But they aren’t quite grappling with the magnitude of what we’re seeing. That’s only half the story.
So let’s try it this way. Trump is not merely staking out an absolute refusal to cooperate with any and all lawful subpoenas, on the deeply absurd grounds that the House’s impeachment inquiry is illegitimate, as the White House counsel has argued.
Rather, Trump is adopting that stance while simultaneously claiming the absolute right to bend large swaths of the government toward his goal of rigging the next election on his own behalf. Thus, Trump is declaring absolute authority to use extraordinarily corrupt means to avoid facing a fair election next year, while also declaring total immunity to any and all congressional efforts to prevent him from rigging that election, or even to hold him accountable for it.
The upshot of this, then, must be that Trump’s explicitly declared position is that he is constrained by no existing legitimate mechanism of accountability.
Trump’s next moves in the coverup
Now the New York Times reports that Trump and the administration will likely take new steps to prevent testimony from an enormously important witness: William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.
The texts released by Democrats show that Taylor twice objected to a direct quid pro quo in which Trump held up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping him corrupt the 2020 election on his behalf.
Trump and his consiglieri have undertaken a long-running plot to press Zelensky to undertake “investigations” to magically produce “evidence” validating a conspiracy theory undercutting the confirmed fact that Russia sabotaged the 2016 election to help Trump, and bolstering a fabricated narrative about invented corruption on the part of potential campaign opponent Joe Biden.
Taylor could speak directly to his reasons for believing, or even knowing, that the administration was using that hundreds of millions to leverage Zelensky. Yet as the Times reports, Taylor might not end up testifying unless he quits the State Department to elude efforts to block him.
What the White House is really arguing
All such defiance of oversight, the White House has now insisted, is the correct position, because the impeachment inquiry is itself illegitimate. The claim is absurd, but even more important is what else the White House is arguing, and what it all adds up to.
In that widely mocked letter, the White House counsel argues not just that refusing all oversight demands is perfectly legitimate, but also that there was “nothing wrong” with Trump’s call to Zelensky, as documented in the rough White House transcript.
That is, the White House’s official position is that there was nothing wrong with Trump’s demand that Zelensky help him undercut our intelligence services’ conclusions about Russian interference in 2016 and take out a rival for the presidency in 2020.
What’s glaring at us in plain sight is a straight-up declaration that Trump possesses the legitimate authority to conscript a foreign power to help him rig the next election on his behalf.
“It’s now the official position of the White House that soliciting foreign election interference is appropriate,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. The White House isn’t even contesting that this happened any longer: “The White House is saying, ‘Yeah, he did it, and it’s fine.'"
Let’s also note the multidimensional nature of this “appropriate” conduct. Trump is enlisting a foreign power both to falsify the corruption of the last election on his behalf — by covering up the truth about it — and to facilitate the corruption of the coming election on his behalf, as well.
The conscripting of the government
Much of the government has been enlisted in this effort — and to prevent the full truth about it from coming out. Attorney General William P. Barr is traveling the globe in pursuit of the first aspect of that mission. Barr’s Justice Department and the acting director of national intelligence tried to unlawfully bury the whistleblower account of the scheme. Now that it did come out, the State Department is defying legitimate subpoenas designed to get to the bottom of it.
Trump himself is now claiming absolute authority to do all of this. He says he has an “absolute right” to ask other countries to investigate “corruption,” while saying openly that the corruption he’s talking about involves Biden, thus claiming total authority to solicit foreign help in rigging the next election.
Add to this the fact that Trump’s lawyers argued that his extensive and likely criminal obstruction of justice could not constitute obstruction by definition, because Trump has the power to shut down any inquiry into himself, for any reason. Those obstruction efforts, too, constituted an effort to bury the truth about the corruption of the last election on his behalf, and to elude accountability for it.
All this is the larger context in which we should view Trump’s declaration that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate.
As Josh Chafetz notes, this level of defiance of oversight probably amounts to contempt of Congress, which is a crime. Trump is declaring the authority to engage in bottomless corruption to prevent his removal in a legitimate election, while also declaring the authority to corruptly — and perhaps illegally — shut down the people’s last resort against it.
Trump’s effort to corrupt the election, and his placement of himself beyond all congressional oversight, are part of the same story: the attempted destruction of any and all mechanisms of accountability.