the national circus

Republican Impeachment Panic Sets In

House Republicans gather to speak at a press conference on impeachment organized by Representative Matt Gaetz on Capitol Hill on October 23, 2019. Photo: Alex Wroblewski/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, diplomat William Taylor’s “smoking gun” Ukraine testimony, Trump’s fading GOP support on impeachment, and the Democratic Party’s Hail Mary attempts to hold off Warren and Sanders.

Congressional testimony this week by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, laid out an explicit quid pro quo linking U.S. military aid for Ukraine to a Biden investigation, and detailing the rogue “diplomacy” driven by Rudy Giuliani. Is this the “smoking gun” Democrats have been waiting for?

When Richard Nixon finally was forced to concede in August 1974, that a 1972 White House tape implicated him in the Watergate cover-up, the conservative columnist George F. Will called the revelation a “smoking howitzer.” Nixon was gone four days later. Some have been recycling Will’s locution this week, with good reason given the damning evidence provided by Taylor and so many others (including Trump himself) that the president of the United States committed an unambiguous criminal act. But Trump isn’t going anywhere so fast.

Yet over the past week there have been repeated signs that he and his party are more panicked than ever. The first indication of desperation was the White House trashing of Taylor, a Vietnam combat veteran with a bipartisan 30-year-plus career in public service, as a “radical unelected bureaucrat” and “human scum” despite the fact that it was Trump’s own secretary of State and Ukraine shakedown co-conspirator, Mike Pompeo, who put Taylor in his current diplomatic post. Then came the farcical and failed effort of a congressional flash mob, approved by the president, to physically disrupt the impeachment inquiry on the spurious grounds that Republicans are being shut out of the proceedings. (Forty-eight GOP representatives are permitted to attend the hearings on impeachment.) These protesting clowns, among them the racist Iowa congressman Steve King, not only violated national security by bringing cell phones into the room but thought it was a hilarious idea to order in pizza to further dramatize their ostensibly serious act of civil disobedience.

Another sign of Trump panic was his reversal of his decision to host the G7 at his own Miami hotel — a very rare about-face, prompted by complaining GOP congressmen fearful of 2020 blowback in their own reelection campaigns. You’ll notice, too, that Trump seems to be retreating from his claim to be a “lynching” victim. This may have something to do with an unexpected editorial that ran Wednesday in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal — a newspaper that, unlike the Times and the Washington Post, has not been subjected to the White House’s new “fake news” ban. In stark contrast to Trump lackey Lindsey Graham’s defense, the paper’s editorial page condemned Trump for using “self-indulgent” and “reckless” and “indefensible” language that exacerbates the “political trouble” he’s in.

Now comes the pièce de résistance, reported yesterday: In response to congressional Republicans’ complaints that the White House has no coordinated impeachment battle plan, Mick Mulvaney has been tasked with “working on getting a messaging team together.” To put Mick (“Who do you believe, me or your own ears?”) Mulvaney in charge of White House messaging can only mean that either that Trump can no longer recruit new political operatives to join him in his bunker or that Baghdad Bob was not available.

As new polling puts national support for an impeachment inquiry at an all-time high, Republicans who had previously been staunch Trump defenders are showing signs of indecision. Are we seeing cracks in the wall of Trump’s GOP support?

At the moment, polling averages show that Americans support impeachment by a plurality of roughly 49 to 43 percent. For a little perspective, the authoritative Harris Poll of the Nixon era found a similar 49 to 41 percent split in May of 1974. By a July 17, 1974, Harris survey, the pro-impeachment percentage had risen to 53 percent, with only 34 percent opposed. Even so, just ten days later, only six Republicans joined the House Judiciary Committee majority when it voted the first article of impeachment (for obstruction) by a margin of 27 to 11. It took another two weeks for Nixon’s GOP support in the Capitol to collapse, prompting his August 9 resignation before the House conducted a full impeachment vote.

In the case of Trump, there’s no reason to expect that Senate Republicans will turn on him incrementally. Mitt Romney and retiring House members like Francis Rooney of Florida aside, they’ll mostly remain loyal — or in the case of Susan Collins and her Vichy ilk, in hiding — until the dam breaks. As to what might break the dam, it’s worth recalling the experience of H.R. Haldeman, the Nixon chief of staff who served 18 months in prison for Watergate crimes. In his 1978 memoir, The Ends of Power, he wrote: “The cover-up collapsed because it was doomed from the start. Morally and legally it was the wrong thing to do — so it should have failed. Tactically, too many people knew too much. Too many foolish risks were taken. Too little judgement was used at every stage to evaluate the potential risk vs. the gains. And when the crunch came, too many people decided to save their own skins at whatever cost to the president or anyone else.” Just one small but conspicuous sign of such a crunch: It’s not out of a newfound press-shyness that Giuliani has vanished from cable news and is lawyering up.

Another factor will be the public impeachment hearings that Republicans have been demanding. The concept of Be Careful for What You Wish For will be ratified once again when those hearings do arrive in as soon as three weeks.

A pair of articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post described Democratic donors and party officials wishing for a mainstream liberal latecomer to enter the primary and hold off a Warren or Sanders nomination. Is this standard campaign fretting, or a sign of a changing of the guard in the party?

For months now — well before the start of debate season — nearly every Democrat I know has repeated some version of the same lament, “I can’t believe it but Trump is going to win again.” (Imagine the life of a therapist in Manhattan right now!) Such fatalism may be more intrinsic to identifying as a Democrat than any single ideological conviction. Still, it’s a little early for mass suicide pacts. While the Democratic Party is capable of screwing up anything (must there really be at least nine candidates onstage in November’s debate?), the fact remains that no one has voted yet and we are still more than a year away from Election Day.

What’s most disturbing about the Hail Mary stratagems being tossed out to the press by jittery professional Democrats is the notion that Hillary Clinton might be the “moderate liberal” savior to enter the race if Joe Biden vacates that slot. (Nor has she firmly shut the door on such a scenario.) Just because Clinton has lately become more free-spirited and jokey in her Twitter account does not mean that she’ll be anything other than the cautious, focus-group-tested candidate she’s been throughout her political career, or that she’ll galvanize those parts of the Democratic base (young voters, people of color) that failed to turn out in sufficient numbers last time. In 2016, Trump won in part because of his cynical exploitation of a widespread, and bipartisan, rejection of both the Bush and Clinton Establishments. If there’s a groundswell anywhere beyond Wall Street for their return, it’s a better-kept secret than his tax returns.

Frank Rich: Republican Impeachment Panic Sets In