WASHINGTON – The allegation that U.S. President Donald Trump called Ukraine’s new leader to bully him into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden was too much. After months of warning her fellow Democrats about the perils of impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has changed her mind.
At this moment, a normal president would tread lightly. Impeachment hearings and a Senate trial are not ideal in an election year.
But Trump is not a normal president. He has been irascible this week at the United Nations — insulting reporters, denying and then confirming elements of the allegations against him, taunting his opponents by calling openly for the investigation of Biden and his son.
Maybe Trump is feeling confident because he has reviewed his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He said on Tuesday that he would take the unprecedented step of releasing a transcript of that call.
This is unlikely to sate the appetite of the resistance, however, and there is still the matter of a whistleblower whose report was deemed urgent enough by the intelligence community’s inspector general to send to Congress, only to have that transmission stymied by the acting director of national intelligence. Now that whistleblower is seeking to brief Congress. Even Republican senators on Tuesday voted to urge the executive to hand over the whistleblower’s report.
Some think that Trump’s provocations are deliberate: The president seeks his own impeachment because it’s unpopular with voters and will rally his base. It was just one day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress, after all, when Trump allegedly told Zelenskiy to discuss the Biden affair with his personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani. That doesn’t seem like a man who’s particularly worried about being impeached, notes Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
No, it doesn’t. But Trump knows something else here too: Not only what’s in the transcript, but that he will have the good fortune of being impeached by the same party that tried but failed to make stick the charge of Russian collusion. Which is to say, the impeachers have their own credibility problems.
Consider the man who got the Ukraine scandal going, Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Schiff is now negotiating to hear the testimony of the intelligence community whistleblower and has stoked the story about Trump’s alleged collusion with Ukraine.
In 2017 and 2018, Schiff was the Democrats’ point man on Trump-Russia collusion. He defended a dubious opposition research dossier used by the FBI to obtain a federal surveillance warrant of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. He rattled off many of its allegations in his opening statement at a March 20, 2017 hearing. In November of that year, he told the Wall Street Journal that the dossier was largely accurate. He publicly defended the surveillance of Page.
Yet Page has never been charged with a crime. In fact, the only Trump associates who were charged faced offenses unrelated to the central conspiracy that Schiff and other Democrats hyped for the first two and a half years of Trump’s presidency. When Mueller’s report was finally released to the public, Schiff still sought to portray the fizzle as a flash, saying it raised “serious counterintelligence concerns that the committee must follow.” For Schiff there is always another allegation that must be pursued, even when the initial conspiracy is not found.
Trump, in his oafish way, is using Schiff’s playbook when it comes to Biden. It’s true that in 2016 the then-vice president pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who had investigated a company on which his son was a board member. But the prosecutor in question had a miserable reputation among reformers and was widely believed by the State Department to be unconcerned about corruption. Indeed, he had declined to cooperate with a British probe of the company in question.
Trump does not really want a Ukrainian probe in order to find dirt on the Bidens. He wants a spectacle to spotlight the “dirt” that’s already known. It’s not unlike an oversight investigation or a counterintelligence inquiry that digs into allegations generated by opposition research. The point is not to find facts, but to give the appearance that your “facts” are more durable than they really are.
There is an important difference, though. Schiff is one of 435 members of Congress. Trump is the president. He has more power than Schiff to abuse — and his violations of long-held norms are more consequential. A normal president, sensitive to this disparity, would steer clear of entangling a foreign leader in domestic politics. But Trump is not — say it again — a normal president.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for The Washington Times, The New York Sun and UPI.