The explosive release of a federal whistleblower complaint alleging that President Donald Trump abused the power of his office, and that “unidentified White House officials” then attempted to cover it up, sent shockwaves through official Washington on Thursday.
And while the underlying details of the complaint were eye-opening and alarming, its fundamental premise was not.
Given the choice between protecting and promoting his own interests, or the interests of the nation he was elected to govern and whose Constitution he swore to uphold, Trump’s interests win every time.
From crassly pitching his ailing Doral resort in Miami as the site of the next G7 meeting to revelations that the Air Force essentially propped up a Trump property in Scotland to a lawsuit alleging that Trump is illegally profiting from his hotels and restaurants in Washington, D.C. and New York, the priorities of America’s reality star-in-chief have been on public display for months.
But there is something so singularly offensive about Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his utterly transparent request for help in digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter — not to mention Trump’s offer to detail Attorney General William Barr to that effort — that every previous assault on our Democratic norms by the narcissistic 45th chief executive just looks like an amateur hour performance in comparison.
“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote in a 7-page memo that became public on Thursday morning.
Finally, in plain English: Trump’s avarice laid bare.
Trump, predictably, has pushed back, dismissing the impeachment inquiry announced by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the latest iteration of the ongoing “witch hunt.” He has suggested that no sitting president have ever had it so bad (Messrs. Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy, along with the previously impeached Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton notwithstanding), and capped it by unceremoniously trying to demote the House’s presiding officer.
Trump can bluster and deflect as much as he wants: The undeniable proof of his self-dealing is vivid in the rough transcript the White House released on Wednesday. It’s an extraordinary exercise in mob-style shakedowns, prefaced by only the slenderest of pleasantries.
“The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine,” Trump told Zelensky at one point, perhaps stroking a white Persian cat in his lap as he spoke. “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
Zelensky, who was a stand-up comedian before taking office, gamely tried to placate Trump, thanking him for his help “in the area of defense.”
Why the White House thought this release would tamp down, rather than further fan, the flames of the controversy is anyone’s guess.
By late Thursday a majority of the House’s membership, 225 of 435 sitting lawmakers, supported some kind of impeachment action.
The bulk of those votes were overwhelmingly Democratic, though, as NBC News reports, they are not unified in voting to impeach Trump. Some Democrats, as well as U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., have asked for an inquiry; others support an investigation initiated by the House Judiciary Committee. Additionally, some Democratic legislators, as NBC notes, would vote in favor of impeachment articles if they came to the House floor.
Some Democrats, mainly from vulnerable districts, had still not announced their intentions as of Wednesday evening, NBC reported.
While much work remains for Democrats who serve on the six congressional committees charged with conducting the inquiry, it’s more than safe to say that impeachment will become the definitional debate of the 2020 campaign.
Trump will use it to rail against Democrats in his hockey stadium rallies, as he carpet bombs his ever-loyal base with conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. Democrats will use it as a cudgel in their ongoing argument that Trump lacks the fitness to lead. Everyone who believes something will continue to believe it, and the needle among loyalists won’t move.
Where this gets worrying for Trump, beyond the prospect of carrying the mark of impeachment with him into history (assuming he and it get that far), is his standing among the independent voters who were so critical to his election in 2016.
The Mueller affair, while damning, was difficult to quantify. Here we have, in the president’s own words, an attempted shakedown of a foreign leader to secure his own re-election. And he’s selling out the country to do it. Every voter who’s seen an episode of “The Sopranos” can recognize that.
It’s a nice presidency you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.