“You people ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” Donald Trump scolded reporters yesterday at the United Nations, as they asked him about bullying Ukraine to investigate Vice President Joe Biden’s son’s work there.
It was a classic do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do moment, because Trump himself doesn’t demonstrate any sense of shame at all. This politically potent character trait allows the president to do things that would have pricked the conscience of other political leaders. But although Trump is willing to weather endless dudgeon, he is not so blasé about real consequences. The current crisis over Ukraine demonstrates the reach and limitations of Trump’s no-shame approach.
No shame means Trump felt no compunctions about allegedly withholding aid from Ukraine while demanding that country’s government investigate Biden, and no shame meant he hesitated only briefly before acknowledging he’d done it.
But fear of consequences seems to explain the White House’s determination not to provide a whistle-blower complaint about the matter to Congress, as required by law, as well as Trump’s agitation in scolding the reporters. While Trump may not have been ashamed of the political power play, the filing of a formal legal complaint by the whistle-blower creates a concrete legal process, as well as a rising threat of impeachment—both things Trump fears.
When people complain about Trump breaking norms, rather than laws, what they mean is that Trump is doing things that predecessors would have been ashamed to do. But Trump often doesn’t know his civics well enough to recognize his violations, and he doesn’t have any shame. Shame is a concern for other people’s opinions, and his is limited. Throughout his career he’s done things that other people might not have, because they wanted to avoid public disapprobation—breaking a promise to save friezes from the old Bonwit Teller building, stiffing contractors, even lying to federal and state regulators—on the assumption that the consequences would be minor. That assumption was generally right. It also meant “grabbing [women] by the pussy,” recognizing—again, correctly—that he was unlikely to face serious consequences.
Naturally, this approach carried over into the presidential campaign, where Trump was willing to say things that other candidates were not. Other Republicans had been happy to play on voters’ racism and xenophobia, as long as it was hidden behind enough euphemism. Trump was willing to state it plainly, and Republican voters rewarded him for it. As the general election progressed, Trump recognized that many voters were turned off or even appalled by his gaucheness. “If you really like Donald Trump, that’s great, but if you don’t, you have to vote for me anyway,” he said. “You know why? Supreme Court judges, Supreme Court judges. Have no choice, sorry, sorry, sorry. You have no choice.”
In effect, Trump wagered that actions were more important than words. He won. Even though 60 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and a similar number said he was not qualified to be president, according to exit polls, enough of them voted for Trump for him to win an Electoral College victory with a minority of the vote. The president has stuck with this approach post-election, adopting a base-centered strategy and making little serious attempt to mitigate his consistently dismal approval rating.
When Trump was elected, many of his critics feared that he would create acute constitutional crises by doing things like defying federal-court orders. As president, he’s been heavily involved in litigation—both as a defendant, in challenges to executive moves, and as a plaintiff, challenging House Democrats’ oversight—but he has not dared defy a court. The consequences could be too grave.
The field of foreign policy, however, has fewer restrictions on what a president can do. Neither a court nor Congress is likely to intervene. Trump has been happy to fight rhetorical battles around the globe. But when confrontations threaten to have irreversible consequences, he has often backed down. When it became clear that verbal pressure alone would not dislodge the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, Trump lost interest in that conflict. When he realized that 150 people might die, Trump canceled an air strike on Iran.
Based on his experience of congressional probes and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump seems to have concluded there is little consequence for inviting foreign interference in American elections. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had been stirring up action on the Ukraine front for months, but it seems like a remarkable coincidence that Trump’s controversial call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came on July 25—the day after Mueller testified to Congress, without producing any new revelation that seemed likely to spur Democrats to impeach. Trump knew they could talk, but House Democrats didn’t look like they were prepared to act.
That helps explain why, up until last week, there was little coyness on the part of Giuliani and the Trump camp about what they were up to in Ukraine. If the worst consequences were some articles in the press and hand-wringing by Democratic politicians, Trump wasn’t worried. Who cares what they think? But the introduction of the formal legal complaint changed the calculus. The whistle-blower process is laid out in law, which is bad enough, and trying to circumvent the procedures has Democrats talking more seriously about impeachment, which would be an even worse consequence.
Talking about impeachment, though, is a long way from actually going forward with it. Trump will be watching what Democrats do, not what they say. He might be angry while he watches, but he won’t be ashamed.