All of this has many observers warning that Trump is lurching in an increasingly authoritarian direction, as the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry ratchets up.
But all of this is better seen as an expression of deep panic and self-incrimination — not just because the latest revelations have Trump on the defensive but also because of a meaningful shift in the power dynamics shaping the standoff between the White House and Democrats.
There has been a very fundamental change in the way House Democrats are going about holding Trump accountable: They’re no longer in the position of demanding cooperation from the White House and then waiting for a court to compel it.
Instead, Democrats now can threaten immediate consequences for the failure to comply: impeachment for that very act of stonewalling.
This pattern, and the force of this new dynamic, becomes clear when you pull together multiple new statements from Democrats. On ABC News, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that if the White House doesn’t meet its demands as part of their impeachment inquiry, “they will be strengthening the case for an article of impeachment based on obstruction of the lawful functions of Congress.”
Schiff issued a similar warning on NBC News. And Democrats on three committees just subpoenaed the State Department for a raft of documents designed to shed more light on Trump’s pressure on the Ukrainian president. They added the pointed warning that failure to comply “shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry.”
This came with a hard deadline of one week. And this fundamentally upends the dynamic that held sway for months.
Before, Trumpworld had developed an effective way to insulate Trump against accountability. White House lawyers employed deeply strained claims of executive prerogative to stall testimony and document production demanded by Democrats hoping to flesh out the special counsel’s findings. Meanwhile, Trumpists such as Corey Lewandowski unleashed a fusillade of absurd dissembling when questioned by Congress.
Trumpworld could keep all this up, secure in the knowledge that the right-wing media would lay down a covering fog of pro-Trump obfuscation while mainstream fact-checks got drowned out by the din, and by their own both-sidesing instincts.
As long as Republicans in Congress could be counted on never to break from Trump, and the courts would drag out Democratic oversight demands for many months, there would be no immediate consequences for any of this, and perhaps not ever.
But now that has changed. Now there is a consequence for all of this.
A stark choice
The result is that those in Trumpworld are faced with a stark choice: Either they cooperate with Democratic demands, or they make an article of impeachment for obstructing Congress more likely.
The problem for them is that such cooperation will also likely build the case for impeachment. Democrats have subpoenaed the State Department for a full transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president. They’ve demanded records relating to Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign to pressure Ukraine, and to Trump’s decision to withhold military aid.
Meeting such demands would almost certainly deepen the gravity of this scandal. After all, the known facts are impeachable: Trump corruptly used the power of the presidency to pressure a foreign leader desperately awaiting our military aid to interfere in a U.S. election on his behalf by manufacturing smears against a likely general-election opponent. And his top officials tried to keep it all from Congress.
But if Trump and officials refuse to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, they are preventing Congress from getting to the bottom of all this already-established corruption.
An article of impeachment for that is not an idle threat. That formed part of one article against Richard Nixon.
Now that we’re seeing polls showing majority support for the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, further obstruction of Congress is likely to work against Trump in another way — by helping to build public support for impeachment itself.
Trump builds case for his impeachment
Which brings us to Trump’s latest rage-tweets. Trump suggested Schiff should be tried for “treason” and quoted a prominent supporter claiming removal would “cause a Civil War like fracture." Trump also recently intimated that the whistleblower should be executed.
It has been suggested that these utterances themselves constitute more grounds for impeachment. But this point needs to be refined.
Such outbursts, rather than constituting impeachable offenses on their own, could form a part of an article of impeachment for obstructing Congress. This would declare that Trump has defied lawful oversight efforts. It would add that pursuant to that, Trump tried to incite violence in the country, potentially put the whistleblower’s life in danger, tried to chill future whistleblowing and suggested prosecution of a member of Congress for carrying out those efforts.
There is precedent for such an approach. One article against Nixon included his pattern of public statements — his relentless public lying about ongoing investigations into him — but this was used to support the broader charge of obstruction of justice. As Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz detail in their excellent book on impeachment, this “mosaic approach” is the way to loop in lesser but egregious charges.
Thus, Trump’s wannabe-autocrat ravings actually could help bolster an article of impeachment against him. And they could help build the public case for his impeachment as well.