Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Donald Trump has committed an impeachable offense in broad daylight, and can’t seem to decide whether he wants to deny it or brag about it. Meanwhile, a showdown between the administration and House Democrats is looming on Thursday that could either restore, or finally destroy, the concept of government oversight.
This latest Trump scandal lacks the complexities and multiple personalities of the Russia election fiasco. It is, actually, about as straightforward as it gets: Back in July, Trump phoned newly elected Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and pressured him eight different times to open an official corruption investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, in order to aid in Trump’s 2020 re-election effort.
A week before the call, according to a late-Monday Washington Post report, Trump ordered Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to hold back nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine, ostensibly because Trump wasn’t sure he wanted to spend the money. Funds to other nations were similarly withheld, but each of those countries quickly had the allotted money restored. Ukraine did not, and was left hanging by itself until Trump ordered the funds restored on September 11.
While Trump and his aides have denied that the aid money was used as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate the son of a Trump political rival, Zelensky sure thought it was. Sen. Chris Murphy spoke to the new president during a visit to Ukraine, and says Zelensky told him “the aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence” of Zelensky’s refusal to do Trump’s bidding regarding an official Hunter Biden investigation.
The exchange between Trump and Zelensky so unnerved an unnamed intelligence official that the official filed a whistleblower report. “Congress wants to investigate the whistleblower’s complaint,” report Matt Fuller and Amanda Terkel for HuffPost, “which the intelligence Inspector General Michael Atkinson describes as ‘serious’ and ‘urgent.’ But Atkinson’s boss — acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire — has refused to transmit the complaint to the relevant congressional panels.”
… and scene. After spending the first two years of his presidency dodging accusations that he courted foreign assistance to win the 2016 election and then obstructed justice to cover it up, here is Trump strong-arming the Ukrainian president to help him win in 2020 and suppressing a whistleblower report about those activities.
“If what Trump is accused of doing is true,” writes Politico legal affairs analyst Renato Mariotti, “it is a kind of corrupt conduct that the criminal system is not equipped to handle. What Trump is alleged to have done is not a garden variety crime; it’s worse…. the kind of gross misconduct that easily clears the bar of high crimes and misdemeanors set by the Constitution when impeaching a president.”
We certainly don’t have to look far to confirm these accusations: All of it, including the denial of aid money, has been explicitly confirmed by no lesser light than Trump himself.
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory,” he told reporters before a trip to Ohio and Texas, “with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine. It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
By Tuesday morning, the rationale for withholding aid funds from Ukraine had shifted again, this time from corruption to European burden-sharing. “My complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine because they’re not doing it,” said Trump at the United Nations. It is entirely possible he will tell us tomorrow that he withheld the funds because Obama won a Nobel Prize.
Reaction to these revelations was swift, and in certain quarters, actively menacing to Trump. If making good TV gets you a golden statue, William Weld needs to have one as soon as can be managed, because the former Massachusetts governor and current quixotic candidate for the Republican nomination came out of my screen on Monday morning like an avalanche of angry boulders. Weld was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to talk about the scandal, and he got right to the razor-sharp point.
“It’s treason, pure and simple,” said Weld, “and the penalty for treason under the U.S. code is death. That’s the only penalty. The penalty under the Constitution is removal from office, and that might look like a pretty good alternative to the president if he could work out a plea deal.”
For the millions of people who have spent the last year grinding their teeth at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s baffling cowardice in the face of brazen presidential lawlessness, Weld’s Game of Thrones antidote to the Trump dilemma was like a shot of adrenaline through the eyes. Of course, the likelihood of Trump being executed for treason is on par with him actually shooting par on one of his golf courses without a little help from Judge Smails’ “winter rules;” besides, the death penalty has never solved anything. Still, it was refreshing to hear someone say “treason” on television without having it refer to Benghazi.
Maguire is set to testify before Rep. Adam Schiff’s House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. He is required by law to hand over the whistleblower report, and if he refuses again to do so at the hearing, it will be fish or cut bait time for House Democrats.
This newest imbroglio has followed the common Trump pattern: Deny everything after being accused of a crime or impeachable offense, then pivot to “Yeah, so what are you gonna do about it?” In the arc of prior scandals, this is the point when nothing is done about it, Democrats fundraise on how terrible Trump is, lather rinse repeat, and the bar for legal presidential behavior is set a little bit lower once again.
Perhaps, however, this latest situation is so stark that the pattern can no longer hold. “Democrats say Schiff is spitting hot vinegar over Maguire’s decision, at the insistence of the Justice Department, to withhold an intelligence community whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine,” reports NBC News. “If it is shown that Trump held back aid to force Ukraine to go after the younger Biden, impeachment ‘may be the only remedy,’ Schiff told CNN on Sunday.”
The grumbling has gotten so loud that some lawmakers are contemplating the use of “inherent contempt,” a congressional weapon that has not been deployed in more than a century. The rule allows Congress to jail or fine witnesses who refuse to cooperate, and the acting director of national intelligence certainly qualifies. Maguire better bring a change of clothes with him on Thursday; he may not be going home for a while.
Democrats who have been right on the issue of impeachment are not keeping their discontent with Speaker Pelosi’s torpor under wraps. “At this point, the bigger national scandal isn’t the president’s lawbreaking behavior,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Sunday, “it is the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach him for it.”
In a letter to Congress made public on Sunday, Pelosi directed appropriately ominous noises toward the White House. In the letter, she states that if the Trump administration “persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.”
The actions Trump has been accused of regarding Ukraine and Biden are impeachable offenses. Withholding the whistleblower report is an impeachable offense on its face, and represents a terrifying power grab by a rogue authoritarian president who needs to hear the word “No.” This is a frontal assault on congressional oversight powers and whistleblower protections that, if allowed to stand, will leave nothing else standing.
The metric for impeachment can no longer be what may or may not happen in the Senate; we are far past that. The facts are damning enough to undertake an official impeachment inquiry and force Senate Republicans to decide in broad daylight where their loyalties truly lie.
Speaker Pelosi’s refusal thus far to even blink in the direction of official impeachment proceedings — despite an ocean of actionable evidence gathering dust on her desk — just got a whole lot harder to maintain. In fact, and not to put too fine a point on it, the choices she makes this week will determine what kind of country this will be for generations to come. If Pelosi remains ensconced in her “impeachment off the table” rut, Donald Trump will be all the government we have left.