Trump Is Running Out of Defenses

Has the expectation that presidents will act in a public-spirited matter now also become a partisan stance?

President Donald Trump points at a cheering crowd.
Carolyn Kaster / AP

It is a quirk of our current highly polarized political environment that a party can plausibly claim its opponents are acting in a partisan fashion by insisting upon doing so itself. It takes two to tango, but refusing to tango takes only one. And if Democrats and Republicans aren’t dancing together, then any action becomes a partisan action—and can be denounced as such.

And so it was last week that, confronted with a decision by the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives to authorize procedures for the public phase of consideration of the president’s impeachment, House Republicans voted as a bloc against the measure and thereby enabled themselves to decry the vote as partisan. The criticism was, of course, accurate. Unlike the House votes to authorize the impeachment inquiries of Presidents Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, this vote came very nearly along perfect party lines—with two Democratic House members joining the Republicans and only a single former Republican, the now party-less Justin Amash, voting with the Democrats.

But the argument also elides the source of the partisanship. What is notable about the vote is not that Democrats, looking at the information available to the House, want to consider impeaching President Donald Trump. It is rather that Republicans, looking at the very same information, uniformly do not want even to consider it—that they purport to be outraged not by the president’s behavior but by the processes through which whistle-blowers complain about that behavior, by the means Democrats employ to consider such complaints, and by the expectation that a president will act on behalf of some vision of the public interest rather than putting national-policy tools at the service of his own personal and political interests.

But never mind that. Forcing a strikingly partisan vote adds the charge of a partisan impeachment to the list of grievances that make up the president’s defense, a defense so far composed of process objections (“kangaroo court”), abandoned denials (“no quid pro quo”), argument by assertion (a “perfect phone call”), and above all, character assassination (“human scum”).

This last tactic has proven a reliable one for the president—who, after all, complained throughout Robert Mueller’s investigation of the “17 Angry Democrats” he felt were unjustly pursuing him. But as the Ukraine scandal winds on, and turns outward, the marginal returns associated with attacking opponents may be diminishing. The message Trump’s allies used to tar the chief U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor—that he was motivated to attack the president over supposed political differences—largely failed to catch on. And the argument that gained steam on Fox News against the National Security Council staffer Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman—that the emigration of Vindman’s Ukrainian Jewish family from their home country when Vindman was 3 years old had somehow inculcated in the staffer a loyalty to Ukraine over U.S. interests—quickly ran into a brick wall of condemnation, even from congressional Republicans. Representative Liz Cheney, an otherwise fierce defender of the president, described the attacks on Vindman’s devotion to his country as “shameful.”

The shift to a public-facing phase of the impeachment process has a number of elements that are likely to complicate further a defense based on such attacks and complaints about Democrats and the “deep state.”

The first is the release of transcripts of all these depositions that have been taking place behind closed doors over the past several weeks. It’s one thing for the press to have access to witnesses’s opening statements, along with the top-line narrative claims from their depositions. It’s quite another thing for the press to be able to go through all the testimony by all the witnesses and develop its own collective narrative history of L’Affaire Ukranienne, particularly given how damaging that history is likely to be.

The second element is public testimony by those witnesses who are willing to testify. This group is large and growing, and it is composed of public servants of a type easier to denigrate when silent than when earnestly expressing their concerns and the stories behind them on national television. The president’s loss of control over the branch of government he heads has given Congress access to ambassadors, officials of the National Security Council and the Defense Department. The stories from these officials are damaging to the president to differing degrees—but none of them is likely to be favorable. And the collective impact of the parade of them telling their stories publicly will be very difficult to respond to.

And then there are the other witnesses, the John Boltons and Rudy Giulianis—witnesses who will not come willingly but could be, with court intervention, persuaded or compelled to come. This group of witnesses represents the major wild card. Democrats may be forced to go ahead without them, depending on how tenacious these witnesses are in tying things up in litigation. But they also could prove most damaging to the president if they end up testifying.

With procedures now settled for the ongoing impeachment inquiry, The Washington Post reports that House Democrats are planning on a series of “blockbuster” public hearings with witnesses such as Taylor, Vindman, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted from her post in Ukraine at Trump’s request. To some extent, Republicans are putting on a brave face: The Post quotes Representative Peter King insisting, “I think people will see there’s very little there.”

But the prospect of the House conducting such hearings in public, with credible witnesses who are all telling variants of the same damning story as seen from their own angle, creates problems for the president’s defenders. How do you complain about secrecy when the proceedings are no longer behind closed doors? How do you attack the integrity of witnesses against whom your previous attempted attacks have already failed, when they are on television seeming like credible public servants trying to do their jobs? How do you defend presidential conduct, when the president’s own staff is describing it in alarming terms?

So far, the president’s defense—for all its triviality—has worked pretty well in maintaining his core support. While support for impeachment has grown significantly, the president’s approval rating has held up reasonably robustly, dropping only half a percentage point in the FiveThirtyEight average from October 1 to November 1. There is little prospect of congressional Republicans abandoning the president as long as this resilience in his job-approval numbers persists. So the key question is whether support for the president among Republican voters will meaningfully erode in the face of a more public presentation of the president’s behavior with respect to Ukraine.

That may depend on which theme predominates in the president’s defense in this new phase. Trump, at least, seems to favor his traditional approach: shooting the messengers. He has tweeted incessantly demanding to know more about the whistle-blower whose complaint pushed the Ukraine scandal into the public eye, and suggested to reporters on November 3 that they would be “doing the public a service” by revealing the person’s identity. The president has never been much constrained by reality, but it’s hard to see how fruitful this tactic is likely to be, given that the whistle-blower’s account of Trump’s actions toward Ukraine has now been corroborated by witnesses such as Taylor, Hill, and Vindman. Continuing to focus on the whistle-blower while firsthand participants in the story are testifying about what happened is a bit of a non sequitur.

Another option is to smear not just the whistle-blower, but all those other witnesses as well. Indeed, this weekend Trump hinted vaguely at information the press will learn “very soon” about Vindman’s political affiliation. But the unexpected Republican revolt against the suggestion of Vindman having dual loyalties suggests that, at this late hour of the day, there may finally be some defenses that just will not fly.

Then there’s the option of falling back on process complaints. During the vote on impeachment procedures, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise foreshadowed this approach, standing in front of a large placard with an image of a hammer and sickle alongside St. Basil’s Cathedral and decrying the “Soviet-style,” “sham” impeachment process that he understood the resolution would authorize. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy argued to reporters that the investigation had been poisoned from the outset by a lack of “due process” and that a vote midway through could not undo that damage. In McCarthy’s description, the Democrats’ initial decision to hold closed hearings is a poisonous tree, and all subsequent impeachment processes are its malign fruit.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes people will be so outraged by closed-door depositions weeks earlier that they will not care or hear what live witnesses are saying in public in real time. Process arguments, particularly bad ones, can get the president only so far.

The final option is to cease contesting what happened, but to assert instead that it was the president’s prerogative to act as he did, that he acted properly or reasonably, or at least that—whatever one may think of his choices—he did not act impeachably. The Washington Post the other day reported that Senate Republicans were heading in this direction. And this defense, from a strategic point of view, is well advised. It is, after all, the only option that doesn’t require the denial of facts, the defamation of individuals, or persistent distraction from what the president actually did.

But this approach will require a redefinition of long-standing public perceptions of presidential propriety, to claim that nothing is unacceptable about a president using the tools of statecraft for individual gain. According to the Post, this would likely make more moderate Republicans edgy. What’s more, this tactic has already been tried once—by Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who angrily insisted that anyone outraged by the quid pro quo should just “deal with it.” And it quickly backfired, with Mulvaney forced to retract his statement.

As the public phase of impeachment proceedings begins in our era of perfect partisanship, has the expectation that presidents will act in a public-spirited matter now also become a partisan stance?