Wednesday, September 25, 2019


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This Is All Very Confusing

The president has head-of-government bilateral photo ops all day in New York (including one at 2:15pm ET with the president of Ukraine) and a press conference scheduled for 4pm ET.

I do not recall a time in my career when I have been as confused about what is happening in our national drama as I am now.

After months of Nancy Pelosi resisting impeachment (because the data and her political instincts suggested it would help Donald Trump win reelection), the Speaker and a swelling number of House Democrats have decided that of all the things Trump has done, his interactions with Ukraine warrant taking this historic and risky step.

They based this on (1) Trump’s acknowledgement that he talked to the president of Ukraine about investigating the Bidens; (2) the suspicion that Trump held up military aid to Ukraine as leverage; (3) reading newspaper stories about what a whistleblower allegedly has to say about all of this; and, (4) the administration’s withholding information from Congress, including the report about the whistleblower’s accusations, that would allow Democrats to get the facts for themselves.

Let’s take them in turn:

(1) Trump is turning over the transcript of the main telephone call, so presumably he doesn’t think it is a smoking gun.

(2) If there is proof of explicit linkage between the delay on the military aid and the demand that there be a probe into the Bidens, that would indeed be an impeachable offense. But we don’t know that such evidence exists.

(3) It is very hard to understand basing the opening of an impeachment inquiry on newspaper stories, as compelling as they are.

(4) The administration has now said that the stonewalling will end, that it will turn over all the documents and make the whistleblower available to Congress.

There are a million unanswered questions about how all this will play out on Capitol Hill and around the country, but let’s imagine two polar opposite scenarios.

In the first, the whistleblower is extraordinarily compelling, with detailed public testimony that captures the imagination of the American people by basically nailing the president for demanding a foreign power help him try to win an election and using military aid to an important ally as leverage. House Democrats impeach him, backed by polls showing rising support for the action.  The case goes to the Senate, where Republicans up for reelection in Blue or Purple states are forced to choose sides, hurting their political prospects no matter how they vote. Trump isn’t removed from office, but he is grievously wounded politically.

In the second, all the information comes out and the whistleblower testifies in the next few weeks. The facts revealed infuriate congressional Democrats, their base, and the New York Times editorial board. But there is no smoking gun, and Trump’s actions are hazy and not clearly worse than the many other things he has done that Democrats have considered impeaching him for. All the divisions that exist in the House caucus about how to proceed (which still exist, despite yesterday’s action), spill out into the open, and the president’s reelection prospects are enhanced.

Which scenario seems more likely today? 

Given credence to the first scenario: “[T]he whistle-blower’s complaint is said to extend beyond the one phone call, and Mr. Trump has had at least one other phone call with Mr. Zelensky, on April 21.” (New York Times)

And: “Though the whistleblower report focuses on the Trump-Zelensky call, officials familiar with its contents said that it includes references to other developments tied to the president, including efforts by Giuliani to insert himself into U.S.-Ukrainian relations.” (Washington Post)

My take: But the fact that the administration has said it is turning everything over to Congress leads me to believe the second scenario has a better chance of happening.  This could all unravel quickly.  House Democrats simply do not know enough yet to be sure.

****

The New York Times’ Carl Hulse understands Congress as well as any reporter and he explains the sudden move to impeach by House Democrats this way:

“They believe the new accusations against Mr. Trump are simple and serious enough to be grasped by a public overwhelmed by the constant din of complex charges and countercharges that has become the norm in today’s Washington.”

But he also writes this:

“Even as momentum rapidly built, worries surfaced among Democrats that the drive could fizzle with the release of a transcript of the telephone call between Mr. Trump and the Ukrainian president if it proved less explosive than anticipated — an outcome Republicans predicted. But the speaker and others said that such an outcome would not deter them and that they wanted to hear all of the whistle-blower’s account of what led to the complaint against Mr. Trump, which is believed to include more than the call.”

My take: But it is possible that the whistleblower’s account could fizzle too. We just don’t know yet.  Wouldn’t it have been better politically to know more about what the whistleblower has to say before taking this historic step?

****

It isn’t always possible to read if Trump is really scared or just that Democrats and the media think he should be and is.

Here’s what the New York Times says about that:

“Mr. Trump also believes that the allegations about him are not nearly as damning as they have been portrayed and that disclosing them will undercut the impeachment drive, people close to the president said.”

“The president, according to people close to him, believes that Democrats will overplay their hand and that once the transcript is released, it will not prove to be a problem for him.”

And this from Politico:

“’The president’s strategy on these matters has always been pretty clear: Never back up and go forward. He learned that from Page Six,’ said Newt Gingrich, an informal adviser to Trump who served as House speaker during Republicans’ impeachment inquiry of President Bill Clinton. ‘For the average American, this won’t move anything. It just further pins the Democrats into a negative anti-Trump position.’”

Essential reading: Ross Douthat makes a strong case that Trump welcomes being impeached.

My take: The president isn’t worried now, but he might be after the whistleblower blows and whistles.

****

Pelosi’s action raised as many questions as it answered.  This edition of Wide World of News would be way too long if I tried to deal with them all, so let me focus on the two elements I think are the biggest: the challenge for House Democrats now and the role of Rudy Giuliani.

House Democrats

The New York Times: “Whether the latest allegations involving Ukraine will change public opinion the way they galvanized previously resistant House Democrats remained unclear.”

My take: It does indeed remain quite unclear.

****

The Washington Post: “How sweeping will the probe be? How long will it last? Who will conduct it? And will Pelosi’s unilateral pronouncement — which was delivered with no immediate plans to ratify it with a House vote — do anything to change the course of existing investigations that have hit a stone wall of White House resistance?”

My take: No idea, no idea, no idea, no idea.

****

The Associated Press: “The burden will likely now shift to Democrats to make the case to a scandal-weary public. In a highly polarized Congress, an impeachment inquiry could simply showcase how clearly two sides can disagree when shown the same evidence rather than approach consensus.”

My take: I repeat again for emphasis – until we see how compelling the case of the whistleblower is, there is no way to know what the chances are that the Democrats have done the right thing politically, and maybe even morally and as a matter of public policy.

****

Michael Goodwin in the New York Post, with a take from the right that people on the left should read and consider, even if they are inclined to reflexively disagree:

“Pelosi may think she went only halfway Tuesday and could eventually back down on impeachment if the Ukraine issue fizzles, but that’s wishful thinking. Anything less than a public flogging of Trump will not satisfy the far left of her own party, including the 150 or so House members who already demanded impeachment before the Ukraine issue appeared.

“Meanwhile, Pelosi’s endorsement also pushes the presidential candidates toward the impeachment path, whether they like it or not. None of them can possibly be against it, nor can they be wishy-washy about it.

“Bet that within days, there will be virtually unanimous support among the White House wannabes. Anything less will be disqualifying among the loud left.”

****

The last word on this goes to one of the smartest strategists in the Democratic Party, as quoted in the Washington Post:

“Democrats intend to argue that the fact pattern behind Trump’s contact with Ukraine is far more direct, damning and easily digestible than complex stories of potential obstruction of justice contained in the Mueller report.

“’This is a more supportable narrative about his conduct,’ said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. ‘It’s more clear. Trump has already admitted to most of the egregious behavior. He is out of the business of claiming nothing happened. And there is no mystery about his personal involvement, because he was the guy at the other end of the line.’”

My take: I see why Garin is saying this, based on the news reports to date and Trump’s own admissions.  But as early as the end of this week, the premises on which he bases his analysis could all be blown to bits. Or, we could be in a full-blown gallop towards impeachment that even some Senate Republicans will find hard to ignore.

Wait for the whistleblower.

****

Giuliani

Essential reading: This best-to-date story in the Washington Post on Rudy’s role and the agita it caused throughout the government, including on the part of the (now hovering presence of) John Bolton.

It includes this:

‘[T]he person who appears to have been more directly involved at nearly every stage of the entanglement with Ukraine is Giuliani.
‘Rudy — he did all of this,’ one U.S. official said. ‘This s—show that we’re in — it’s him injecting himself into the process.’

“Then-national security adviser John Bolton was outraged by the outsourcing of a relationship with a country struggling to survive Russian aggression, officials said. But by then his standing with Trump was strained, and neither he nor his senior aides could get straight answers about Giuliani’s agenda or authority, officials said. Bolton declined to comment.”

My take: Rudy’s role might not get Trump impeached, but it is going to be a big part of the focus in the House.

****
One last essential reading: David Ignatius, who makes the strongest case possible (stronger than Pelosi and her colleagues did) for what is at stake here:

“Trump’s actions [are] a potential violation of his oath of office, requiring urgent investigation…This isn’t just another partisan fight. It goes to the essential obligations of a commander in chief.”

****

Top sports story: Nationals clinch wild card as Turner slams Phils
ESPN

Top business story: Federal investigators say the FAA’s Boeing 737 Max inspectors were insufficiently trained
CNBC

Top entertainment story: Vox Media Acquires New York Magazine
Variety

****

Big Four

New Hampshire

House, Senate lawmakers reach budget deal with governor.


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