David A. Graham: What happened in Ukraine?
Yet Trump’s single most consistent pushback on the impeachment inquiry for the past few days has been this attack on Schiff. On its face, that makes no sense. Comparatively few Americans saw Schiff’s statement, and it’s so far from the center of the story, you need a telescope to spot it. But Trump’s real goal isn’t to haul Schiff up on treason charges. This is a brushback pitch, warning Schiff and anyone who might emulate him in holding the president to account that Trump will train his mighty attention machine at them.
Trumpworld is going after Congress broadly, as well. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who is himself deeply implicated in the Ukraine scandal, is threatening lawsuits against Congress. He told my colleague Elaina Plott that he wants to sue “The Swamp” and, only slightly more coherently, tweeted, “We are carefully considering our legal options to seek redress against Congress and individual members. For engaging in an organized effort that exceeded their limited powers, under the Constitution, and for trampling on the constitutional rights of citizens by engaging in several illicit plans, carried out by illegal means, to remove the President of the US, on knowingly falsified charges allegations.” Even Laura Ingraham, a steadfast Trump supporter, seemed confused.
Today, Trump tweeted a quote from a Fox News guest who said, “Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats haven’t met the standards of impeachment. They have to be very careful here.” Be careful of what?
Taken together, this looks a lot like obstructing justice. Democrats have begun to point that out. “This is a blatant effort to intimidate a witness,” Schiff said today. “It’s an incitement of violence.” He also said that anyone trying to prevent cooperation with Congress might be obstructing its investigation, echoing a warning in a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday. This is especially risky for Trump because he barely escaped repercussions for obstructing justice in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But the White House is using a playbook similar to the one it used to combat Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump didn’t try to refute Mueller, but instead worked to convince the country that the probe was biased and a witch hunt. Now Trump is not trying to beat the impeachment probe on an even playing field; he’s trying to make an investigation so unpleasant that the investigators decide it’s not worth it, and that the public turns against it.
Trump has tried this maneuver before in government, in lower-stakes situations. It worked well against the former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe, about whom Trump was able to use damaging information to make their lives miserable, and less effectively against former FBI Director James Comey. He has repeatedly threatened lawsuits—against former aides, against authors, against news organizations—though he has seldom followed through.