Trump did not say whether he will first blot out the corrupt parts with his trusty reality-altering Sharpie, though it’s a measure of our current depths that it’s easy to envision him reading selectively from the call summary and denouncing correctives as “fake news.”
Whatever becomes of this “threat,” it points to a major problem Republicans face, one that will only grow worse, forcing Republicans to adopt an ever more corrupt posture in his defense.
Now that the impeachment inquiry is shifting into its open hearings phase, there will be a lot more public discussion of the substance of the case against Trump. Witnesses that could include sympathetic figures like decorated Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and distressed government professionals like Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. will be testifying publicly about the facts of Trump’s misconduct and the deep alarm about it among those all around him.
They will talk about the broader story here — the ways in which Trump’s consiglieres operated a shadow foreign policy to serve Trump’s personal interests that was at odds with the national interest.
This means Republicans will no longer be able to fog over Trump’s corruption by relying primarily on bad-faith attacks on the process or public stunts designed to produce base-stimulating Fox News chyrons.
As it is, a new Post/ABC poll finds a plurality of Americans, 49 percent, want Trump impeached and removed, and 55 percent say he is guilty of wrongdoing on Ukraine. The public phase will worsen those numbers.
The next move from Republicans
Republicans are now signaling how they’ll adapt to these changing circumstances. A revealing tell is this quote from Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a Trump loyalist: “Bring it on about substance, because our president was right — he was concerned about corruption.”
Similarly, this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that on his July 25 call, Trump had merely been talking about “corruption,” which was “very consistent” with what Trump has been “doing all along.," which was “appropriate.”
In other words, Republicans will say they’re totally eager to engage on the substance, without defending or even acknowledging the actual substance of what Trump did.
Republicans, of course, have been pretending for weeks that Trump was concerned about generic “corruption” when he pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to undertake sham investigations to absolve Russia of sabotaging the 2016 election and smear potential opponent Joe Biden before 2020.
That was easier before. But now that damning new revelations are confirming that Trump was indeed corruptly pressuring Ukraine to carry out those particular dirty deeds and that military aid was used to leverage them, Republicans are claiming both that they are engaging the new findings on substance while also pretending they don’t actually exist.
It isn’t that Republicans substantively object to what Trump did — many probably do not — it’s that this is hard to defend politically. But resolutely pretending these facts don’t exist will continue to get harder, because the sheer scope of the corruption is overwhelming.
The scope of corruption is mind-boggling
Remember, this whole scheme amounted to a months-long plot involving diplomats colluding with Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to manipulate our foreign policy and use hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid urgently sought by a nation under Russian attack to serve Trump’s political imperatives — to falsify the corruption of the 2016 election and facilitate the corruption of the next one.
This plot also involves an extensive effort by Trump’s Cabinet officials, with Pompeo’s State Department trying to block officials from divulging the truth about it, Attorney General William P. Barr working to falsify the truth about 2016, and his Justice Department trying to smother insider whistleblowing about the effort to extort a foreign power to help rig the 2020 election.
More will be publicly documented in coming weeks. This is what Republicans will be either justifying or pretending doesn’t exist.
What Trump wants from Republicans
But the ultimate complication for the GOP might come from Trump himself. I submit that when Trump rage-tweets that we should “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” and threatens to read it aloud on television, it signals where he’d really like this to end up: With Republicans unabashedly defending what he actually did do.
In other words, Trump wants Republicans to say: Trump was damn right to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, because Biden is corrupt. Trump himself has at times unabashedly told reporters that, yes, Ukraine should investigate Biden.
Trump has toggled between that and hiding behind his generic “corruption” claim, probably because his advisers told him the latter is safer. But I guarantee you his instinct is to go all the way.
Trump regularly calls on Republicans to fight to “win.” He wants them to throw aside any squeamishness about using all the tools at their disposal — including over the manipulation of our foreign policy and large swaths of the federal government — toward that end. Everybody is corrupt; it goes without saying that Biden and Democrats are; all that matters is who manipulates the rules more skillfully, and as a result, triumphs.
I don’t know whether Trump will end up going quite this far. But as more corruption is documented, Republicans will find it harder and harder to explain away — even as Trump’s demands that they go all-in behind that worsening picture of corruption grow louder and more insistent.