the national circus

The Case for a Fast, Focused Trump Impeachment

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the strategy behind the impeachment proceedings, the widening circle of the Ukraine cover-up, and how the media might aid in Trump’s defense.

The Democrats’ impeachment strategy seems to be shaping up to focus on Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine only, leaving aside any other potentially impeachable conduct, including the findings of the Mueller report. Is this the right way forward?

Two principles apply here: (1) When a runaway boulder is heading toward you, get out of its path. (2) When Nancy Pelosi commits herself fully to a strategy, ditto.

The boulder was set loose when the White House’s pseudo-transcript of Trump’s shake-down phone call with the Ukrainian president, even in its no-doubt doctored form, pointed to the commission of a crime and confirmed the whistle-blower complaint released 24 hours later. This latest Trump violation of the Constitution is a gripping and representative story that is simple to grasp, doesn’t require reading a “report,” is replete with a coverup at least as felonious as the crime itself, and is packed not only with well-known wack jobs like Rudy Giuliani but obscure players who are about to be yanked out of the shadows for close-ups in prime time. That latter category includes flunkies in the State Department like the ambassador Kurt Volker and the delightfully named Mike Pompeo adviser T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, who witnessed crimes and may well be guilty of abetting them.

No one needs to hear from me that Pelosi knows what she’s doing. She surely recognizes that one of the problems with a multi-strand impeachment inquiry is that there are so many potential charges against Trump and the grifters in his White House circle (family included) that it could take a decade to get to the bottom of them. She also has to reckon with the reality that there isn’t a ton of talent in her caucus that’s up to so demanding a job. For every capable and focused inquisitor like Adam Schiff, there are many more who, as we saw in Thursday’s hearing with the acting National Intelligence director Joseph Maguire, are prone to showboating, losing the forest for the trees, repeating each other, and, in general, hiding rather than advancing the prosecutorial ball.

There’s no time for this. Speed is of the essence for several reasons. In a nation attuned to binge watching, we like our stories to play out without interruption. What’s more, speed is the organic pace of a modern impeachment. Less than eleven weeks separated the opening of the House Judiciary Committee’s formal impeachment hearings on Richard Nixon in 1974 and the committee’s first vote on an article of impeachment. That same process took just under ten weeks in the Bill Clinton impeachment of 1998. Both efforts were narrowly focused even though in both cases the sitting presidents’ adversaries had other charges they were panting to adjudicate.

In both cases as well, the calcifying of public opinion sped up in tandem with the narrative, leading to a clear majority verdict and forcing cautious party loyalists to fall in line. The slow burn of the Nixon impeachment narrative may foreshadow Trump’s. It took until three months before Nixon’s resignation for three Republican senators to muster the nerve to call for his exit ⁠— three senators, not so incidentally, who were up for reelection that year. In Clinton’s case, his approval rating started skyrocketing in direct proportion to Newt Gingrich’s impeachment putsch, leading to the failure to convict in the Senate and a GOP political debacle. In the instance of Trump, we are already seeing the start of a shift in the polls, with major surveys this week showing for the first time that the country is evenly divided on impeachment rather than opposed.

Another argument for speed is that it’s a smart play to strike when the White House is on the mat. It’s an indicator of the overall disarray that Trump released the incriminating phone readout without even recognizing how incriminating it is. The ranks of the presidential bubble/bunker have dwindled down to heel-clicking sycophants who didn’t even think to put an impeachment war room in place. The fact that Corey Lewandowski’s name is being floated as its potential general indicates the bargain-basement caliber of talent available for such an assignment. It’s indicative of the shortfall that Trump and his GOP defenders have been reduced to recycling nearly half-century-old lines from Watergate. The Nixon White House spokesman Ken Clawson ⁠— to take one representative example ⁠— decried that investigation as a “witch hunt” ginned up by “people who were completely rejected at the polls” and were “trying to bring down this presidency.”

This week we’ve also seen the White House accidentally send its pathetic talking points to the Democratic congressional leadership and then, even more haplessly, attempt to “recall” the errant email once the blunder was revealed. The president who has declared war on leakers can’t even stop his own staff from leaking in broad daylight via a mass email blast. And let’s not forget the farcical White House effort at the start of the week to throw Rudy under the bus: Instead of making Giuliani the fall guy, Trump and his lackeys have instead spurred him on to grab any and every media opportunity to compound the charges and underline Trump’s guilt.

As the wheels are falling off at the White House, so they are spinning out of control in Trump’s already addled brain. It’s hard to see how his threatening whistle-blowers with death or calling Adam Schiff “sick” accomplishes anything beyond making the case that he is incapacitated and should be removed by the 25th Amendment ⁠— a solution also considered by some Republican senators as an impeachment alternative for Nixon. A Washington Post article this week quoted a former presidential aide as worrying that Trump’s fury “may lead to less structured output from the White House.” Given that there’s already no structure in the White House “output,” it beggars the imagination to wonder what’s in store.

The whistle-blower’s complaint is aimed primarily at Trump, but also mentions incriminating details about Attorney General Bill Barr, White House officials who tried to bury knowledge of Trump’s call with Ukraine, as well as Giuliani. Trump has also made comments attempting to rope in Mike Pence. Will any of them make it out of this intact?

No one will emerge with his reputation intact. But as we reach the every-lawyered-up-man-for-himself mode, the race is on to see who will emerge with limited or no criminal exposure. It’s worth noting that at least four lawyers may have been part of the Ukraine cover up ⁠— whether the effort to bury Trump phone-call transcripts in a top-secret computer server or the attempts to bury the whistle-blower’s complaint: Barr, Steven Engel (the director of the Office of Legal Counsel), Brian Benczkowski (head of the criminal division at Justice), and Pat Cipollone (White House counsel). This is another Watergate rerun. There were 14 lawyers brought down by Nixon administration scandal, including Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, and two attorneys general, John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst. All were punished ⁠— either with prison time, disbarment, or suspension of their license to practice law.

As for Pence: If Trump goes down and he goes down with him, Pelosi becomes president. Just saying.

Noting the assistance that disinformation and “both-sides” reporting has given to Trump during past crises, media critics are noting that Trump’s defense may rely heavily on how events are framed by both the right-wing and mainstream media going forward. Is today’s media ecosystem up to the challenge?

The consternation about today’s media ecosystem failing to meet the challenge is nothing new. People are tending to forget that the Lewinsky scandal broke when partisan and competing 24/7 cable-news operations were new inventions: Both Fox News and MSNBC made their debuts in 1996, ending CNN’s monopoly just in time to pour gasoline on the growing flames of impeachment. They did not exactly distinguish themselves in the ensuing frenzy, and they were joined by such right-wing organs as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which published conspiracy theories that included implicating Bill Clinton in alleged drug-related murders in Mena, Arkansas.

Toss in the internet and today’s full panoply of warp-speed social media, including the Russian-enabled schemes of the Trumpist far-right, and it’s not going to get better! Still, there is some fun to be had at Fox News, where, as Gabriel Sherman has reported for Vanity Fair, open warfare has broken out among its onscreen personalities. But Fox won’t be reformed, and it’s safe to say that it won’t be determinative in the Trump saga: Its viewers are the voters who will remain loyal when he pulls out that gun on Fifth Avenue, and nothing will change that. Nearly a quarter of Americans remained loyal to Nixon even after he resigned.

More happily, we have two great news organizations locked into a competitive battle to get this story right. The New York Times has every incentive not to repeat its history of losing Watergate scoops to the Washington Post. We all benefit from both papers’ nonstop journalistic enterprise. But there’s a caveat: These organs aren’t perfect, and they are at their worst when their efforts to show “both sides” leads to journalistic malpractice. The Post, for instance, countenances the regular contributions of Hugh Hewitt (also a contributor at NBC News), who this week could be found tweeting out an unsubstantiated allegation about Hunter Biden’s sex life (in America, not Ukraine) that even if true would be irrelevant, given that he is a private citizen who is not running for public office. That should be a firing offense. The Times, meanwhile, is under rightful ridicule for its anecdotal articles in which ordinary voters in homespun rural settings explain their loyalty to Trump in terms that often sound lifted from either Hillbilly Elegy or the collected works of that ubiquitous Trump-voter media chronicler Salena Zito. The good news is that this week a humor columnist at the Post, Alexandra Petri, may have demolished the genre for good with a piece headlined “Trump’s Getting Impeached? I Defy You to Convince Anyone at This Cursed Truck Stop.” If you’re seeking a laugh in this grim week for the Republic, look no further.

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Frank Rich: The Case for a Fast, Focused Trump Impeachment