Impeachment may be inadvisable. It may apply a cheese grater to the nation’s partisan wounds. The process may be conducted foolishly. It may feed a Republican thirst for revenge against a future Democratic president. It may motivate Trump’s base to salivating enthusiasm. The broad, American middle may yawn and switch to ESPN.
All of this matters, especially if it increases the chances of Trump’s reelection. But it matters like a fate, not like a choice. In T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” a priest says of unfolding events, “Let the wheel turn.” Archbishop Thomas Becket later comments: “The fool, fixed in his folly, may think/ He can turn the wheel on which he turns.”
No one in our unfolding drama can now turn the wheel on which they turn. Trump’s clearly impeachable offense has given the partisan instincts of elected Democrats the added justification of principle. The whistleblower complaint has affirmed those concerns and expanded their scope. This makes the process of impeachment inevitable. Now, the actors are merely choosing what roles they will play.
Trump’s role is to push and push until he meets firm resistance to his abuse of power — something he has rarely experienced. Note that Trump’s call with Zelensky came during the denouement of the investigation of Russian influence. According to the readout, Trump said: “As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller.”
Consider this a moment. Trump gloated about beating the charge that he conspired with a foreign government to win an election, during a call in which he proposed to conspire with a foreign government to win reelection. The man is immune to ethical instruction. And further, Trump thought that releasing the readout of the call would somehow be exculpatory. He has spent so many years in the trash heap of corruption that he can no longer recognize the stench.
Because Trump tests boundaries of morality and legality, his defenders are, in effect, calling on Americans to ratify those changes. By all the evidence, Trump believes that politics, stripped of pretense, is the dirty, unethical pursuit of power, which is properly used to destroy your enemies. Republicans who defend or excuse him are providing permission for his radical redesign of public life. This is perhaps the saddest result of Trump’s corruption: turning good men and women into the bodyguards of a petty, cruel, lawless, would-be autocrat.
Because Trump has chosen to be transparently corrupt, congressional Republicans cannot dispute the facts of the case (as they did during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation). They may still insist: No quid pro quo . But this is more of a rally chant than an argument. Trump’s request for foreign help to win the 2020 election was not like Belgium asking Uruguay for a favor. It was a global superpower asking a country dependent on U.S. military aid — which had just been withheld in a “review” — for favors. Trump pointedly reminded Zelensky that “the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine.” Trump’s requests were made in an atmosphere of menace.
In the transcript, Trump’s first request concerns the “CrowdStrike” investigation of the Democratic National Committee’s security breach during the 2016 campaign. Conspiracy theorists allege that the inquiry was an elaborate hoax to fake a breach and that the evidence is contained in a computer server somewhere in Ukraine. Evidently the president of the United States believes this as well. His request will be long remembered at the State Department as one of the most incomprehensible and asinine of American diplomatic history.
Trump’s main request — a joint Ukrainian/U.S. Justice Department/Rudolph W. Giuliani investigation of Biden’s (falsely) alleged role in preventing the Ukrainian prosecution of his son — is nearly as strange and specious. But it was made by the most visible representative of America, speaking in the name of the American people.
The American people will ultimately decide whether this disturbs or bores them. Whatever the outcome, the wheel has begun to turn.