In its premiere episode this season, “Saturday Night Live” aired a funny, nihilistic sketch about the meaning of the latest Ukraine scandal engulfing the Trump administration:
The thing is, it already seems like something is going to happen. Indeed, consider what has happened in the past week alone:
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry.
- The White House released a memorandum of the incriminating conversation between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
- The whistleblower complaint was also released.
- Trump’s acting director of national intelligence testified before Congress that he thought the whistleblower had acted appropriately and found the report to be credible.
- Rudolph W. Giuliani tied U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker to his efforts to gin up dirt on the Bidens, forcing Volker’s resignation.
- The Post’s Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima reported that “President Trump told two senior Russian officials in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries.”
- In between the time I started writing this list and now, stories broke about the extent to which both Attorney General William P. Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are involved in this mess.
- The House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Pompeo, Volker, and Giuliani, among others.
Even by Trump standards this has been an insane week.
What is particularly remarkable is how quickly the political ground has shifted for Democrats. A week ago, Politico’s David Siders reported, “outside Washington, there’s creeping anxiety throughout the party [impeachment] might only help the president clinch a second term.” On Monday, Politico’s Burgess Everett and James Arkin reported that “Senate Democrats are growing increasingly giddy at the prospect of seeing a half-dozen vulnerable senators squirm for weeks and months about Trump’s behavior before eventually being forced to go on the record to convict or acquit Trump if he’s impeached by the House.”
Polling now suggests most Democrats and a nonzero fraction of Republicans support an impeachment inquiry (though see FiveThirtyEight’s Mark Blumenthal for a caveat). Multiple Republicans in Congress, as well as former Trump officials, are castigating the president for his behavior.
The rapidity with which all this has happened stands in stark contrast to the two-year Mueller investigation. In the words of Marvin the Martian, after the Mueller report dropped there was the distinct lack of an “Earth-shattering kaboom.” Some wags are even suggesting that the past week shows that Mueller was actually a bad investigator.
So it is worth asking: Why is this the scandal that will lead Trump to be impeached rather than all of his previous scandals?
I may be just a small-town political scientist, but I reckon that there are multiple reinforcing answers to this question:
1) This is a presidential scandal. Trump’s treatment of women, his tax fraud, even the Mueller investigation primarily concerned Trump’s activities before becoming president. The Ukraine business is entirely about his abuse of presidential power for personal gain. This is not (really) about his staff or subordinates; it’s about him.
2) Trump’s staffers are making everything worse and not better. As the Mueller report concluded, “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the people who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” It is a credit to those staffers that in refusing Trump’s orders they helped stop him from, you know, committing crimes.
That was then, and Trump’s current support staff is of lower quality. Their response to the Ukraine call was to try to cover up its contents. The whistleblower wrote that he “learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call. ... The transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature. One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective."
In attempting to conceal information, Trump’s staff has successfully added a coverup to the original scandal. This is in direct contrast to Ty Cobb’s strategy of giving the Mueller investigation every document it wanted. This time around, Trump’s staff is clearly off-balance.
3) Trump is making everything worse. Maybe Trump believed that after the Mueller investigation he was bulletproof. This time around, however, every Trump response has been a disaster. If he thought the release of his conversation with Zelensky would put this all to rest, he was mistaken. His Twitter attacks on the whistleblower, on Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), on anyone in the line of fire have only added another possible article of impeachment to the list.
One GOP congressional aide told The Post’s Ashley Parker, “It’s such a cliche that Trump doesn’t think anyone can defend him the way he can defend himself, but they need to try, because right now it’s just him tweeting about Adam B. Schiff.” The aide is right.
4) The White House’s talking points stink. Jake Tapper filleted Jim Jordan. Chris Wallace vivisected Stephen Miller. Scott Pelley pantsed Kevin McCarthy. Giuliani beclowned himself multiple times. The reasons for this are unsurprising, as White House talking points cannot obscure Trump’s abuse of power. Efforts to muddy the waters have not really succeeded. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce correctly notes, “And these guys are the best they’ve got. Wait’ll Louie Gohmert and Matt Gaetz get to center stage.” NOTE: We don’t have to wait.
5) Previous Democratic reticence gives this more meaning. No one can say that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wanted to take this path. She had been the primary brake on impeachment since January. Now she is saying that pursuing impeachment would be worth losing the House in 2020. GOP partisans will dismiss her previous reluctance, but for everyone else, that switch in her rhetoric is a powerful signal.
Maybe SNL is right and nothing is going to happen. But getting impeached is definitely something, and given the evidence that everyone already has, it sure seems like it is going to happen.