Last Wednesday, the day before the House approved the rules and procedures for the ongoing impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, Senate Republicans sat down together for a private lunch. By all reports, it was a doozy. The purpose of the gathering was to try and formulate some sort of coherent defense of Trump’s Ukraine behavior without sounding like fools or dupes in the process.
The next day, the day of the impeachment rules vote, Trump appointee and National Security Council adviser Tim Morrison testified to Congress that Trump froze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine in order to force President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening a series of public investigations into Democrats. With his testimony, Morrison joined a chorus of current and former government officials singing exactly the same tune.
At the Wednesday meeting, GOP Sens. John Neely Kennedy and Ted Cruz polished a novel new turd for the edification of the gathered. Sure, there was a quid pro quo, they opined in a beta-test defense of Trump’s actions, but the U.S. puts stipulations on aid money all the time. Trump also lacked “corrupt intent” when he withheld funds allocated by Congress to dragoon a foreign power into attacking his political rivals, according to this doomed excuse for an argument.
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The challenge laid before these Senate Republicans is all but insurmountable. The quid pro quo at the heart of the matter has been established during multiple depositions, and will become a matter of public record later this week. GOP senators who try to argue that such actions are commonplace, or that Trump’s “intent” was never to commit a crime or impeachable offense, will be putting themselves way out on a creaky branch in a high November wind.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham so pointedly noted in 1999, a president can be impeached for conduct where no actual crime or conviction is present. Twenty years later, there is no need for such a broad rhetorical straddle, as there appear to be at least four crimes in play here.
By soliciting campaign aid from a foreign government, Trump violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. The quid pro quo “favor” he asked of Zelensky could easily be seen as bribery in a criminal action. Misappropriation of public funds, such as the nearly $400 million in Ukraine aid allocated by Congress, is also a crime. The “shadow diplomacy” undertaken by Gordon Sondland, Rudy Giuliani and others to strong-arm Ukraine’s cooperation, all at the direct behest of Trump, is the textbook definition of conspiracy. Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with any congressional investigation is black-letter obstruction.
“Meanwhile,” reports The Washington Post, “the president has frustrated Senate Republicans by seeming to change his messaging strategy every day rather than present a coherent defense of his actions, said multiple Senate GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly.”
The Wednesday GOP lunch meeting stands as the clearest sign yet that Trump’s allegedly impenetrable firewall — a Republican-controlled Senate — is beginning to gutter before the headwinds of his own law-breaking behavior and confused reaction to impeachment.
They sat in that room and masticated some feeble Trump defenses they had to know were nonsense. The walls are closing in at speed, and they know all too well what the recently revealed 13-point drop in Republican support for Trump could mean for their own electoral futures. Trump still polls ahead of his contenders in some key Midwest states, but the downward trend is palpable. The argument that a Republican Senate would never, ever vote to remove Donald Trump cracked wide open over lunch on Wednesday. It is still unlikely, of course, but is no longer a categorical impossibility.
And therein lies the rub. According to the latest polls, 49 percent of the country approves of impeaching Trump and removing him from office. The “mainstream” news media had a field day over the weekend howling about a “divided country,” but the numbers here — seasoned with a bit of history — should be terrifying for the White House and its Republican congressional allies.
Approval for the impeachment of Richard Nixon stood at 19 percent before the public Watergate hearings began. When they were concluded, approval for impeachment stood at 57 percent, a 38-point swing. With approval for impeaching Trump already standing at 49 percent, the public phase of the inquiry could explode that number in ways even Mitch McConnell cannot ignore.
Speaking of Mitch, who is also up for re-election a year from now, the most recent Public Policy Poll of Kentucky voters has his approval rating at a genuinely gruesome 18 percent, with only 37 percent saying they would vote to re-elect him. Being Trump’s most indefatigable defender in Congress has done Mitch no favors on his home turf. If he decides Trump is no longer worth it, well, the potential for conviction in the Senate gets as real as raindrops in a big hurry.
For all his bluff and bluster, nobody in the District is more acutely aware of all this than Trump himself, and that knowledge is exacting a bitter toll on his equilibrium. “He’s ravenously consuming news about the subject,” reports Daniel Lippman for Politico, “primarily through a friendly lens. From the Oval Office to the White House residence to Air Force One, he’s closely tracking how Republican members of Congress are digesting the latest revelations on his handling of Ukraine, and monitoring their statements for any sign of hesitation or perceived disloyalty. ‘We’re getting fucking killed,’ Trump often gripes.”
Comedian George Carlin once referred to God and religion as “the last refuge of a man with no answers and no argument.” Trump appears to have taken this concept to heart. He has put controversial Florida “prosperity gospel” televangelist Paula White on the White House payroll. According to White, she and Trump have talked about building an all-glass megachurch together. On Halloween, a pack of evangelical Christians laid hands on Trump in the Oval Office to pray away the demon of impeachment.
Any port in a storm, I guess.
If this downward spiral continues, accelerated by the public phase of the inquiry, neither the king’s horses, the king’s men, nor all the prayers of Heaven and Earth can spare Donald Trump from the consequences of his actions. He knows this, Mitch McConnell knows this, and every Republican in the Senate knows this. Stay tuned.