It’s an article of faith since Watergate that it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that fells a president. Members of Congress are organized to hold hearings to explore the cancer on the presidency. Reporters, like dobermans, are bred to sniff it out.
What if there is no cover-up, no need to meet with Deep Throat in an underground garage to get to the bottom of a break-in of Democratic headquarters? What if shame has gone the way of the landline, an artifact of White Houses past?
These aren’t hypothetical questions. It upends the moral universe to have a president who brags about a call to the point of releasing the transcript in which he shakes down the Ukrainian president in a weapons-for-dirt-on-Biden deal as if it were perfectly normal. True enough, it didn’t contain the words “quid pro quo,” as if the absence of a Latin phrase no one uses in conversation supports Trump’s assertion that he wasn’t withholding money to fight Vladimir Putin’s invading army until he got what he wanted.
It bought Trump time. He was lauded on Fox News as “honest and transparent” for his revelations. Most significantly, The New York Times buried the story about what Trump had done under a headline screaming “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies.” Mission Accomplished.
Trump got a foreign country to reexamine (though not reopen) the investigation that had found Biden innocent, saw it run on the front page of the paper of record, and made it about Biden’s corruption with Trump as the corruption-killer, putting Biden on the defensive. By sticking to what’s in the transcript, Trump relieved his posse in the Senate of making a futile defense of him on the facts: after two years, they know Trump’s likely done whatever he’s been accused of. It also allows Trump to jump straight to “what are you going to do about it?” and back to his comfort zone as a victim of a supposed witch hunt. That escalated this week to a “lynching,” however sacrilegious it is to compare a lawful inquiry to that.
It all slowed the train enough to keep the president’s allies in the Senate on board, which is all Trump cares about. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who in a temporary moment of sanity had criticized Trump for abandoning the Kurds, came back on board as his loyal lapdog, “impressed by his thinking outside the box” on Syria and over-agreeing with him that the Democrat’s inquiry was a lynching “in every sense.”
Tuesday, career diplomat Bill Taylor delivered testimony as damning as any witness since John Dean declared there was a “cancer” on the Nixon presidency. Taylor, a Vietnam veteran who served under presidents from both parties, called the bargain Trump was trying to impose on Volodymyr Zelensky “crazy” and obviously a quid pro quo—the arms given for the favor—and has contemporaneous cables to back up his account. Yet because Trump bought himself breathing room by copping to the call immediately, not one other Republican senator was shocked enough to join Mitt Romney in breaking with Trump.
Simultaneously admitting to a crime and escaping punishment for it is not something just anyone could do. It takes the instincts of an authoritarian who decides what the law is, the acting chops of a cheesy TV star who bends reality to his will, and the morals of a casino owner. Trump made a confession, dared anyone to make a big deal of it, and then did it again—China, if you’re listening, would you also like to investigate my political rival? And while everyone was busy on that, he abandoned our allies, the Kurds, “who we never promised protection” in the first place. Trump then sent his minions to negotiate a putative “ceasefire“ which the press covered as though he hadn’t started the fire.
Anyone else who’d openly violated so many spoken and unspoken norms wouldn’t be subject to impeachment, they'd be driven out of town before it got that far, like Nixon raising his arms in a victory salute as he boarded Marine One for the last time. Trump is un-Nixonian. He can’t be shamed out of office, nor does he declare that he's not a crook. Instead he just asks: “so what?” and shifts the blame. The whistleblower is a spy, if he exists at all. House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff needs to be censored for his stupid, but harmless, parody of the transcript at a hearing. The speaker, not Trump, behaved badly at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room.
Trump is so convinced that like the dictators he so admires he can get away with anything, he came right out and announced in an already chaotic week that he’d chosen his airport hotel in Miami as the site of this summer’s G7 meeting, after an exhaustive search, presumably for the one place sure to be a humid 90 degrees in June. Other than reversing himself amidst bipartisan outrage, it reminded me of Dick Cheney who, after an exhaustive search for Bush’s vice president, chose himself.
What happened next shows that you can’t send a rookie to do a seasoned con man’s job. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was only saying what Trump had been bending his ear with but he lacks the sleights of hand and asides that allows Trump to spill the beans and plead innocent in the same breath. He operates as if he’s still in the hospitality business, as Mulvaney allowed, while casually dispensing with Article II of the Constitution as a “phony Emoluments clause.”
Mulvaney, abused more than most aides—once banished for coughing, an acting who is never going to be the real thing—blurted out that of course there was a quid pro quo, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Doesn’t everyone adjust foreign policy to fit their own politics? If you think otherwise, well, “Get Over It,” a legend immediately heat-stamped onto a campaign T-shirt for sale for $29.99.
Only Trump can let it all hang out as a matter of strategy. He did it when he told Vladimir Putin’s top lieutenants visiting the Oval Office the day after he fired FBI Director James Comey that of course he got rid of him to end the investigation. If Trump does it, it has to be good. If he admits it, it has to be even better.
There’s so much evidence that Trump’s dangerously unfit for office—delivered by the president himself in the White House driveway now that he’s killed the traditional press briefing, boasted about in his official twitter account, explained by Mulvaney—it’s not just hard to see how he’s not impeached and convicted but how he’s not shamed into leaving office. Yet he’s protected from summary judgement that would be rendered against any other defendant as if someone forgot to read him his Miranda rights.
Trump isn’t intelligent but he is wily, confusing the third and fourth estates with his admissions against interest when he should hide that transcript until it was pried from his small clenched hands.
Realize he has no shame. Trump doesn’t have enough of a moral compass to know what should be covered up.