After weeks of silence or flailing defenses over the Ukraine scandal, the mainstream of the Republican Party has retreated to a new line of defense: Okay, he did it, but let’s not ruin his presidency over it. “It is clear that Mr. Trump’s interest in Ukraine was to take out Joe Biden,” concedes Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger, who immediately jumps from this concession to insisting the crime should go unpunished: “I don’t think this is an impeachable offense. It is hardball politics, and the American people, with votes, will get their say about it next year.”
Republicans have emerged from hiding to repeat this new party line. “Do I wish President Trump hadn’t raised the issue with the Ukrainian president?” asks Senator John Cornyn, “Yes. Should he have left it to Attorney General Bob Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham to raise what role — if any — Ukrainians played in the 2016 election including serving as a conduit for the Russian intelligence agencies who hacked Clinton’s emails? Yes. But really, is it right for Democrats to now call for his removal for office over this?”
“It’s inappropriate for the president to be talking with foreign governments about investigating his political opponents, but impeachment would be a mistake,” says Senator Lamar Alexander, who likewise concludes that “an election, which is just around the corner, would be the right way to decide who should be president.”
There is at least a little bit of logic here. Whether an offense rises to the level of high crime or misdemeanor is obviously a matter of opinion. Sure, they can argue, Trump ran a monthslong campaign to pressure a foreign ally fending off Russian invasion into roughing up his domestic rivals, but everybody makes mistakes, that’s why pencils have erasers, and so on.
One problem, however, is that Trump is not admitting his mistake. Instead he is openly proclaiming he has an absolute right to do the exact thing Republicans concede he shouldn’t. (“As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!”)
A second problem is that the thing Trump has done is designed to tilt the next election. Henninger, weirdly enough, concedes this in the very same column. “If Rudy could dig up enough dirt to drive down Mr. Biden’s chances of being the nominee, Mr. Trump’s expectation was that the Democrats would default to the unelectable Elizabeth Warren,” he argues. “Faced with the prospect of voting for Sen. Warren and her lynch-mob politics, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and personality would recede as issues.” If it’s true that Trump’s abuse of power will be enough to help Warren defeat Biden, and Warren offers Trump a more beatable opponent — and I’m not certain of either premise, but Henninger seems to support both — then Trump’s wee little mistake might end up giving him a second term. Doesn’t that undermine the case for letting the election answer the question?
What’s more, Trump is already going forward with his plan to solicit foreign dirt. Last night, Rudy Giuliani, who has previously teased his efforts to solicit foreign dirt, promised Fox News viewers to watch for new dirt coming out of Romania:
After Trump asked China on television to investigate Biden, Michael Pillsbury, one of Trump’s advisers, told the Financial Times yesterday, “I got a quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese.” Pillsbury then appeared on C-Span and denied it (“I haven’t spoken to the Financial Times for a month.”) then the FT reporter showed the email containing the quote.
At this point, active efforts to dig up dirt on the Democrats are hardly necessary. Trump has broadcast to every country that he will reward them diplomatically if they make investigations or claims that harm his domestic rivals. Using his foreign-policy authority to leverage dirt on Americans who oppose him is not a mistake, it is Trump’s ongoing campaign strategy. Either he will be removed from office over it, or he will use that strategy to try to win reelection.