Is Alexander Vindman’s testimony the smoking gun of the Ukraine scandal? Or was it Bill Taylor’s? Was it Gordon Sondland’s decision to defy the White House and speak? Was it the whistle-blower complaint, or the partial transcript that the White House itself released?
Just as in previous Trump-related scandals, there are plenty of still-warm weapons to choose from, and yet none has shifted the debate radically. Impeachment has grown more popular, but a significant chunk of the electorate remains unshakably supportive of President Donald Trump.
The search for a smoking gun also seems ill-suited to this scandal. The phrase entered the political vernacular in Watergate, in reference to a tape on which President Richard Nixon discussed a cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices. That recording definitively tied the president to the conspiracy to hide the crime, and led to his resignation under duress.
In this case, however, there’s no question that Trump was deeply involved in pressuring Ukraine. He even released a partial transcript showing it. In Watergate, everyone knew there was a crime, and the question was who did it. In the Ukraine scandal, everyone knows who did it. The only debate is whether it’s a crime, or perhaps a high crime.
Each new damning piece of testimony adds to the evidence that Trump abused his power, demanding that Ukraine intervene in American electoral politics in return for diplomatic attention and congressionally appropriated aid. For people who are willing to consider the evidence, each new account is useful as both confirmation and texture—Vindman, for example, offers a new firsthand account of a call between Trump and the Ukrainian president—but not novel. A few people refuse to listen, and no account could persuade them.
Yet the armory full of smoking guns will eventually matter. In earlier stages of the process, Republicans and Trump defenders could hide behind a series of excuses: The whistle-blower didn’t have firsthand knowledge, or there wasn’t really a quid pro quo, or the Ukrainians didn’t understand it as a quid pro quo, or maybe Trump didn’t know what was going on.
But the testimony has shredded each of these, as witnesses with direct knowledge speak and more becomes clear about the Ukrainian side and Trump’s own involvement. Process questions have now been at least partly disposed of. And while some Trump defenders are craven enough to mount baseless accusations of treason against witnesses, that’s unlikely to stand for long either.
That means Republican members of Congress will have to grapple with the substance of the impeachment inquiry, and they will have three options:
- Trump did it, and there was nothing wrong with that;
- Trump did it, and it was bad, but it wasn’t an impeachable offense; or
- Impeachment, and perhaps removal, are warranted.
Trump himself has been espousing the first strategy. On Monday, the president urged Republicans to move past process complaints and dig into the substance of the accusations against him. “I’d rather go into the details of the case rather than process,” he said. “Process is wonderful … but I think you ought to look at the case. And the case is very simple; it’s quick. It’s so quick.” He repeated the request on Twitter Tuesday morning:
How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call when all anyone has to do is READ THE TRANSCRIPT! I knew people were listening in on the call (why would I say something inappropriate?), which was fine with me, but why so many?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), October 29, 2019
The problem is that reading the transcript isn’t really helpful to his case at all, as it shows the president indulging in what his own former aides have called bogus conspiracy theories and pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (In a sense, Trump has been right to dismiss the whistle-blower complaint; the transcript itself offers a more direct account, and it’s incriminating.) What few doubts there might be about his intentions have been put to rest by testimony from career diplomats, political ambassadors, National Security Council staff, and news reports from Ukraine.
Erick Erickson, the Trump opponent turned backer, pleads for “better spin” in a recent column, an acknowledgment of how bad the facts are for Trump. Still, some Trump defenders will stick to the idea that although Trump tried to pressure a foreign government to interfere in the election, and used the leverage of U.S. government policy to benefit himself politically, that was perfectly fine.
Others, however, will realize how absurd that sounds and will feel unwilling. That will drive them toward option 2. Ari Fleischer, the George W. Bush spinmeister, lays out a template for how that would look:
POTUS’s call was wrong, but impeachment is not right:— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer), October 29, 2019
“The threat to national unity and cohesion does not come from Trump’s request to Zelensky—it comes from the refusal of Democrats to let the American people decide who our president should be.” https://t.co/RNWd4SXF20
Many Republican senators are doing anything they can to avoid commenting, but a few of the ones who have been willing to speak already have taken a similar tack. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for example, told the Associated Press earlier this month that the July 25 call was “inappropriate,” but added that impeachment “would be a mistake.” As the inquiry moves forward, however, with more evidence against Trump, the ability to withhold judgment is melting away. Perhaps by the time the inquiry is over, some Republicans in both chambers will have decided that impeachment and removal are appropriate. But many will probably end up in the second camp.
That’s where many Democrats landed during the Clinton impeachment, too. They couldn’t produce substantive defenses of Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, nor could they offer a persuasive defense of his lies about it. (Like Trump-supporting Republicans, they downplayed obstruction as a “process crime,” or argued that Clinton should never have been in a position to be asked questions about the affair—neither of which is really a defense.) A substantial number of Democrats were intrigued by the idea of censuring but not impeaching or removing Clinton, a prospect that never materialized.
It points back to the Watergate example. The smoking gun was a smoking gun because most people, from the White House on down, acknowledged it was bad. But not everyone was willing to concede that. The Nixon aide Pat Buchanan—now often viewed as an ideological harbinger of Trumpism—felt differently. As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein report in The Final Days, their chronicle of Nixon’s downfall, “Buchanan looked at the tapes essentially as a public-relations problem. He believed there was a way to live with everything … If the media were handled properly, the damage could be minimized.”
Buchanan argued that the White House should brief friendly members of Congress on the transcripts, then release them methodically, with careful legal analysis. He lost the argument. The administration tried to hold back the tapes, and failed, and eventually Nixon was brought down.
Trump has, wittingly or not, followed Buchanan’s path nearly five decades later. He apparently believed that releasing the transcript might dissuade Speaker Nancy Pelosi from embarking on an impeachment inquiry, to no avail. But now, as he calls on the public to read the transcript and steadfastly insists that he did no wrong, he’s testing the Buchanan theory that acknowledging sins, but insisting they are not sins, might save a presidency.