The impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the subsequent attempts by the Trump administration to cover up the contents of that call, took a deeply serious turn on Thursday.
Kurt Volker, the former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, gave a 10-hour deposition to House investigators in which he handed over a ream of text messages detailing administration efforts to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. This offer-they-can’t-refuse “request,” allegedly made with nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine hanging in the balance, is at the core of the House’s impeachment investigation.
Volker’s proffered evidence also shed light on Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine look into thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories regarding that nation’s alleged involvement in the 2016 election, information Trump hoped would undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the race to benefit Trump.
The effort to push Ukraine into serving Donald Trump’s personal political interests went beyond Kurt Volker. “Two of President Trump’s top envoys to Ukraine worked on a statement for the country’s new president in August that would have committed Ukraine to pursuing investigations sought by Mr. Trump into his political rivals,” reported The New York Times. One of those envoys was Volker, and the other was U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon D. Sondland.
Volker, who is also executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, resigned last week after Trump attorney and anthropomorphic wrecking ball Rudy Giuliani revealed a series of text messages between himself and Volker on Fox News. “Giuliani claimed the messages were proof that he was asked by the State Department to speak with Ukraine’s government about pursuing investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter,” reported The Daily Beast.
Giuliani’s frenetic international campaign to recruit Ukraine into Trump’s 2020 re-election effort has thrown both the State Department and Justice Department into the center of the impeachment maelstrom. According to reports, Volker personally warned Giuliani about the nonsense Giuliani was both selling and being sold in Ukraine, and warned State Department officials that dabbling in U.S. politics by way of a foreign power was an exceedingly poor idea. All evidence suggests those warnings went unheeded.
You’d think that would be enough news for one day, but Thursday was special. That morning, Trump stood in front of a wall of reporters on the White House lawn and asked China to investigate a political rival in the middle of an impeachment inquiry that is investigating him for asking Ukraine to investigate a political rival. “China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” he bellowed.
As with Ukraine, Trump’s China-related accusations against Hunter Biden “bear little if any relation to the known facts,” according to the Times. That is corporate news-speak for “He’s a damn liar, again.”
Trump’s remarkable China request is freighted with potential consequence. “Most of the most provocative moves in the trade war [between China and the U.S.] have been made by Trump,” reports The Washington Post, “who started this whole thing and has been more anxious to ramp things up. China could very logically now believe that further escalations might be tied to whether it takes the actions Trump wants. Any future decisions could be colored accordingly.”
To date, Trump is on record as having asked five different nations — Russia, Ukraine, China, Australia and Great Britain — to either help him undermine Joe Biden, help him undermine his own intelligence services, or both. If he asks the president of Neptune to pitch in on the project next week, few would probably be surprised.
Not to be outdone even by himself, Trump winged his way to a Florida retirement community outside of Orlando on Thursday afternoon, where he “explained” that the entire impeachment scandal was probably being pushed by the pharmaceutical industry to prevent him from lowering prescription drug prices. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the nonsense was from some of these industries, like pharmaceuticals, that we take on,” he told the assemblage.
In my line of work, it is all too easy to get swarmed by the details, especially when something like Thursday happens. This is connected to that, which is related to these other things, which tie into all those — and then there’s this, but don’t forget that, and also this, this, this, this, that, this and good Lord all those, too. When rabbit holes lead to more rabbit holes, you wind up down in the deep dark using the tip of your nose as a lantern to light the way out. Missing the forest for the bark on a particular tree is indeed an occupational hazard, and in this situation, the forest is full of monsters. It is wise to take a step back and encompass the threat.
“As I learn more and more each day,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday, “I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!”
Impeachment is not a coup, but a deliberate action sanctioned by the constitution. Trump’s heavy-handed use of this word, along with the accusations of treason he has levied against House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, and his tweeted warning that impeachment will lead to civil war, seem deliberately designed to incite violence from the more ferocious quadrants of his devoted base.
It is no stretch to imagine that Trump sees such people, armed to the teeth and oozing deliberately aggravated grievances out of their pores, as his last line of defense should actual removal from office become a pressing reality. The racist gun massacre in El Paso already serves as an example of what happens when a Trump devotee takes up arms at the apparent instruction of the president.
“The militia movement has shown that it will take action based on the president’s statements,” reports Mary B. McCord for Lawfare. “His ‘civil war’ comments were phrased conditionally — dependent on ‘the Democrats’ attempting to remove him from office. Authorities would not sit idly by while foreign forces prepare for potential violence against other Americans, and they should not sit idly by while rogue private armies do the same.”
The threat of impeachment-inspired violence is all too real because Trump is actively firing up his base while ensconced in the Oval Office. “I am the president of the United States,” roars Daniel Day Lewis in the film Lincoln, “clothed with immense power!” Historians doubt Abraham Lincoln actually delivered that line as the film portrays, but the fact that a president of the United States is vested with astonishing powers is beyond dispute.
Trump’s capacity — and apparent thirst — for doing damage has little limit, and with the Republican Party standing either in stout defense or conspicuous silence, the fearful unease that has racked most of the country since November 2016 has become deeper, darker and more oppressive by the day. It is abundantly clear that the threat of impeachment has scared him, and he has chosen to be scary in response.
Whether the people’s elected representatives act to stave off Trump’s scariest threats is where the impeachment rubber will meet the removal road. In the meantime, and if Thursday is any kind of guide, fear is going to be the watchword around here for a long time to come.