OPINION — We now have the smoking-gun summary, the most incriminating White House document since Watergate. Even with ellipses and maybe redactions for national security reasons, the reconstruction of Donald Trump’s July 25 conversation with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is chilling in its specificity.
Instead of subtly alluding to Joe Biden or hinting that a little private help might be appreciated, Trump instead bluntly instructed Zelenskiy, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.”
With Ukraine desperate for $391 million promised by America for secure military communications, Zelenskiy had about as much free will as a gambler in hock to loan sharks who break kneecaps. And then there was that minor matter of Trump using Attorney General Bill Barr as his middleman for delivery of would-be dirt on Biden.
Trump is so overt and inept in his plotting that if he had been president during Watergate, he probably would have called a press conference after the burglars were caught at Democratic National Committee headquarters. “Of course, I sent them,” Trump would have bragged. “The DNC has been very nasty to me. The Democrats are bad people. They got what they deserved.”
For Nancy Pelosi, this rough transcript of Trump’s investigate-or-else Ukrainian ultimatum must have felt like welcome vindication. With her dramatic turnabout on impeachment, Pelosi ran the risk that the call summary might be as murky as the Mueller report. Instead it read like the Nixon White House transcripts minus the deleted expletives.
For all the frenzied analysis of the risks that House Democrats in marginal districts are taking in buying a ticket on the Impeachment Express, it is equally important to understand the dangers facing ambitious congressional Republicans who have to decide whether to remain Trump toadies.
There are, of course, old-fashioned Republicans like Lamar Alexander and Pat Roberts, who are retiring from the Senate in 2020, presumably baffled and buffeted by the transformation of their party. With 16 grandchildren between them, Alexander and Roberts will have ample time in the months ahead to figure out how to answer the obvious future question, “Grandpa, what did you do when Donald Trump was shaking down Ukraine?”
But the challenges for Republicans on Capitol Hill extend far beyond mulling their legacies in an age of Trump tumult. What should matter more to congressional Republicans who dream of political careers after 2020 is where they calculate the GOP is apt to be in 2022 and beyond.
The odds are probably better than 50-50 that Trump will no longer be residing in the Oval Office in 2022 either because of electoral defeat or — much less likely — impeachment. By the way, it is unwise to completely dismiss the chances of Trump’s conviction in the Senate before we hear from the national security whistleblower who initially sounded the warning about Ukraine.
But even if Trump survives impeachment and wins reelection, he will probably be a largely spent political force by 2022. That’s what happens to most two-term presidents in their sixth year in the White House, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.
So what really are the risks for GOP senators who privately squirm at Trump’s antics in the White House and secretly worry about what the 45th president is doing to democracy and the powers of Congress?
If such senators are not on the ballot until 2022 (and I’m guessing that Rob Portman, John Thune and maybe Marco Rubio fit into this category), then fears of political retribution for disloyalty from MAGA-hatted zealots may be exaggerated.
Sure, there may be some rough Trump tweets like the one mocking Mitt Romney as a presidential loser. Maybe there would be some booing at party dinners back home and vague talk of primary challenges. But, in all likelihood, this frenzy would have dissipated long before the formal launch of a 2022 reelection campaign.
I have been thinking about Republican senators like these ever since I asked Michael Bennet about Trump and Ukraine during the Democratic steak fry in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday. Bennet, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said about some of his GOP colleagues, “I know these guys, and I know a lot of them know the difference between right and wrong. And at some point, everybody’s going to have to step up here and do their jobs.”
There are two relevant lessons from Watergate that should interest any Republican legislator who knows the difference, as Bennet put it, “between right and wrong.”
When Nixon’s support collapsed during the summer of 1974, it happened fast. Under the banner headline, “NIXON RESIGNS,” The New York Times wrote in its Aug. 9 edition, “In the end only a small minority of his former supporters were urging him to stay. … It was his friends, not his legions of enemies, that brought the crucial pressures for resignation.”
It is also never too late for an erstwhile backer of a scandal-smeared president to recognize the error of his or her ways. Conservative hero Barry Goldwater, who had loyally supported Nixon through much of Watergate, also volunteered to be the messenger to tell the president that he had fewer than 15 backers in the Senate.
House Democrats have made their choice in the last few days — and it is the right one. Now the question facing America is whether congressional Republicans will follow the course of honor or continue their servitude to an unethical president whose moral compass always points at himself.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.