Updated at 4:13 p.m. ET on October 3, 2019.
Though his allies insist that Democrats have been looking for an excuse to impeach Donald Trump since the day he was elected, the president was caught flat-footed last week when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced an “official impeachment inquiry.”
The White House continues to scramble to put together a machine to fight impeachment, but slowly, from a series of enraged tweets and statements by Trump aides, a central message is starting to emerge: If you want to go after the president, we will make it very, very costly for you—and for the nation.
This threat applies to individuals, including the unnamed whistle-blower who filed a complaint about Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine, as well as to members of Congress, especially Representative Adam Schiff. And it also applies to the country as a whole, as Trump warns of a “civil war,” suggesting that the cost of investigating his actions will be to tear apart the social order—or, put differently, a promise that if he goes down, he’ll take the country with him.
To begin with, Trump has sought to intimidate the whistle-blower and suggested retaliation, a move that also serves to chill anyone else who might bring forth evidence of presidential abuse of power. Speaking to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations last week, Trump implied that the whistle-blower ought to be executed.
“I want to know who’s the person that gave the whistle-blower—who’s the person that gave the whistle-blower the information, because that’s close to a spy,” the president said. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle them a little differently than we do now.”
On Sunday, he demanded to “meet not only my accuser” but also others who “illegally” gave information on his calls to that person. This is a perversion of the whistle-blower process, which is a legal process—contrary to Trump’s accusations of lawbreaking—and which is designed to shield people with damaging information from intimidation and retaliation. On Monday, Trump said, “We’re trying to find out about a whistle-blower.”
Trump and his allies, both those on his staff and those in the media, have also gone on the offensive against Congress. The foremost target of this has been Schiff, the California Democrat who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. At the start of last week’s testimony from Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, Schiff delivered a slightly exaggerated paraphrase of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Since then, Trump has repeatedly attacked Schiff on Twitter and in remarks. “Rep. Adam Schiff fraudulently read to Congress, with millions of people watching, a version of my conversation with the President of Ukraine that doesn’t exist.” “Adam Schiff therefore lied to Congress and attempted to defraud the American Public.” “I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.” “Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?” “Why isn’t Congressman Adam Schiff being brought up on charges for fraudulently making up a statement and reading it to Congress as if this statement, which was very dishonest and bad for me, was directly made by the President of the United States?” “Congressman Adam Schiff should resign.” Etcetera.
This is absurd. First, Schiff was joking, though his joke was ill-advised; he acknowledged in the same hearing that the remarks were intended as satirical. Besides, the transcript was released publicly for anyone who wanted to read it. Even if Schiff had been attempting to pass the paraphrase off as genuine, it’s not “fraud” or illegal to do so, and remarks by members of Congress are broadly protected under the Constitution’s speech-and-debate clause. Although Trump has labeled any number of things he doesn’t like as treason, it should go without saying that none of this rises anywhere near betraying the country. That’s just as well for the president, because if making up elaborate lies were treasonous, he’d be locked up in a brig right now.
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.
But it’s a method that Trump mastered in the private sector, where it became a go-to tool for the Trump Organization, against parties both large and small. Trump was inordinately litigious. He would stiff small companies for services rendered, recognizing that the cost of fighting the Trump Organization in lawsuits was large enough to overwhelm the benefits of fighting. Instead, contractors would settle for smaller amounts or nothing at all.
Trump went after big companies this way, too. After a series of financial failures, Trump found by the 2000s that most banks were unwilling to lend him money. The one exception was Deutsche Bank. By 2008, that relationship had begun to sour as well. Trump defaulted on a $334 million loan, and then sued the bank. In the end, Deutsche Bank ended up settling.
The stakes in these cases were great for those involved: sometimes a matter of whether a small business would survive, sometimes a matter of hundreds of millions of dollars. But in the grander scheme, they were not so important. Trump is now playing with much greater and more dangerous forces. In a tweet on Sunday, he invoked the threat of a civil war to warn against Democrats attempting to impeach him. Trump, historical ignoramus that he is, probably doesn’t grasp the horror of the Civil War. This sort of rhetoric carries the danger of being self-fulfilling, but Trump’s purpose here is not to actually foment a shooting war, but to scare his critics into believing that he’s willing to sacrifice even the country to save his presidency.