Over the last couple of weeks, President Trump hit upon a new line of defense against impeachment. Seizing upon a passage in the transcript of the phone call where he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens, Trump highlighted his use of the word us, employing the argument repeatedly. “With the word ‘us’ I am referring to the United States, our Country,” he tweeted earlier this month. “I said do us a favor, not me, and our country, not a campaign,” he wrote in his diatribe to Nancy Pelosi, showing a heretofore absent gusto for Talmudic analysis.
But Trump couldn’t even keep this line straight in his head long enough to last through the impeachment vote itself. At his rally (scheduled last night during the vote, to soothe his psychic pain and presumably distract him from acting out in more destructive fashion), Trump repeatedly used the first-person plural to describe himself. “It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached,” he said. “We did nothing wrong. We did nothing wrong and we have tremendous support in the Republican Party, like we’ve never had before, nobody’s ever had this kind of support … The people are trying to impeach us for doing all of the things that they’ve wanted to do for so many years.”
Well, so much for the argument that Trump would never use the first-person plural to describe himself.
Still, this is not just a silly grammar-based defense. The question of just who Trump speaks for — the identity of the “us” he represents, explicitly or implicitly — lies very much at the heart of the matter Trump is being impeached over.
Even outside the “us” in the transcript, the evidence that Trump was negotiating with Ukraine from the standpoint of his own interests is overwhelming. The transcript quotes his counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, flattering Trump by citing his stays at the Trump Hotel, clearly reflecting the understanding among foreign leaders that putting money in Trump’s pocket is an important part of negotiating with him. Trump outsources diplomacy to Ukraine to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who from the outset was very frank that he was representing Trump’s personal interests, not those of the government, even though he insisted the two might overlap (“That information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government”).
One of the many norms Trump has violated is the practice of suspending the political campaign to govern, explicitly separating the two. Trump has routinely violated the law by using official government-funded events to promote campaign themes. More importantly, he has simply obliterated the larger spirit the law represents, which holds that the president should stop being a campaigner and politician after being elected until resuming a political role during a reelection campaign.
Trump has broken tradition by continuing to hold campaign rallies throughout his presidency. He has made little pretense of even trying to represent the entire country, treating Trump voters or Republicans as though they are the only Americans that matter to him. Trump constantly tweets invented polls supposedly showing 95 percent approval among Republicans. He defined success in the impeachment fight solely in these terms:
He has gone so far as to trash parts of the United States as filthy, dangerous or unlivable because they elect Democrats to represent them. Trump’s allies have followed his cue, repeatedly citing the 63 million votes cast in his favor as though it — and not the 65 million votes for his opponent — represented the sole source of political legitimacy.
So the idea that Trump was actually representing the country, not himself, when he asked Ukraine to investigate his political rivals is almost insulting. Not only was Trump representing himself when he asked a favor, Trump only represents himself. The idea of representing the country — the entire thing, not just the part that supports him — is utterly foreign to Trump.