Why you should care
Because we’ve seen this movie before.
So far, this unseasonably hot impeachment autumn feels a bit like spring 2017. Relentless news alerts, a gusher of troubling leaks pouring from the Oval Office, crimes committed out in the open … or so it seemed. It was that May when President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and then connected the firing with his desire for the Russia investigation to end in an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.
This was memorably skewered on Saturday Night Live, when Michael Che, playing Holt, stops the interview and grins: “Wait, so did I get him? Is this all over?” Then he touches his earpiece, nods and says: “Oh, no I didn’t? Nothing matters?”
The Comey firing, and the two years of Robert Mueller mania that followed, concluded with a report that, while illuminating a pattern of troublesome behavior, did not make a firm call on whether or not Trump obstructed justice.
Now we have an even more politicized process to hold Trump accountable for things he does in the open, as he did Thursday on the South Lawn of the White House when he said that not only Ukraine but also China should investigate the Biden family.
Trump’s decision to go full Col. Nathan Jessup again pulls the whole Ukraine narrative out of the shadows of secret phone calls, cover-ups and whistleblowers and into the sunlight. It’s where Trump prefers it to be.
The point is to put this all in the realm of Trump bluster. How can it be a criminal conspiracy if he’s just spilling the whole thing to the cameras? That’s not how guilty people are supposed to act.
What Trump is telling the American people is that a systematic effort to rope in foreign leaders to unearth politically helpful dirt — we wrote last week about some heads of state who would be intriguing, but regrettably did not see the Aussies coming — is completely aboveboard. What law did I break? If I did it in front of all those people and stenographers who were listening to the calls, then it can’t have been illegal. Here, check out this clearly damaging transcript. I got nothing to hide.
This logic requires that you put aside how Trump’s aides later took extra steps to conceal those calls and renders irrelevant the attacks on the whistleblower — who accurately described what’s on the White House transcript. And it requires you to believe the Department of Justice opinion that an investigation into Trump’s most likely Democratic opponent in 2020 was not a “thing of value” to his campaign.
A monthslong impeachment process lends itself to voters tuning out entirely.
Admittedly, the “I ordered the code red” defense is all Trump has. More evidence is spilling out by the day of how the quid pro quo for Ukraine came together, and widespread concern within the State Department about it. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” William Taylor, a veteran diplomat and chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, wrote in a Sept. 9 text message to U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, published by House investigators. (Sondland disputed this characterization in his text reply.)
It all feels like it’s building to something spectacular. Trump’s Twitter feed is aflame as news continues to break of more foreign entanglements and of how Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr are being roped in.
But it’s worth remembering the frenzy of 2017. The law can be murky, impeachable offenses are entirely in the eye of the beholder and each revelation is not as much of a slam dunk as cable news chyrons can suggest. Stepping back from it all, it’s easy to see how many people wouldn’t much care what Trump chatted about with the president of Ukraine.
While lately Trump seems erratic even for him, this kind of behavior is pretty much part of his brand. He’s taken his political lumps for a couple of weeks, but a monthslong impeachment process lends itself to voters tuning out entirely. The polls will return to their equilibrium. The Democratic House will vote to impeach; the Republican Senate will vote to acquit.
The true impact will come in whether Democrats can unearth enough undeniable evidence of corruption to suit a consistent campaign narrative … and whatever other friendly foreign governments can help out with opposition research on Elizabeth Warren (or any other nominee). If they didn’t already know their way to Trump’s heart, they do now.
Back in 2017, this presidency at times felt like it would burn out like a supernova. Now that we’ve settled in, we should know better than to assume one big moment can change everything. Is this all over? Not even close.