Donald Trump has made it clear throughout his presidency that when he’s put in a corner, he’ll throw his own staff under the bus in order to save himself. As the Ukraine scandal deepens, Trump’s strategy will be to implicate as many people as possible; protecting Trump now becomes inextricable with protecting themselves. If Republicans circle the wagons now, they’re doing so around a stick of lit dynamite.
One day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment investigation, Trump appeared at a press conference in New York looking exhausted and defeated. He spoke softly and meandered. But one comment stood out: Trump suggested that Democrats and the press “ask for VP Pence’s conversation” with Ukrainian President Zelensky “because he had a couple conversations also. I can save you a lot of time. They’re all perfect.” He continued, “You can have it anytime you need it.”
The implication is clear: If anyone close to Trump tries to make use of the rapid movement of the impeachment inquiry and the fallout from the whistleblower complaint as a means to further their political ambition, he’ll spill whatever information he has about them to make such efforts futile.
Trump has a record of betraying those closest to him, from turning on his more-than-a-decade-long personal attorney Michael Cohen, to firing or forcing out members of his own staff once they become politically inconvenient to him. Trump holds the record for the most turnover in a presidential cabinet in a first term. According to a New York Times analysis, at least 55 federal agency, cabinet or White House employees have either been forced out or resigned since the beginning of his presidency. (The turnover has been popularized in an ongoing, very crowded and ever-updated graphic by @darth on Twitter.)
Trump isn’t alone in his threats. On Thursday, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told CNN that he has saved text messages that show that the State Department was supportive of the work Giuliani was doing in Ukraine, and that he is “going to use them to protect myself if and when I need them.” Later on Thursday, Giuliani made good on his threat, and tweeted a text he saved from Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine. Trump upped his own ante, saying in an appearance before U.S. diplomatic officials and an audience that included children that the whistleblower was “almost a spy.” He went on to muse, “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now,” implying that the whistleblower would, in the past, have ultimately been executed – the punishment for treason.
Trump has already implicated a number of his cabinet members in this latest scandal with Ukraine, according to the complaint by an unnamed intelligence officer whistleblower, which was declassified and released publicly on Thursday. The complaint alleges not only that Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” and that his attorney Rudy Giuliani was a “central figure,” but also that “Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.”
Barr’s involvement was confirmed in the summary of the call released on Wednesday by the White House, in which Trump twice notes that he will have Barr call Zelensky about looking into Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
Also named in the complaint is State Department official T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, who allegedly had monitored Trump’s call with Zelensky; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who the complaint states led a delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration instead of Vice President Pence, because Trump “did not want to meet with Mr. Zelensky until he saw how Zelensky ‘chose to act’ in office.” Additionally, unnamed White House officials were directed to remove the electronic transcript of this call from official archiving systems and move it to a separate system, according to the complaint.
Republicans Are Feeling the Heat
Unlike Trump’s cabinet, Republicans in Congress have for the most part not been directly implicated in the scandal thus far. But the longer they defend him, the more they will be tied to his scandals in the eyes of the public – and public sentiment is shifting fast. Late Thursday, a new Sept. 24-26 poll from Morning Consult showed that 43% of voters believe that Congress should begin impeachment proceedings – an increase of 13% since a poll was taken four days earlier.
The sheer speed with which this scandal captured the media spotlight has shifted more than just public sentiment: It led many undecided Democratic lawmakers to become supportive of an impeachment investigation. On September 9th, 134 Democrats favored an inquiry; by Tuesday, September 24, prior to Speaker Pelosi’s announcement of a formal inquiry, it was 160. On Thursday, it rose to 219: 218 Democrats plus Representative Justin Amash (I-MI). On Friday, the first Republican came out in support of an inquiry. Representative Mark Amodei told The Nevada Independent, “Let’s put it through the process and see what happens.” (Amodei clarified his stance hours later, writing in a statement “in no way, shape, or form, did I indicate support for impeachment,” but he did not dispute his support for an inquiry, adding that “we have to follow the facts and figure out what happened here.”) As of early Saturday morning, the total number of lawmakers in support of an impeachment investigation stands at 225.
The ground has shifted fast, and as is usually true for any politician, most Republicans are ultimately concerned with self-preservation. Historically, they’ve been more afraid of the response of Trump’s base than of aligning with racism, oppression and corruption. But Trump has cause for concern, as cracks in the GOP’s previously united defense of Trump emerged throughout the week.
On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution to have the whistleblower complaint sent to the Intelligence Committees in Congress — even though the Trump Administration initially vociferously fought the release of the complaint.
On Thursday, after the complaint was made public, Republican Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said, “I want to say to the president: This is not okay. That conversation is not okay.” On the same day, Vermont’s Republican Governor Phil Scott became the first Republican chief executive to come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry.
On the other hand, Senate Republicans have neither rallied to the President’s defense, nor condemned the complaint. At least six Republican Senators claimed that they had . On Friday, Senator Marco Rubio, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted that there should be “no rush to judgement or circling of the wagons.”
But changes in the map for the 2020 Senate election could pressure some Republicans to think twice about defending Trump. As Adam Jentleson argued in GQ, if Senators like Susan Collins (R-ME) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) choose to protect Trump, it may “cost them the patina of independence that they need to win re-election” in their blue states. Tellingly, Collins said on Thursday that Trump’s description of the whistleblower as a “spy” was a “gross mischaracterization” and expressed support for the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community to continue investigating the Ukraine situation.
Trump is clearly panicking about these whispers of Republican defections, as he tweeted early Thursday, in all caps, “STICK TOGETHER, PLAY THEIR GAME, AND FIGHT HARD REPUBLICANS. OUR COUNTRY IS AT STAKE!” – only to delete the tweet hours later. Perhaps worried about Senate defections, he changed his tone later in the day, tweeting praise for Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) and Richard Shelby (R-Alabama). (Both have criticized the impeachment inquiry.)
While Trump’s threats and posturing have helped him weather countless scandals during his presidency, the pace of this one creates a different calculus for his party. Friday brought a host of potential problems for Trump, including reports that he told Russian officials that he wasn’t concerned with Russian interference in the 2016 election, and that the White House concealed notes of calls Trump had with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Republicans in Congress face a stark choice: They can either continue to circle the wagons around Trump and risk being sacrificed by a man who will defend himself at all costs, or finally cut him loose from their party before he publicly implicates more of them.