By the end of last week, rumors were swirling about what President Donald Trump might or might not have done to elicit a whistle-blower complaint about his conversations with a foreign leader. A rough outline had emerged: Trump had pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate business dealings of the Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. The president was refusing to answer questions.
And then on Sunday, Trump helpfully put an end to the speculation: Of course he did it.
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption—all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to [sic] the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump said. (Neither Ukraine nor Trump has produced any evidence to support that claim about the Bidens.) Trump once again implicitly admitted pressuring Ukraine during remarks at the United Nations Monday.
The revelation doesn’t come as a surprise, because, as I wrote on Friday, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had already copped to pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. But it is an astonishing admission, with the president saying he used his power to enlist a foreign government to help him win reelection. This is the stuff of impeachment.
More details remain to be uncovered. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that Trump used American aid to Ukraine as a lever in a quid pro quo. Ukrainian leaders were reportedly shocked to hear that Trump was holding up aid, and an official told the Daily Beast last week that Trump was seeking kompromat on Biden. Trump has not confirmed that, and has suggested he might release a transcript of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (just after his hapless secretary of state said that would be inappropriate), but Democrats are demanding the whistle-blower complaint itself.
Yet the basic story is now out in the open, with Trump’s assistance, even as Democrats continue their probe into the complaint. Usually the drama of an investigation lies in finding out what happened, but the drama of this investigation lies in finding out what happens next. There’s hardly a need to ask what the president knew and when he knew it; Trump has told everyone. The question is what Democrats intend to do about it.
In theory, Trump’s admission ought to place him in a tight bind. The president makes it hard to defend himself when he’s already said he did it. (The administration’s response has been to claim misconduct by the Biden family, but there’s still no evidence to back that up, never mind the blatant hypocrisy of the accusation.) But Trump has seen that Republicans, both voters and crucially elected officials, have shown that practically no abuse is too much to bear.
And he knows that Democrats have been too timid to act. The Democratic leadership of the House has pursued a strategy of moving just enough toward impeaching Trump that it can say it’s moving, but little enough that it can say it’s not impeaching him, and can run out the clock on his term.
There were signs of shifting attitudes among Democrats over the weekend. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, whose quest for the whistle-blower complaint set off the latest battle and who had been equivocal on impeachment, said that now it “may be the only remedy.” But Speaker Nancy Pelosi would say only that the revelations brought the House into “a whole new stage of investigation,” an extremely vague answer. Pelosi also told NPR that Congress should pass laws making clear that sitting presidents can be indicted—the latest sign that she would like to pass the buck of holding Trump accountable to someone else.
The Constitution provides a method for holding the president accountable: impeachment. But if House Democrats can’t be relied on to hold Trump accountable, surely neither can the same Justice Department that misled the public about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report in an attempt to soften its blow.
The Mueller experience provides another reason for wariness about the new controversy. Trump’s critics, among both Democrats and disaffected conservatives, were convinced that the president and his campaign had engaged in a huge, shadowy conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election. There were multiple investigations, including Mueller’s probe and several congressional panels, into the election.
When Mueller’s report did not trace an elaborate conspiracy in red string and pushpins, it came as a letdown for Democrats. But much of the most serious evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing had been out in the open all along: the 2016 Trump Tower meeting; the plea for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails; the undisguised attempts to kill the investigation into Russian interference.
This is why Pelosi’s threat of “a whole new stage of investigation” rings hollow. Democrats should demand the whistle-blower complaint, and the administration’s attempt to deny it to Congress “flies in the face of the plain text, structure and purpose of the law,” as the law professor Stephen I. Vladeck writes in The New York Times. But getting bogged down in yet another lengthy investigatory process seems to miss the point. First, Trump has already confessed. Second, the time to act is running out. The presidential election is less than 14 months away. If Trump was willing to go to these extreme measures to strike at an opponent now, before Democrats have made a nomination, what will he be willing to do if he’s trailing in the polls in September 2020?