President Trump has escaped scandal after scandal by moving the goal posts — that is, setting a standard that will be too high to ensnare him, only to move it when his conduct meets and surpasses what previously seemed to be an unattainable level of misconduct. In former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, Trump first claimed there were no contacts between his campaign and Russia. When over 100 came to light, his new line of defense was “no evidence of collusion,” and then, when Mueller found extensive evidence of soliciting help from the Russians, Trump claimed exoneration because there was no crime (i.e., criminal conspiracy).

So, too, in the Ukraine scandal, the goalposts have moved from the “perfect” July 25 call to no evidence of a campaign violation to no quid pro quo to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) “no quid pro quo outside the July 25 call.” Under any reasonable definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” asking Ukraine to come up with dirt on former vice president Joe Biden to influence our election is an impeachable offense, but now Trump enablers are insisting on an ever-higher bar and exclusion of evidence we already have (the July 25 transcript) in order to rule out impeachment.

This tactic gives his base and his Fox News mouthpieces new arguments against impeachment, but for anyone not already in the tank for him, it is highly problematic. There is replete evidence of what Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) describes in her “fact sheet” as the shakedown (the quid pro quo sketched out by Trump himself), the pressure campaign (holding up aid) and the coverup (obstruction in hiding controversial phone call transcripts and preventing witnesses from testifying and providing documents). Moreover, there is evidence that Trump is now dangerous (i.e., the Syria withdrawal and release of Islamic State fighters) and creating new grounds for impeachment (e.g., Doral for the Group of Seven conference).

It is the steady stream of new revelations, stupid admissions from the White House and testimony behind closed doors from witnesses with direct knowledge of events that have paralyzed many Republicans, who fear looking ridiculous advocating defenses that cannot be sustained for more than a few days — or, in some cases, hours.

This unpredictability leaves an increasing number of Republicans hedging their bets.

[M]any Republicans coalesced around this defense of Trump regarding that July phone call with Ukraine’s president: It was inappropriate but not impeachable. According to a Washington Post analysis of their comments, no Senate Republicans support an impeachment inquiry in the House — not even the vocal Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) — but at least 15 have expressed concerns or say they have questions about what Trump did. The rest, 38, support Trump unequivocally.
It’s a big step from “inappropriate” to “impeachable,” but it is a step on the same path.

Without knowing what other evidence is out there, or what the White House will confess to next, Republicans are loath to stake out a new standard for impeachment only to see it surpassed by a shameless president convinced his wrongdoing is not wrong at all.

Murmurs from some Republicans, and utter silence from a great many more, have set off Trump’s paranoia. Convinced they might turn on him (and who is to say that fear is not justified?) or fail to push back against the mound of evidence Democrats are assembling (with what argument?), he lashes out at the very people he needs the most.

The Post reports, “President Trump urged his party to ‘get tougher and fight.’” Accusing them of being “vicious and [sticking] together” (seriously, these are compliments in his mind), he wants undivided loyalty on his side. However, lashing out only leads to ineffective stunts like trying to censure House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) but does nothing to buck up nervous Republican senators. Indeed, when he goes off on crackpot theories (“Maybe the informant was Schiff”) or doubles down on bad facts, Republicans must cringe. (“Trump reiterated his contention that his July phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a ‘perfect call.’ That call was the one in which Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate the Bidens at a time when nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was being withheld.” Not so perfect, then.)

Republican lawmakers are learning what Trump’s lawyers figured out long ago: Trump is a legal nightmare, his own worst witness. As his non-Ukraine conduct worsens (e.g., Doral, Syria), Republicans edge ever so slightly toward the inflection point where Trump becomes more political trouble for them than he’s worth.

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