President Trump calls the intelligence community whistleblower’s source “close to a spy” and suggests that this person should be executed for “treason.” That merely shows how worried Trump is about the disclosures about Ukraine, and with good cause. The whistleblower risked a career to tell a shocking and disturbing truth that has now been amply confirmed by the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — namely that, as the whistleblower wrote, “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.”
Presumably lots of other officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William P. Barr, were aware of the same thing, but they kept silent. Thus, they became accomplices — and not for the first time — to the betrayal of the American people. But career civil servants were deeply disturbed by what they were seeing, and they shared their information with this whistleblower (who has now been identified by the New York Times as a CIA officer).
Trump loyalists call these people part of the “deep state”; they are so desperate to find political motivation that they are claiming that the whistleblower’s attorney is a Democratic partisan because 18 years ago he interned for Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. In truth, the whistleblower and his or her colleagues are selfless patriots who are doing something that few bureaucrats would dare to do to protect us from a president who threatens the rule of law — and the integrity of our elections.
But the whistleblower’s act of courage would have been for naught — as have been so many previous reports of presidential wrongdoing — were it not for the courage shown by House Democrats, and especially by the members elected last year in districts previously represented by Republicans.
Politicians pay close attention to polls, and they know that impeachment is not popular — at least for now. A Quinnipiac University survey released on Wednesday found only 37 percent in support of impeachment while 57 percent oppose. Granted, 73 percent of Democrats back impeachment, so it is not as much of a risk for members in safe Democratic seats. Even for them, however, there is the threat that acting could cost the Democrats their majority and all the power and perks that come with it. For Democrats in red or purple districts, especially the 40 new members who unseated Republicans last year, supporting impeachment is an existential threat to their political careers.
Faced with the loss of their seats if they incur the president’s displeasure, almost all Republicans have fallen silent in the face of Trump’s unconscionable behavior. But the Democratic freshmen have chosen to proceed knowing there is no political advantage for them and considerable risk. Thirty-four of 43 Democratic freshmen now support impeachment.
The tipping point came on Monday night, when seven new Democratic members, all with a military or intelligence background, came out in favor of impeachment in a Post op-ed. “These new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect,” they wrote. “We must preserve the checks and balances envisioned by the Founders and restore the trust of the American people in our government.” Their act of courage convinced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to formally open impeachment proceedings after many months of hesitation.
Pelosi looked like a political genius for waiting until Trump had finally been ensnared in a scandal that could be easily explained to the American people — and that had reached a critical mass in a short period of time, rather than playing out in a series of years-long leaks whose impact was dissipated over time. But there is no guarantee that her gambit will succeed, and she knows it.
Pelosi was in Congress in 1998-1999 and saw the price some Republicans paid for impeaching President Bill Clinton. Her trusted lieutenant, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, won his seat in 2000 by defeating one of the Republicans who had managed the Clinton impeachment. Pelosi knows that history is not destiny — polls can change (they already shifting), and impeachment can become more popular if Democrats make a strong case to the public.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Pelosi is running a considerable risk not because it will confer immediate political advantage on her — but simply because it is the right thing to do. Hard to believe, I know, in this cynical age. But I believe that is the truth. We are used to seeing conformity and cowardice in Washington. This week we saw some profiles in courage.