The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How this scandal could get much worse for Trump — and Pence

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Each time President Trump and his consiglieri stonewall an oversight demand, there’s a strong temptation to conclude that we’re dealing here with a cast of untouchables. The fortress erected around Trump to ward off accountability just seems too mighty to breach.

This fatalistic crouch is reasonable. Trump really has gotten away with extensive corruption and likely criminality. Right now, the long-term import of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry really is hanging in the balance.

But new reporting in The Post on the rough transcript of Trump’s corrupt call with the Ukrainian president, along with the likelihood that House Democrats will drop a major subpoena on the White House on Friday, suggest that all the pieces might now be in place for real progress — something well short of full accountability, perhaps, but a real breaching of those fortress walls nonetheless.

Democrats on three committees have warned the White House that if it continues stonewalling on its request for information relating to the Ukraine scandal, it will issue a subpoena. Here, among other things, is what the subpoena from the Oversight, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees will demand:

  • the full transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky
  • a full list of White House staffers who participated in, were aware of, or received a readout of that call, and any and all communications and records passed back and forth among White House staff about the call
  • any and all records relating to Trump’s decision to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, which came just before that call

There are several reasons this could bear fruit. First, the transcript demand. The Post spoke to current and former officials who closely studied the rough transcript released by the White House and concluded that its length indicates that meaningful portions may have been removed.

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Meanwhile, the gaps appear at places where the conversation turns to more incriminating matters — such as Trump’s pressure on Zelensky to find evidence undercutting Russian culpability, or to manufacture smears of potential campaign opponent Joe Biden — suggesting the possibility of key omissions.

In this context, the subpoena for the full transcript and related materials suddenly takes on more meaning.

The U.S. isn't a lawless country, so why are sitting presidents immune to prosecution? (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

This will go to court, and Democrats might win a few

If the White House rebuffs the subpoena, House Democrats will go to court. And — news flash — they stand a reasonable chance of winning on some matters.

“The question is not if the White House will ever have to comply with subpoenas, it’s when,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “The House is probably going to win at least some of these lawsuits.”

Vladeck said there’s a “reasonable” chance the courts would rule that the White House must turn over the full transcript — or at least additional parts of it — because the White House has already released part of it, weakening any secrecy claim.

Vladeck added that the courts would probably rule that some White House communications relating to Trump’s pressure on Ukraine are protected by executive privilege, “but not all of them.” One can easily see more coming out tying the freezing of military aid more directly to Trump’s demands.

Vladeck also said communications involving efforts to stash the call on a super-classified computer system probably would not be protected — meaning Democrats might secure more evidence on the coverup.

“There’s a good bet there’s material information on the far side of these requests,” Vladeck said.

Keep in mind that White House officials were deeply alarmed by that call, which itself suggests it might be worse than we know. It’s thus self-evident how getting more information about all of it could make this worse for Trump.

Mike Pence’s role

But this could get worse for Vice President Pence, too. The Post reports that Trump repeatedly employed Pence to pressure Zelensky, at the same time Trump was working to get Zelensky to manufacture anti-Biden smears via other channels.

Officials close to Pence claim he had no idea that this was the reason for the pressure, which means, at a minimum, that Pence aides are very determined to distance him from corrupt conduct that Trump claims was “perfect.”

Yet The Post also reports that a top Pence aide was on the July 25 call. So if more about that call comes out, it becomes less plausible that Pence wouldn’t have been briefed on Trump’s designs — and the whole affair grows more incriminating of Pence, too. Additional internal communications could shed more light there as well.

The timing question

To be clear, the “when” question is a big and important one. It is possible, Vladeck says, that all this doesn’t get resolved by the Supreme Court until after the election. But it’s also plausible that it might get resolved a lot more quickly — say, by summer, or spring, or even sooner.

After all, Democrats can argue that the very subject matter of their impeachment inquiry has direct bearing on the 2020 election, and even suggests Trump is prepared to engage in brazen, bottomless corruption to prevent it from being a fair one — which should prompt the courts to resolve this well before then.

One interesting question for Democrats will be whether they try to pull the trigger on impeachment before all those matters are resolved. If they win a few in court, and getting a lot more information appears more likely, the pressure on them to draw this out will be intense.

The Democrats’ argument for haste may fail in court, of course, and the administration may succeed in dragging this out endlessly. But even this scenario could get worse for Trump. Persistent investigative reporting will likely unearth more, and this, combined with endless stonewalling, may make it harder for moderate Republicans to defend Trump’s position — particularly with the elections looming.

Anything can happen. But the dynamics are all in place for the situation to deteriorate over time for Trump — perhaps more precipitously than it now seems.

Read more:

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