the national circus

Trump’s Wrecking-Ball Impeachment Defense

Feeling the heat. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/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, Donald Trump’s frantic attempts at an impeachment defense, efforts by Bill Barr and Mike Pompeo to protect themselves from Ukraine fallout, and Bernie Sanders’s health issues.

A week in, Trump’s defense to the growing impeachment proceedings seems to be tantrums and denial. Is there a cost to failing to develop a more focused plan, or will this strategy help him slip out of trouble, as it has in the past?

We can safely assume that even Trump’s most ardent fans would not put him and “focused plan” or “strategy” in the same sentence. His brand is chaos, and his default position is human (or more often inhuman) wrecking ball. That will never change, nor does he want it to change. The question is less whether Trump’s malevolence will allow him to escape impeachment than whether American governance, already on the ropes, will tumble into a coma before he leaves office and allow opportunistic American enemies like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un to pounce. An ancillary question is whether Trump will in fact leave the Oval Office voluntarily if he is convicted in an impeachment trial or defeated in the election that’s now 13 months away. A president who finds new constitutional norms to violate daily can hardly be counted upon to respect the verdicts of either Congress or the voters.

A third question is his sanity. Even by his standards, yesterday’s #TrumpMeltdown was wild. The nation saw him tossing around a jockstrap insult (aimed at Adam Schiff) in an ornate White House setting as the Finnish president trapped beside him tried, with mixed results, to maintain a poker-faced dignity. We watched Trump in desperation cite abject GOP lapdogs like Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott, and Rob Portman as character witnesses. We watched him lie with his usual heedlessness and velocity, but as often as not his fictions undermined his own craven self-interest: By referring to the White House’s readout of his fateful July 25 call with the Ukrainian president as a “word-for-word, comma-for-comma” transcript, he was attempting to further the cover-up in plain sight. All you need is eyes to see that this document is not labeled a “transcript” and is too brief to be the entirety of what was officially listed as a 30-minute presidential conversation. (Interns in the office of one senator, Angus King of Maine, read the released version aloud and clocked it at roughly ten minutes.) Not to mention that the “comma-for-comma” White House readout contains ellipses — which may yet prove to be tantamount to the notorious 18-and-a-half-minute gap on an incriminating Nixon White House tape.

Trump retains enough animal cunning to know he’s in jeopardy. New Deep Throats are surfacing in the press (especially at the Washington Post) daily. The polls are starting to shift. Members of Congress are home talking to their constituents over recess. Even Mitch McConnell budged a tiny bit, letting the release of the whistle-blower complaint proceed without senatorial interference and going on record that he cannot prevent impeachment from being taken up by his chamber. At the height of yesterday’s #TrumpMeltdown, the Dow was plummeting 500 points on trade-war fears. And Trump is running low on rhetorical ammunition to fight back. His repeated characterization of the July 25 phone conversation as “perfect” and “beautiful” is not just false but adjectivally weird. Writing “BULLSHIT” in a tweet attacking his opponents is an indicator of desperation as well as his usual vulgarity. Running out of words, he is more dependent than ever on the feedback loop of Fox News for fresh gambits: His new claim to be the victim of a “coup” originated there, as did his threat that his impeachment would lead to “civil war.”

Could he and his country sink even lower while impeachment is adjudicated? Quite possibly; there seems to be no bottom. If this historical moment echoes Watergate in some regards, it also echoes the rise of toxic anti-government rhetoric and right-wing American terrorist militias and cults in the period leading up to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Back then it was the likes of NRA chief Wayne LaPierre who were railing against “jack-booted government thugs.” Now it’s the president of the United States who is doing so, relentlessly suggesting that Schiff, the whistle-blower, and members of the press (among others) be punished for committing treason. And he is doing so in a society that is, if anything, even more gun-crazy and gun-saturated now than it was in the 1990s.

Let’s be clear here: As he retreats more and more into his bunker, Trump is not being careful about what he wishes for, and what he is wishing for is violence. Yet the Vichy Republicans — even those senators up for reelection like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner — remain silent. Be assured that they’ll be among the first to offer their thoughts and prayers on camera if this dam breaks.

Ukraine-related questions have continued to grow around Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom seem to be doing everything they can to sidestep direct questioning. Will their stonewalling protect them? 

No. Nor will stonewalling protect the increasingly implicated Mike Pence. Pompeo, the cagiest of the three, has started to figure this out — probably because he realized he would fail in his attempt to stop former State Department officials like the special Ukraine envoy Karl Volker and the summarily fired U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, from talking to investigators. That’s why it took only days for Pompeo to go from lying and dissembling about what he knew about the Ukraine call and when he knew it to conceding he was present. This is surely a smarter legal strategy than Pence’s; as Jonathan Chait has pointed out, the vice-president is claiming essentially that he was too stupid to understand what was going on all around him, even when he was participating in the White House’s Ukrainian plot. As for Barr, he continues hobnobbing all over the world to do both Trump and Putin’s bidding in pursuing a crackpot conspiracy theory that would clear Russia of 2016 election interference and implicate Ukraine instead. One could argue that even Rudy Giuliani has more sense than Barr does: This week he recruited a former Watergate prosecutor to represent him in impeachment proceedings.

Bernie Sanders announced that he has been hospitalized with a heart issue, and had two stents inserted.  Do health concerns change his standing in the Democratic primary?

Assuming that the public diagnoses by cardiologists hold up, the answer is no. Sanders will return to the stump after a fairly brief break, and only if he stops shouting upon return should he or his supporters start to worry.

What’s more interesting is that there are few signs that Trump’s anti-Biden jihad is shaking up the Democratic primary either, despite the president referring to him and his son as “stone-cold crooked” and such antics as today’s, in which he publicly urged China to investigate them. Both Sanders and Biden have been slipping in polls while Elizabeth Warren is gaining, but neither is tanking, and both are very much in what’s still a fluid race. Biden’s decision to employ some rare reticence in handling Trump’s baseless charges against his son may be his shrewdest move so far in the campaign.

Frank Rich: Trump’s Wrecking-Ball Impeachment Defense