UPDATE: Trump himself, in the transcript of his conversation with Zelensky released Wednesday, outright boasted about getting off the hook with Mueller, and asked the new Ukrainian president to work with U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr in probing Biden:
"I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance [yesterday] by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine."
Donald Trump’s boasted, again and again, that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Now, he’s gone and done it—and he can’t get away with it unless the courts outright ignore the law.
The shots were fired in phone calls, overheard and transcribed, as the president pressed the new Ukranian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to address the madcap Rudy Giuliani’s request that he investigate Joe Biden and son, Hunter. That sent a whistleblower at the Office of National Intelligence to Inspector General Michael T. Atkinson with a complaint that Trump had made nefarious “promises” to a foreign leader. Atkinson, who served at the Department of Justice for over a decade during the years when Justice was blind, found the complaint of such “urgent concern” that he sent it to the acting director of national intelligence, who is obligated, by statute, to send it to Congress.
But the complaint is stymied, as Trump’s minions are fighting furiously to withhold it, never mind that the law requires it be transmitted, because they, too, know that this metaphorical shooting might be different than the other metaphorical shootings. The charges are not another breach of norms, or “ordinary” impeachable offenses Democrats swat at ineffectually.
They’re impeachable acts in taped conversations that, as described, verge on extortion. Congress appropriated military funds desperately needed by Ukraine to fend off Russia. Trump held the money up, while dialing his counterpart there to suggest what he could do to a political rival here, that would get that check in the mail. It’s the “Russia, if you’re listening” of the 2020 election—but Ukraine-style with bribes on top.
The Washington Post confirmed as much on Monday night, reporting that Trump ordered a hold on military aid a week before his call to Ukraine’s president was made—astoundingly, the day after he escaped accountability for obstructing justice as outlined in the Mueller Report. Perhaps the president was deluding himself into thinking he could end this line of inquiry the way he got Attorney General William Barr, the replacement for the insufficiently compliant Jeff Sessions, to flick off Mueller like flakes of dandruff on Trump’s dark blue suit. Expecting trouble even as he set the call in motion, the president, according to the Post, planted the seeds of his coverup, instructing Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to blame the frozen funds on a delay caused by an unspecified “interagency process. ”
It was only a few days ago when Trump was in full stonewall mode. The president, sitting next to Australia’s prime minister in the Oval Office, confidently said, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” about any calls with Ukraine. If that denial sounds familiar, it’s word-for-word what Trump said when asked who could have possibly used his trademark Sharpie to alter the National Weather Service map to show that Alabama was endangered by Hurricane Dorian.
But Trump quickly saw it’s not as easy to pull off an underhanded scheme to affect an election a second time, especially with the specter of a transcript of the calls coming out. By Sunday, red-faced and sweating, Trump began a modified, limited hangout, reminiscent of Watergate, inadvertently telegraphing guilt. Even a practiced liar like Trump didn’t know how much to reveal given that he doesn’t know if he’ll be as successful hiding the tapes as he’s been at hiding his tax returns.
With that in mind, Trump conceded that he mentioned something “about Biden”—eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal—a small effort to try and stay one step ahead of the Inspector Clouseaus, G-Men, and Barney Fifes breathing down his neck over a charge so much bigger than asking WikiLeaks for help getting Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Ukraine is also bigger than the latest scam involving taxpayer dollars for Air Force crews to stay in luxury at his Scottish resort miles from the airport where they refuel. Or his family crisscrossing the globe to drum up business on his, and their, behalf. This is a foreign official being asked if he can see his way clear to go after a political rival, at which point those appropriations that went mysteriously missing might suddenly show up.
A sign that Trump knows that exchanging money, or not, with a foreign official is more serious than exchanging money, or not, with a woman not his wife is how quickly he changed his story throughout Monday. Along with the name Biden, Trump admitted that the word “corruption” might have crept into the conversation. He had an explanation ready: “One of the reasons the new president got elected is he was going to stop corruption. So it’s very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption.”
And whose corruption would that be? Someone else’s, you can be sure. Later Monday at the United Nations, where last year world leaders laughed at him when he boasted about how much he’d accomplished, Trump hinted that he himself might release transcripts, but that was false bravado. Shortly afterward, he withdrew that hint on the grounds that he didn’t want to create such a “bad precedent” over such a “nice call.” He then volunteered there was no quid pro quo. “I did not make a statement that you have to do this or I'm not gonna give you aid. I wouldn't do that.” He added his trademark: that if he had, there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with it. “I think it probably, possibly would have been OK if I did."
It doesn’t matter what Trump thinks about proof. It’s rare that a prosecutor has a perp talking into a recorder tucked into a vase of roses in the middle of the table about the quo for the quid. Hundreds of thousands of felons are in prison for extortion with far less evidence than that. What’s more, there’s a controlling legal authority here—the DNI “shall” forward any complaint deemed of “urgent concern” to Congress. “Shall” doesn’t mean “over my dead body.”
We’re long since over the myth that anyone inside the White House knows from one minute to the next what Trump’s planning (he only let his national-security team know he wasn’t going to bomb Iran 10 minutes before the campaign was due to begin). His secretaries of Treasury and state looked foolish as they spouted propaganda in defense of Trump on the Sunday talk shows. Mike Pence, with his mantra “nothing could be further from the truth” for everything, would never question anything Trump does so as to preserve his place a heartbeat, or impeachment, away from the presidency. Still, according to a new book, Ivanka and Jared want him gone—and after he took a convoy of SUVs last weekend onto the fragile Mackinac Island in Michigan, where motor vehicles have been prohibited for a century, many more in that swing state are in agreement.
In any other White House, what we already know would be a smoking gun of Nixonian proportions. It’s such that even the hapless Democrats, including the overly cautious speaker, know to go forward with impeachment and to race to court on an expedited basis to force the DNI to turn over the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress so that this violation doesn’t end up in the judicial slush pile where the Don McGahn subpoena molders. Sure, the Senate has stacked the courts with ideologues and partisans, but there is still a Supreme Court that speaks with reverence of the “check” part of checks and balances, and a chief justice who’s said he wants to preserve the integrity of each branch to keep citizens’ faith in their government intact.
The most important and lasting thing to happen amid the lawlessness in the White House is that two civil servants, a nonpartisan whistleblower and an inspector general, who have served in Republican and Democratic administrations, have stepped up at a risk to their careers to report possible criminal conduct. That puts Republicans in the Senate to shame and should prick the conscience of all those who cower in fear in the face of Trump’s power over his base, and his terrifying temper. No Republican has called out Trump for his perfidy, unless they’re retiring like Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. And some retiring ones remain self-muzzled, like Sen. Lamar Alexander.
On the other hand, Sen. Mitt Romney was roused out of his semi-stupor to suggest that “if this is true, then thus and so might happen.” Is that his way of saying he might vote for impeachment? Trump’s golfing buddy, Sen. Lindsey Graham, said the president is going to be so transparent about Ukraine we’ll get tired of all the transparency. That could means he’s telling Trump it’s better to come clean now. Or, not to get excited by the disappointing Graham, he just as likely could be saying do what you want and I’ll call it transparent.
We’ll know the natives are restive, or the transcript are imminent, or there’s about to be fireworks when the recalcitrant DNI testifies on Thursday if we hear the president re-rattle his saber at Iran. He’s going to have to wag the dog vigorously to get us to avert our attention from this shooting. This time he could lose a supporter—or thousands of them—and never get them back.