Soon after last week’s edition of this blog went to press, Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives was opening an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump over the Ukraine affair. It was a moment many opponents of the Trump regime— myself included—had long been waiting for, and it came with shocking speed, over a scandal that had emerged seemingly out of nowhere almost overnight.
Since then we have watched events unfold at an even faster pace. Six House committees are moving with unusual (and appropriate) aggressiveness to fast track this investigation, inexorably heading for a full House vote on impeachment possibly as early as Thanksgiving. The (acting) Director of National Intelligence has already appeared before the House Intelligence Committee to try to explain his handling of the case; the US special envoy to Ukraine, who was named in the whistleblower complaint, resigned; depositions from numerous other implicated officials have been ordered; and the Secretary of State has tried to block those depositions with a pearl-clutching tweet about how the State Department Is being bullied by mean ol’ Congress. That Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has himself been subpoenaed, as he was revealed to have been on the Zelensky call despite pretending for all the world he wasn’t, part of what is emerging as much broader campaign of mafioso-like behavior by the White House to strongarm various foreign powers into helping Trump persecute his domestic political enemies.
Central to that effort, in addition to Pompeo, are two lawyers, both of whom Trump mentioned several times in his call to Zelensky, and both of whom were also named by the whistleblower. The first of course is professional loose cannon Rudy Giuliani, who is Trump’s actual personal lawyer, and who has now been subpoenaed to produce documents. The second is Attorney General Bill Barr, who is under the mistaken impression that he too is Trump’s personal lawyer, and is surely next to be served.
Barr has denied any involvement in the Ukraine mess, while Giuliani had bragged about it. (“When this is over, I will be the hero.”) But we have learned that Barr has been on a globetrotting world tour to seek foreign help for Trump, ostensibly as part of his risible attempt to disprove Russian interference in the 2016 election, but naturally with an eye to 2020. Indeed, even as this Pe’ahi-sized wave of scandal continued to break on top of him, Barr was in Rome for that purpose, in the company of Pompeo, Steve Bannon, Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev, and non-Dr. Sebastian v.R.J.Sp. Gorka (remember him, he of the Nazi medal, a la Charles Lindbergh?). Although the purpose of the Rome trip is, apparently, to gain Italian help in discrediting the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference four years ago, that hardly makes it better. Our tax dollars and the energy of the US Attorney General are being spent chasing the ghosts of elections past—still—all for the sake of Trump’s ego and to gain political advantage going forward. In that regard Barr’s efforts are very much of a piece with Ukrainegate, as Trump’s repeated references to him on the Zelensky call suggest.
We also learned that in addition to the high crime itself, the coverup of l’affair d’Ukraine was also pretty goddam bad. Apparently many people inside the White House (though, tellingly, not Trump himself) immediately knew that what had gone down with Zelensky constituted an epic fuckup and was likely impeachable, which is why they wasted no time in having the verbatim transcript improperly moved to a secure server intended for the most top secret “codeword” intelligence. It later emerged that similar steps had been taken with the transcripts of other phone calls between Trump and foreign leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
(And I know everyone says the White House as an institution is allergic to tape recording ever since Watergate, but are you seriously telling me that the NSA doesn’t have audio recordings of all those calls?)
We also learned that enough career officials privy to what happened were so alarmed that they spoke to the eventual whistleblower. But the DOJ shamelessly swept that whistleblower’s subsequent complaint under the rug after the DNI inexplicably went to the department headed by an official implicated in that complaint to ask whether it ought to be investigated. (Answer: “Nah. We cool, brah.”)
That official, of course, was Bill Barr.
Meanwhile, Trump and his defenders have been on a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth counterattack in the media (and if history is any guide, up to even more nefarious deeds behind closed doors). Some might say the low point was Trump’s winking implication—at the UN of all places—that the whistleblower ought to be shot as a spy, or his furious suggestion that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff ought to be arrested for treason, or his re-tweet from an evangelical pastor warning that Trump’s supporters would launch a civil war if were to be impeached. (For those wondering how far the Donald will go to defend himself, it didn’t take long for him to head there, did it?)
But to me the most head-spinning development on that front was the administration re-opening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, in keeping with its partisan weaponization of the armature of the state—an attempt at misdirection so clumsy, hamhanded, and shameless that it could only find purchase among the most Kool Aid-besotted of Trump’s followers. Which, of course, is at whom it’s aimed. I can tell you from the furious reaction to my blog post of last week that they are greedily lapping up Trump’s agitprop and eagerly repeating it, even when it makes no sense and has been thoroughly discredited. What else is new?
In any case, it will be highly ironic if the improper use of an email server is part of what ultimately brings Trump down.
In short, it is the understatement of the year to say that the scope of this Ukrainian debacle is proving to be massive. The disgraceful and Orwellian reaction of the administration and the broader GOP, the politics of how impeachment will play out, and other aspects of this rapidly unfolding scandal will require many more column inches than can be devoted here. Stay tuned, if you dare.
But today I’d like to concentrate on one small but telling aspect of Ukrainegate, which is Trump’s decision to release the crude readout of the Zelensky call, as that speaks volumes, and in multiple ways, about the shitshow in which we find ourselves and the man who precipitated it all.
CALL ME MAYBE
This scandal has been breaking so fast and furious (yswidt?) that last Wednesday seems like a lifetime ago. But that was the day that Donald Trump released a rough “readout” of his July 25th call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (as opposed to a proper verbatim transcript that we were told at the time didn’t exist). According to Trump, this readout was supposed to exonerate him of any wrongdoing in the matter.
Never mind that the call itself was not the only piece in the whistleblower’s allegation of a pattern of repeated and urgent wrongdoing. Burned once by Bill Barr’s four-page misrepresentation of the Mueller report, Democrats and other foes of this administration braced for more disinformation and misdirection: another document that Trump would wave like a flag, falsely claiming proof of innocence. Obviously, whatever he was going to release was something that would help his case…..why else would he release it?
Ahead of its publication, progressive pundits were pre-emptively dismissing the readout as partisan spin (and were criticized for doing that), overtly invoking Barr’s shameful summary,/non-summary and warning the public not to be fooled by an innocuous document that would not represent anything close to exoneration, despite White House claims.
And then we saw the thing.
In it, Donald Trump brazenly solicits the help of the Ukrainian government in digging up dirt on Joe Biden, whom he has long seen (rightly or wrongly) as his greatest rival in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Scratch that—“solicits” is too kind. He bluntly pressures Zelensky to provide that help, and implicitly dangles the delivery or cancellation of US military aid as both carrot and stick. As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, it requires willful blindness to miss the quid pro quo re the $400 million in US military assistance that Kiev desperately needed to fight their Russian attackers, and which Trump began holding hostage just weeks before the call. (On the phone, Zelensky says, “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump immediately replies, “I would like you to do us a favor though,” and then launches into his terms.)
The President of the United States then directs Zelensky to be in contact with Giuliani and Barr—by name—in that effort. He repeats the “request” a total of EIGHT TIMES.
This was all in a document that Donald Trump himself released: evidence of a “perfect call,” as he described it, whatever the hell that is. (The man’s torturing of the English language continues to be one of his many crimes against humanity.) More mindboggling still, we can only assume it was the best possible spin on the call, as he saw it.
Given that Trump thought that was exculpatory for him, it’s fair to wonder what the hell is in the full transcript that we were first told did not exist, but soon learned did, having been immediately sequestered in the aforementioned classified computer system. And, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it was moved there because White House aides—likely including Mike Pompeo, who had listened in on the call—instantly knew that they had just heard Trump blatantly abuse the power of his office for personal political gain. Those officials are now complicit in a coverup and can expect intense pressure from Congress (and the public) to testify to that effect, Pompeo included. (The House has now subpoenaed the State Department for that full transcript.)
The readout IN AND OF ITSELF was a proverbial smoking gun: damning, incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing rising to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor, right there in black and white, as delivered and affirmed by White House itself.
And here’s the thing:
Donald J. Trump thought that readout was proof that he had done nothing wrong.
That is because Donald J. Trump does not understand the first thing about how representative democracy is supposed to work, or what his job as President of the United States is, or what is and is not ethical behavior, or even, at the most basic, the difference between right and wrong.
It was as jawdropping a public display of pathology as I can remember seeing in my half century and counting on this planet.
In the same way that Trump cannot distinguish between the Department of Justice and his own private law firm, or the Attorney General and his own personal lawyer, he cannot understand that the President of the United States is not supposed to leverage foreign powers for his own personal gain….and he cannot understand that because he cannot distinguish between the interests of the United States and his own personal interests (l’etat c’est moi), or grasp that they are not one in the same.
Before releasing the transcript, Trump teased it with this tweet, which I quoted last week but feel compelled to quote again, because it’s such a classic: “Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”
Turns out, not only was he dumb enough to do that, he was also dumb enough to release a quasi-transcript of that call, and believe it somehow exonerated him. This is the most stark evidence yet that Trump is not only a wanton criminal, but also a genuine sociopath.
Both good reasons he should not be in the Oval Office.
As Elizabeth Spiers pointed out in the Washington Post, Trump habitually accuses his enemies of criminal behavior—typically, of bribery and graft and corruption—because he knows that that is what he would do in that same situation. (Of course, when they do it, it’s cause for outrage; when he does it, “that makes me smart.”) Spiers:
Wanton corruption and pursuit of personal enrichment at the expense of Americans appear to be the two dominant modes of operation for the Trump family, so this should come as no surprise. No first family in modern history has so gleefully flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution while cozying up to hostile foreign powers at the expense of American lives and for the benefit of their private businesses. It is easy to see why Trump thinks Biden must have been pulling a scam in Ukraine: It is exactly what Trump would have done.
So naturally, as a person who thinks that way, Trump saw nothing in the Zelensky call that was untoward. Hence his decision to release it (over, we are told, the objections of his saner advisers and terrified senior Republicans).
The Zelensky Transcript (which now joins the Steele Dossier and the Mueller Report as one of my favorite Robert Ludlum novels that weren’t) is reminiscent of May 2017, when Trump’s downfall really began, with his laughable justification for firing Jim Comey, to wit: that Comey had overstepped his remit as FBI director when he chose to excoriate Hillary Clinton in the course of announcing that the Bureau was declining to recommend prosecution for her use of a private email server. Trump seemed to genuinely believe that Democrats would cheer his move, and accept that fig leaf, and appeared shocked when they did not. It was absurd and everyone outside the Trump family knew it immediately. But Donald did not.
And once again with the Zelensky call, we see the pitfalls of being a pathological narcissist without a firm grasp on what everyone else implicitly understands as part of their shared, rational perspective on the world. True, 99 times out of 100 in Trump’s public life—and repeatedly throughout his brief political career—his sociopathic personality disorder has benefited him. But once in a while it works the other way around, and when that happens—as it did last week—it’s usually a doozy.
The irony is at a Shakespearean level. This sociopath is being undone by his own hubris and inability to see that what he thought was a lifeline was actually an anvil.
In short, the downside of being a sociopath is that you can’t tell when you’re fucking up.
It’s my uneducated guess that, in addition to his batshit belief that the call exonerated him, another reason Trump wanted the readout released was pure ego: because it was so full of obsequious praise from Zelensky, sounding like a man talking to kidnappers who were holding his child hostage. But as Lucian Truscott IV pointed out in Salon, that Kievan bootlicking bespeaks a far grimmer truth: it is evidence of how desperately Ukraine needs the military aid that Trump was withholding:
The tone of pleading and groveling by Zelensky in his conversation with Trump in July is palpable. Look at the position he is in…..A huge swath of Ukrainian territory along its eastern border is currently under occupation by Russian militias and Ukrainian sympathizers of Russia. More than 10,000 Ukrainian nationals have lost their lives in the fighting there since 2014. That is more than we have lost in 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than one million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war and are refugees within their own country….
There is a war going on between our ally Ukraine and our enemy Russia, and Donald Trump has taken Russia’s side. Way down in the whistleblower complaint you will find the answer to why Trump ordered the withholding of military aid to Ukraine. The whistleblower describes Trump engaging in some artful mob-boss hint dropping when he “told reporters ‘I think [Zelensky] is going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House, and we look forward to seeing him.’” Two weeks after his phone call with Zelensky, Trump was still waiting for the dirt on Biden he had asked for. Zelensky was still waiting for the military aid he had been promised, but which he knew had been withheld on Trump’s orders.
Speaking of world class ass-kissing, Mike Pompeo has behaved as despicably in this scandal as the worst of Trump’s circle, including Barr and Giuliani. When the Ukraine story first broke, Pompeo hid the fact that he had listened in on the call with Zelensky, pretending otherwise until the facts were forced out. Even since then he has deployed the same smoke-and-mirrors as the rest of the administration and its surrogates in trying to contain the damage and deflect the truth. For example, when Martha Raddatz bluntly asked Pompeo on ABC’s “This Week” if he thought it was appropriate for a President of the United States to ask a foreign ally to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Pompeo dodged the question with a classic piece of Trumpian misdirection, criticizing the previous administration (you know, the one led by that black guy) for not providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine…..this even as he knew that the current administration (you know, the one in which he is Secretary of State) had deliberately withheld precisely such aid and for the sole purpose of Trump’s personal gain.
Why do I bother to single out Mike Pompeo when so many—indeed, nearly all—of Trump’s minions behave in such a loathsome manner? Personal reasons, I confess.
Pompeo is a 1986 graduate of West Point, putting him just one year group behind me. (My own commission was via an ROTC scholarship.) He and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in US Army Europe at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry—and both of us left active duty as captains in 1991. None of those credentials inherently make Pompeo good or bad, but they do make him someone I can understand and relate to, and whose mindset I can understand much better than that of, say, Bill Barr or Rudy Giuliani, and of whom I therefore feel comfortable demanding a higher standard. That is why his actions gall me more than those of the rest of Trump’s crew.
The motto of the US Military Academy is “Duty, honor, country.”
I guess Cadet Pompeo was on sick call the day they went over that.
Susan Glasser summarized the effect of the Zelensky readout, and all of last week’s events, very nicely in the New Yorker:
As of Monday morning, the political world was pretty sure that Donald Trump would not be impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives, and that he would enter the 2020 campaign and race to win reëlection, before the economy betrayed him with a recession that forecasters increasingly see as inevitable. Instead, over a remarkable day and a half, a new reality emerged: Donald Trump appears to have got himself impeached. Trump now seems all but certain not only to face an impeachment investigation but an actual impeachment vote in the House. And, whenever it happens, and whatever the specifics of the indictment turn out to be, the impeachment vote will have been triggered by a new scandal very much of his own making.
The own goal of the Zelensky transcript is already being felt in the polls.
Two-thirds of Americans think the Ukraine scandal is a serious problem, and more than half (55% according to a CBS News poll) support an impeachment inquiry, an enormous jump from previous queries.
Even more tellingly, only 17% of Americans—both pro- and anti-Trump—reported being surprised at what he did regarding Ukraine, suggesting a rare point of unanimity in our otherwise divided nation:
We all understand what a shitbag Donald Trump is. We only disagree on how much it matters.
Thus far Republicans have focused on discrediting the charges. But as Trump has bluntly confessed to them, they will eventually be left with only one defense, which is to claim that it’s not wrong to do what he did. That will require a tectonic re-definition of the very basis of our republican form of government (as a monarchy, basically), but I don’t put that past them. Trump himself, per above, has claimed exactly that all along—that is the whole gobsmacking point of this blog post. But it will be a tough sell, given the lengths to which his own White House went to hide the evidence on a top secret/SCI server, before the big man himself saw fit to release it to the American people.
I eagerly await the angry Republican claim that the Democrats entrapped Trump into the Ukraine fiasco by letting him skate on Russiagate. (Only half-joking here.)
It’s true that he may survive this scandal nevertheless, as he survived grab-em-by-the-pussy, Stormygate, Russiagate, and everything else. Let us not underestimate the fanatical, cultlike loyalty of MAGA Nation, or the venality and cowardice of the so-called leaders of the Republican Party. But this one does feel different in so many ways, from the simplicity of the crime and the ease with which it can be understood, to Trump’s own clumsy confession, to the cracks in the red wall which we have never before seen in previous would-be presidency-ending scandals. Fingers crossed.
Similarly, Trump himself seems to be in a dead panic unlike anything we have seen previously. His calls for violence and other abuses of state power certainly ought to make any sane American sit up and take notice, if you haven’t already been prompted do so by the parade of other outrages over the proceeding three years. (Caged children anyone?) Are we really in a world in which an American president is calling for the arrest of his political enemies on charges of treason…. in which he nudges his followers toward armed insurrection in his defense…..in which he questions the patriotism of a whistleblower, demands to confront him, and suggests the person ought to be shot? Apparently we are, and yet quiet flows the Potomac.
Some constitutional scholars have pointed out that these provocations are themselves impeachable offenses; one can hardly imagine behavior more imperial and antithetical to the Founders’ intent. At a bare minimum they can be used to bolster the case that Trump is unfit for offense and a threat to the republic who must be removed for the common good. WaPo columnist Greg Sargent suggested that Trump’s statements could not only build public support for impeachment (and persuade some Republicans to jump off a rapidly sinking ship), but actually become part of the articles of impeachment against him.
Are we supposed to take him literally but not seriously, or seriously but not literally? I can never remember.
EL POLLO LOCO
At the top of this piece I mentioned the longstanding desire of many progressives like myself to see Donald Trump impeached. That longing is not, as MAGA Nation would have you believe, driven by a blind partisan hatred of the man. (“They’ve been trying to impeach him since Election Day!”) Rather, it emanates from a clear understanding of his many high crimes and misdemeanors, and his manifest unfitness for office, and from grief at the damage he is doing from the Oval Office, all aggravated by the galling injustice of his oleaginous ability to have dodged accountability thus far, and in fact only gotten worse and worse.
As Lucian Truscott and Masha Gessen have both pointed out, it’s almost arbitrary that this, of all Trump’s many impeachable offenses, is the one that appears to be sticking at last. Gessen’s theory is that it is cumulative, in a camel’s back sort of way.
(In any case, the right wing has got a lot of nerve alleging blind hatred toward anyone, given the racist and misogynistic bile directed at Barack and Hillary untethered from any policy disagreements.)
We all know that Trump may yet escape conviction in the Senate, thanks to the craven collaborationism of the Vichy Republicans. But impeachment itself, even without a conviction, will be a permanent black mark on his toxic legacy, and a well-deserved and long overdue rebuke of this cretinous pretender to the throne, one that—we can only hope—will also do him lethal damage come Election Day. In short, to one degree or another, Trump’s misdeeds are finally beginning to catch up with him.
That clucking sound you hear is the chickens coming home to roost at last.