In the roughly 48-hour window from when I finished my column for the Sept. 25 edition of this newspaper to the time it hit the stands, the Trump-Ukraine scandal escalated more rapidly than I would have ever thought and now has the president in serious trouble. His presidency is in more jeopardy than it has been at any point.
As of this writing on Tuesday, Oct. 1, we now know several new damning things that make this president unfit to hold his office, and the news continues to cascade out, like lava from an erupting volcano. There were three major revelations following the White House’s release of an incomplete transcript of a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, as well as the declassifying of the whistleblower complaint that brought it to light and numerous pieces of supplemental reporting on the circumstances and sequence of events surrounding those documents.
First, we see that President Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate a domestic political arrival and his son, on no factual basis, while dangling nearly $400 million in military aid (to combat Russian aggression and encroachment into eastern Europe) approved by Congress over their head. He put his own political interests over our national security interests — a betrayal of his oath of office — and our NATO allies’ security interests on top of that. A reasonable person can look at the sequence of the conversation — when Trump, bemoaning the lack of reciprocity in the countries’ relationship, says he wants a “favor” and brings up Biden right after President Zelensky mentions his country’s need for weaponry and support — and ascertain that this was extortion.
Second, White House officials in on the call, apparently knowing Trump had just abused his power in an extraordinary way, sought to lock down the communication by loading it onto a separate server from where it would normally be stored, reserved for highly-classified, top-secret information. The administration has acknowledged that this is true.
Third, this apparently was not the first time the White House had sought to hide Trump’s communications with foreign leaders. That has been backed up by reporting that Trump kept transcripts of calls with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tightly-restricted and away from people who would normally have access to them.
Trump has been deferential to Putin at every turn and decried Russian election interference as a “hoax,” even as he, according to former U.S. officials, told two Russians in a 2017 closed-door meeting (the day after he fired FBI director James Comey) that he didn’t care about the Russians’ interference. And the administration has yet to hold MBS and the Saudis accountable for the murder of a U.S.-based journalist and Saudi dissident. One wonders what could be in those restricted transcripts.
Trump and his allies have been flailing, unable to contain this scandal from exploding further. The president’s “personal attorney,” Rudy Giuliani, who was actively participating in the Ukraine scheme, has embarked down the strange path of torpedoing the presidency himself and sinking the political aspirations of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by further implicating the State Department and waving around his cell phone with text messages with Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine. Volker resigned from his post Friday, Sept. 27.
The news continued to flow Monday, Sept. 30, as Pompeo was revealed to have been in on the Zelensky phone call (even as he denied it to the media) and Attorney General William Barr was revealed to have been soliciting the help of the Australian and Italian governments to try to undermine our intelligence community and the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Meanwhile, the president is railing against the whistleblower and his sources, threatening them and implying accusations of treason for exposing his wrongdoing.
We will likely learn even more in the coming days as the House committees leading the investigation have scheduled depositions with potential witnesses, including Volker, and subpoenaed Pompeo for all related documents.
Last week, I wrote that it was gut check time for congressional Democrats and that this president should be impeached as a matter of constitutional duty, regardless of any political consequences that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks might arise.
The constant outpouring of facts damaging to the president in this scandal stiffened their spines, and Pelosi announced the formal opening of an impeachment inquiry, quoting founding father Thomas Paine — “The times have found us.”
A majority of the House is in favor of impeachment, and, assuming Trump doesn’t do the smart and honorable thing and resign now, a trial sometime early next year seems inevitable.
As more facts continue to spill out, attention should now be turned to the Senate, where the trial would be held and where at least 20 Republicans would have to vote in favor of the president’s removal from office. While House Republicans have mindlessly circled the wagons, the response to these revelations from Senate Republicans has been more muted, with a few exceptions. Hours after the release of the whistleblower complaint on Thursday, Sept. 26, at least a dozen of them dodged reporters’ questions, claiming they had not taken the time to read the incredibly consequential nine-page document.
Many of those senators are up for re-election, and the 2020 Senate map is much less favorable to Republicans than it was in 2018, when they picked up two seats to give them a 53-47 majority. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is even facing a viable challenge in conservative Kentucky. Those Republicans up for another term are going to have to confront the matter at hand and decide whether they can afford to defend a president on trial for impeachment with the facts not on his side and public opinion increasingly hardening against him.
Former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake said during an event in Texas that “at least 35” Republicans in the Senate would be in favor of kicking Trump to the curb if the vote were private. If that is the case, those 35 have a responsibility to step forward. It would take someone willing to be first, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has sent some signals that he may be that person.
As for Georgia’s two senators, we know one almost certainly won’t make the jump. Sen. David Perdue has firmly hitched his wagon to Trump and is reportedly looped closely in on the White House’s development of a strategy to combat the charges.
When asked about the whistleblower complaint by reporters, Perdue pivoted, saying the whistleblower wasn’t a whistleblower because he wasn’t in on the Trump-Zelensky call directly. The senator conveniently ignored the fact that the complaint lines up with the summary of the phone call, which the whistleblower had not seen before its release. He also ignored that the intelligence community’s inspector general conducted follow-up interviews and found the complaint credible, and that the acting director of national intelligence testified under oath to the House Intelligence Committee on Sept. 26 that he found the whistleblower credible.
Meanwhile, Sen. Johnny Isakson has remained mostly silent. Isakson is retiring at the end of the year due to health reasons and his replacement may be in his seat by the time a trial rolls around. He is leaving office with a solid reputation of working to do what’s best for most people and friends on both sides of the aisle, a good man by every personal account I’ve heard.
Isakson has said he does not want to just leave office quietly and still wants to make an impact. I could think of no better way for him to prove it than by standing up for the rule of law and putting country over party at one of the most critical times in American history.
And that goes for all 53 Republican senators in this moment. The times have found them, too. Will they answer the call?