Any discussion of Wednesday’s impeachment hearings should begin with two acknowledgements.
First, regardless of what happens, no matter how many stories are written about the testimony of an ever-increasing number of witnesses with varying degrees of credibility or how dastardly the plot is made to sound on cable television and on the campaign trail, the result is going to be anticlimactic. Even if the current proceedings eventually lead to an up-or-down vote on impeachment (which is far from certain), the Republican-controlled Senate is not going to remove President Trump from office. As Matthew Continetti put it recently, it’s like knowing what the score of a football game is going to be before the opening kickoff.
The second thing worth pointing out is that Republicans have no idea how they are going to talk about Trump’s guaranteed victory going forward. Being on the same page with this White House has never been easy, and the president’s own preferred arguments for his innocence change daily, sometimes even hourly. But sooner or later his party is going to have to decide what exactly they are acquitting him of.
The current line about there being no quid pro quo is, I think, untenable. Some of the president’s supporters will insist (correctly) that Ukraine did in fact receive the aid it had been expecting and that no investigation of the Biden family’s activities in that country ever took place. But the Watergate burglary was a failure too. The relevant question here is about what Trump attempted to do, not whether it worked.
This is why Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana is right to call the endless wrangling about quid pro quo a “red herring.” But he gets no closer by attempting to apply a bizarre “intentions” test to Trump’s actions. Whether he had “a culpable state of mind” is a question for the president’s confessor, not for members of Congress.
As far as I am aware, with the exception of Matthew Whitaker, the astonishingly indiscreet former acting attorney general, the only Republican official of any consequence who seems to understand the reality of the situation is Rand Paul. The junior senator from Kentucky rightly observes that the disbursement of foreign aid is always contingent. The United States gives billions of dollars to other countries each year on the condition that they will behave in a manner that aligns with America’s national interest.
How exactly we define the national interest is an open question. But politicians have a curious way of making it line up neatly with their own political fortunes at home. Was the four-day Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraq by Bill Clinton at the height of his own impeachment in the national interest? What about Richard Nixon’s attempt to sabotage Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam in advance of the 1968 election? Nixon genuinely believed that the appearance of success in Paris would lessen his chances of being elected, which would mean that Hubert Humphrey, whom he considered less likely to bring the war to a swift and honorable conclusion, would be in charge.
This is not cynicism. A president cannot do what he thinks is right for the country abroad if he is hampered by difficulties at home, including the difficulty of not being elected (or re-elected) president. Since the conduct of foreign policy is the prerogative of the chief executive, without whom we could not have relationships with other leaders, it is difficult to draw hard-and-fast distinctions between what is good for the president and what is good for the country — at least ones that do not depend upon our prior judgments about the president in question.
Paul, of course, does not quite frame his argument this way. As befits a libertarian, he uses his own well-established opposition to foreign aid to argue that the whole process is inherently corrupt, which makes Trump no more or less guilty than any other president who has ever dangled something in front of a Third World honcho in the hope of securing certain real or perceived advantages for himself and the nation. This is not quite synonymous with claiming that the granting of foreign aid is straightforwardly within the purview of the executive branch and thus not a legitimate subject of congressional scrutiny, much less grounds for impeachment and removal from office. But it amounts to the same thing.
What are the rhetorical advantages of putting the issue this way, as opposed to the proceduralist grumbles and semantic splitting of hairs about quid pro quos offered by Paul’s colleagues thus far? The main one is simply that it is true. Instead of asking Republicans and the voters with whom they will be communicating to inhabit a universe in which Trump is a Boy Scout, admitting that he did exactly what his opponents have accused him of keeps everyone firmly within what we might call the reality-based community.
More important still, I think this line is a winner. I would very much like to know how many of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 did not expect to learn that this president would be doing things like this. When you elect the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal, you expect him to spend at least some of his time making deals, including ones that involve giving people things in exchange for screwing over the bad guys. The supposed Ukraine scandal is, whether shown in its barest outline or presented with every excruciatingly tedious chronological detail, a perfect illustration of Trump’s pitch to voters from 2015 onward: Here is a guy who realized that he was probably going to have to do this thing — give the Ukrainians money — no matter what. So he decided to see whether he could get something — an investigation of the no-good very-bad Bidens — for nothing, as it were. It didn’t work out that way, but oh well. Like the man himself said: “I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.” This is how you double down on Trump as our dealmaker-in-chief, someone who has done his best to win for the American people everywhere — in China and North Korea, in Canada and Mexico, at our own southern border, and now in Ukraine — despite constant cynically minded obstruction.
Democrats think they have found a smoking gun? Great. Reload it and keep firing.
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