Faced with impeachment, previous presidents have sought to lower tensions. Finding himself in the same situation the past few weeks, Donald Trump has instead opted for confrontation and defiance.
Tomorrow, Trump will be impeached by the House for abusing his power in the pursuit of information in Ukraine damaging to a political rival, in a scheme executed largely by his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. But Trump has not only not apologized or backed down from the behavior that inspired the impeachment; he has instead emphasized it.
Earlier this month, Giuliani once more traveled to Ukraine. And while House Republicans for a time tried to pretend that Giuliani might have been freelancing, without the president’s awareness or involvement, Trump has been open about his close coordination with Giuliani.
Giuliani told The Wall Street Journal that Trump called him as his plane was still on the tarmac, taxiing to the gate, and asked, “What did you get?” Giuliani replied, “More than you can imagine.” The president confirmed this. “He says he has a lot of good information,” Trump said Saturday. “I hear he has found plenty.” On Friday, Giuliani visited the White House, and though Trump later told reporters that Giuliani had told him “not too much” about the trip, the president also directed his attorney to deliver a report to Congress and the Justice Department on his findings.
There’s a good bet on what he found: nothing, or at least nothing real. Though the former New York mayor has been snooping around Ukraine for most of the year, he still hasn’t turned up any evidence of wrongdoing by former Vice President Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden. Giuliani has proved willing to seize on any allegation, no matter how thin or how unreliable the source, and the claims and innuendos he’s imported have been shot down in a series of debunkings that would be embarrassing for anyone with any remaining shame. (Asked about his legacy in January, Giuliani said, “What do I care? I’ll be dead.”)
Giuliani also effectively confirmed Democrats’ charge that Trump fired U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch out of personal political motives—something Intelligence Committee Republicans tried to cast doubt on. “I believed that I needed Yovanovitch out of the way,” Giuliani told The New Yorker’s Adam Entous. “She was going to make the investigations difficult for everybody.” If there was any evidence the investigations were anything more than a political errand, that might be justifiable—but there is no such evidence, and a great pile of it on the other side of the ledger.
This is not the place to make the case that Trump’s behavior has been inappropriate, though it clearly has. The point is that even as Trump prepares to face an extremely rare sanction, he hasn’t done anything to moderate his behavior. Caught with his right hand in the cookie jar, he has thrust his left into it too. Marched before the parole board, he has promised to reoffend once turned loose on the streets.
No president has ever liked or approved of an impeachment proceeding against him, but other presidents faced with impeachment have at least tried conciliation. When Andrew Johnson faced removal for firing the secretary of war, in violation of an act of Congress, he sought to find a compromise candidate for the role.
Bill Clinton, facing his own impeachment, went before cameras and apologized for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. (The apology was a day late and a dollar short; then-Representative Lindsey Graham, who had hoped Clinton would offer an apology complete enough to head off impeachment, was famously disappointed, and impeachment went forward.)
Richard Nixon took the most dramatic step to de-escalate, resigning from office rather than face impeachment when he realized his fellow Republicans would not defend him.
By contrast, Trump’s defiance would come as a surprise if this were not what the country had long since come to expect from him, who, as my colleague Megan Garber recently noted, has only publicly apologized on one occasion, and then only tepidly and briefly. The president has options besides apology, of course. He could offer some acknowledgment that his behavior might have crossed lines, while insisting he intended no harm and had good intentions. He could provide a classic nonapology, apologizing to anyone who was offended. He could even simply desist from the offending behavior.
Today, that would be too late to prevent being impeached, but up until recently, House Democratic leaders seemed desperate to avoid an impeachment, and sought any excuse to push it off. Now Trump is calculating that opinions on impeachment are baked in, and he won’t lose any more support—but he still might be able to gain an edge in the 2020 election with skulduggery.
By continuing to repeat the offense, Trump is helping to make Democrats’ case for them. A common argument against impeachment is that voters ought to decide. After all, there’s a presidential election in less than a year’s time; why should Congress act now and short-circuit the process?
But the election itself is the problem. Trump welcomed foreign interference in the 2016 election; he tried to extort it from Ukraine ahead of the 2020 election; he even publicly asked China to intervene. What’s to stop him from inviting foreign interference and effectively cheating to affect the 2020 election? His continued act with Giuliani means this isn’t a hypothetical. It’s already happening.
Trump’s recidivism is also a challenge to Republicans. Some Republicans have decided to defend Trump regardless of his behavior, and adopt the White House line that the president’s behavior with regard to Ukraine was “perfect.” This is the thrust of the House GOP case against impeachment, which, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf writes, doesn’t persuade.
But other Republicans have struck a middle path, echoing some Democrats during Clinton’s impeachment: Sure, the president’s behavior was bad, inappropriate, even reprehensible, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth the drastic step of impeachment. By continuing to openly engage in just that behavior, Trump is taunting these members, either forcing them to accept that he will continue his antics, or else daring them to support impeachment. He will allow for no middle ground.
And who will stop him? As I’ve written, Trump is actually a weak negotiator, prone to folding under the slightest pressure. When confronted by some authority that can actually corral him—the federal courts, for example; House Democrats, in last winter’s budget standoff; public backlash to his plan to host the G7 summit at his own resort—Trump has surrendered. But Republicans in Congress have shown that they are even less courageous at the negotiating table than Trump. Without anyone to stop the president, the country can expect a long 2020 of Trump trying to game the election by inviting foreign interference.