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President Donald Trump’s team opened its impeachment-trial defense in the Senate on Saturday morning. I was wrong about how the president’s lawyers would go about the job. I had suspected that they would use a tantrum to rally Republicans to their side, but it turned out that Republican Senators had their tantrum late Friday night when they chose to be outraged that the lead House impeachment manager, Representative Adam Schiff of California, referred to a (somewhat thinly sourced) news report that someone at the White House had threatened that Trump would have the “head on a pike” of any Republican who opposed him.
Trump’s lawyers began with a misstep, rehashing their flimsy claim that there’s some kind of significance to the fact that Schiff paraphrased, instead of directly quoting, the words Trump used in the July 25 phone call in which he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to participate in a smear of a leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But they didn’t rely on emotion in their presentation. Instead, they did what defense attorneys do. They floated alternative interpretations of the evidence the House managers, serving as prosecutors in the Senate trial, had presented in support of the articles of impeachment accusing Trump of abusing his power by trying to coerce that country’s interference on his behalf in his 2020 re-election effort. They pointed out that some of the witnesses who testified on the House side were not entirely reliable on some questions. And they added a bunch of mostly irrelevant points, such as the administration’s overall support for Ukraine (which in fact only makes Trump’s decisions to pause congressionally approved military aid and refuse to schedule an Oval Office meeting with Zelenskiy harder to understand as anything but elements of a pressure campaign) and the fact that previous presidents had also put foreign aid on hold (which no one denies, but the question is why it happened this time).
I’m not sure I’d call the first few hours of their presentation strong, but then again if they are constrained by their client to pretend that the Zelenskiy call was “perfect,” they have a difficult hand to play. It could have been worse.
And then, Sunday night, it fell apart. The New York Times reported that former National Security Adviser John Bolton has written in his upcoming book that Trump made explicit the quid pro quo that his lawyers are denying: that Trump told him directly that he wanted to keep the military aid frozen until the Ukrainian government agreed to help with investigations of Democrats. Not only that, but apparently the White House has had Bolton’s manuscript all month. Trump’s team knew this was coming.
While I certainly don’t expect the president’s support in Congress to collapse, it’s impossible not to see close parallels to the “smoking gun” tape that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974. That tape, proving that Nixon ordered his staff to have the Central Intelligence Agency block the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry into the Watergate scandal and released to Congress and the public after the House Judiciary Committee had passed articles of impeachment, was so devastating for Nixon not so much because it was proof of his crimes; plenty of proof of plenty of crimes had long since been placed in the record. Instead, it became the moment when conservative Republicans realized that Nixon had deliberately set them up with false arguments even though Nixon knew that the evidence, if released, would undermine those arguments and make them look like liars and fools.
That is exactly what appears to have happened with the Bolton book. Trump knew that Bolton’s testimony and supporting notes, if they ever surfaced, would undermine the claims of his supporters. In some ways, it’s not quite as strong as Nixon’s smoking gun, since there’s no tape (as far as we know!) furnishing absolute proof of what Trump said to Bolton. But in some ways, it’s worse. Nixon knew what was on the tapes, but until the Supreme Court ruled against him he might at least have hoped that he could keep them secret. Apparently in the Trump case, at least some people in the White House have known for weeks that Bolton was going to release this book, and yet they still encouraged their allies to say things that were about to be shown to be false.
So far, it appears that Republican politicians would rather look like liars and fools — following ever-less-plausible White House lines, perhaps hoping that no one notices — than dare to oppose Trump and his still-loyal allies in the Republican-aligned media. Maybe they’ll all stay on message, even after this episode. Some of them, I’m sure, are either such blind partisans or so far inside the conservative information feedback loop that they may not even notice. But I have to believe that, whatever they do about it, a lot of Republican politicians are feeling more uncomfortable than ever.
1. Mara Pillinger at the Monkey Cage on the World Health Organization and the coronavirus.
2. Rick Hasen on the dangers coming in election 2020.
3. Dan Drezner on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
4. Geoffrey Skelley on the possible effects of the Des Moines Register’s endorsement of Senator Elizabeth Warren.
5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on the possibility that Senator Bernie Sanders could become president and what it would mean.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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