And so it begins.
On Tuesday, faced with growing evidence that Trump had used the power to his office to try to strong-arm the Ukrainian president into providing dirt on Joe Biden and his family, Speaker Pelosi announced the House would launch an impeachment inquiry against the president.
A friend said to me that he was surprised how cathartic it was just knowing that, finally, Trump is being held to account for the extreme lawlessness of his presidency. He’s right. The very act of initiating an impeachment inquiry changes not just the political calculus in the country but also the psychological calculus. For Trump’s presidency has been a non-stop battering ram used by a resurgent nationalist right to beat down progressives – not only politically, but also emotionally; it has been honed to send anyone with a conscience into an emotional tailspin, using the spectacle of cruelty, attacking standards of truth and of evidence, fine-tuning the art of the coarse insults, all to break down a sense of normalcy, all to set ablaze the basic supporting structures of democratic culture.
The take-no-prisoners methods have sent deep fissures into the political foundations of this democracy; and each successive outrage has further weakened those foundations.
There has been, from the get-go, an almost sociopathic hubris to the Trump project. He runs on risk, seeming to get an almost sensual charge out of seeing how far over the line of legality he can go without consequence. Remember that campaign line about how he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and not pay a political price? That has been the modus operandi of his entire presidency. America’s forty fifth president has deliberately cultivated a cult of the personality that positively revels in his illegalities as well as his moral outrages. And, increasingly, the cult has brought down into the muck all those involved in keeping the machine going: career officials, political appointees, party hacks, business cronies, advisers… even foreign leaders. There is a contagious culture of criminality to Trump, one that enmeshes anyone who spends too much time in his orbit.
Now, however, those chickens are about to come home to roost for Trump. Or, to put it another way, all of that animating hubris has finally turned around and bitten Trump in his sorry ass.
Here’s what we know so far: Trump made a series of vaguely coded threats and promises to the Ukrainian president – implying that American aid to the country, previously approved by Congress with no strings attached, would be withheld unless the Ukrainians investigated Biden; and simultaneously dangling out the promise of improved economic and military relations if they went to work to dig up the dirt on the ex-VP.
We know that this interaction so disturbed at least one, but likely two, intelligence officials who were present for these conversations, that they referred the issue to the Justice Department, and that one person filed a whistleblower complaint – a complaint that the Inspector General and Director of National Intelligence were prevented, at the insistence of the White House, from delivering to Congress. We know that Trump was so confident he could control the discourse on this that, faced with a growing uproar over the stonewalling, he then allowed for the release of a “rough” transcript of the July phone conversation – and that that rough version was entirely damning, further boosting the case for impeachment. And we know that, with that transcript the lead story on practically every global media outlet, Trump held a rambling press conference saying the “beautiful” and “perfect” phone conversation was entirely aboveboard, and that the transcript entirely exonerated him of any wrong doing.
Hours later, with members of Congress trailing into a secure room to read over the contents of the whistleblower’s complaint, the White House suddenly classified the contents of the report – presumably in an attempt to stop the general public from finding out exactly what the president did and how it was perceived by his intelligence officials.
Forget the bravado that this is a fight he relishes, forget the shameless fund-raising appeals to Trump’s base that his campaign sent out the moment the impeachment inquiry was launched, forget Trump’s victim-playing and his pronouncement that this is a hoax and a witch-hunt. None of this is going to play well for Trump. Unlike Mueller’s inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Trump’s appalling phone call with the Ukrainian president can be summarized in an easy-to-follow sound-bite; and the sound-bite isn’t a good one for Donald J. Trump. He sounds like a mob boss in that call, like a don seeking to make a made-man of Zelensky.
It’s not entirely impossible to imagine a scenario in which the final chapter of this ghastly regime plays out as a quick unraveling rather than a long, drawn-out affair. For Trump, who craves adoration, actually has nothing but fair-weather friends in DC; men and women who have contorted themselves into philosophical and moral knots over the past three years to stay on the good side of a man who has time and again humiliated and humbled them. GOP senators will hold their cards close to their chests; they will, for now, dutifully repeat the White House’s talking points; and they will find ways to say that nothing on these phone calls was illegal or wrong or impeachment-worthy. But they will know in their heart of hearts that they are talking nonsense. And they will be keenly aware of the shifting sands of public opinion on this.
As a critical mass of the public shifts decisively away from the president over the next several weeks, as it surely will in the face of an unstoppable barrage of revelations of criminal behavior, a number of GOP senators will peel away. It will be a small number at first, to be sure. Mitt Romney. Maybe Ben Sasse. Perhaps Susan Collins. But, behind the scenes, pressure will grow on McConnell to cut Trump lose. After all, why go down with a corrupt leader who has never thought of the well-being of anyone but himself and who cares not a fig for the well-being of colleagues or the institutional legacy of the party he claims to lead?
— Sasha Abramsky