Now is the time to man the barricades, and we have to use every constitutional weapon at our disposal.