According to Republicans’ airtight legal reasoning, nothing Trump does can be considered criminal because somebody else somewhere might be doing something worse. And just as O.J. Simpson pledged to search for the real killer, Trump and his fellow Republicans are on the hunt for the Real Crimes.
For instance: The Real Crime isn’t that Trump secretly withheld military aid to extort a desperate ally into announcing a sham investigation into a political rival. Heavens no. The Real Crime is that the public knows that this happened.
At least so says Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who recently railed against the whistleblower’s decision to “leak” information about Trump’s Ukrainian shakedown by reporting it to the intelligence community’s inspector general. That leak, Johnson complained, “exposed things that didn’t need to be exposed.”
“This would have been far better off if we would’ve just taken care of this behind the scenes,” the senator said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” extrapolating on his dubious understanding of both the law and the Constitution. “We have two branches of government. Most people, most people wanted to support Ukraine. We were trying to convince President Trump.”
In other words: The crime here isn’t the arson; it’s that snitching smoke alarm.
Elsewhere, other Republicans have discovered even more damning Real Crimes. They are in particularly high dudgeon that Democrats have begun characterizing the president’s actions as “bribery.” Not because the term is inaccurate, per se; rather, they’re furious because Democrats used focus groups to determine that this verbiage was more understandable to the typical voter than the Latin “quid pro quo.”
“They’re making it up and polling to figure out what is best to sell to the American people,” fumed Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “That is the story people should be writing about.”
Indeed, the real scandal isn’t the scandal; it’s the words used to explain the scandal.
Yet another Trump surrogate argued Sunday that the Real Crime was something else entirely: that Democrats continue noticing when Trump does something wrong.
These include Trump’s bullying tweet about his former Ukraine ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, which Trump fired off as she was testifying before Congress. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) read the tweet aloud during the hearing, and later said it should be viewed as part of a “pattern” of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice.
Republicans condemned this scurrilous pattern-spotting.
“It’s kind of laughable that, in the middle of the hearing, he reads a witness a tweet that she’s up until that point unaware of, and then says, shazam, eureka, I have another reason to impeach the president,” said Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Turner expressed exasperation that “we will continue to see the long list of new reasons why Adam Schiff thinks this president should be impeached.”
Again, the Real Crime isn’t the growing number of new possibly impeachable offenses; it’s that Democrats are cataloguing them.
Or perhaps the Real Crime might instead be that former president Barack Obama didn’t shake down the Ukrainian government while deciding whether to send aid. Or that the whistleblower’s lawyer is a Democrat. Or that two FBI agents had an affair.
Then finally there’s the Realest Crime of all: that Democrats might deign to hold Trump accountable through impeachment when an election is just a year away, as Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) and other Republicans have complained. Trump has claimed it’s a “coup” or an attempt to “steal” an election. Sometimes he seems to mean the 2016 election, sometimes 2020.
If Democrats truly believe Trump did something wrong, Republicans argue, the right way to test that thesis is at the ballot box.
There’s a bit of a Merrick-Garlandian-angle to this argument – i.e., that Congress’s constitutional duties disappear with some arbitrary degree of proximity to a presidential election. And, of course, waiting for the 2020 election to settle the matter seems particularly dodgy when the 2020 election is the very thing Trump has been trying to compromise through assistance from Ukraine, China and who knows what other countries.
No matter: that election clock is ticking. Therefore, any exercise of congressional oversight must mean a criminal coup is afoot.
Crime doesn’t pay, so they say. But whataboutism? As Trump keeps proving, that can be quite profitable.