Everyone already seems to know where the Republican talking points on impeachment will go. They started with, “There was absolutely no quid pro quo and you’d have to be loony to suspect one,” before retreating to “Quid pro quos are actually good,” and they will likely come to final rest somewhere near “Well, yes, this is a gross and unconscionable abuse of power, but it’s not impeachable.” Call it the Kutuzov strategy: Retreat so far that your opponent becomes overextended and you win by default. Republicans are hoping that they can condemn the president while not removing him from office, then somehow move on.
But the problem is that, while Republican talking points may be predictable, the world is not. Especially when Donald Trump is involved.
Republicans should have learned this lesson from the Mueller investigation. The ultimate result of more than two years of investigation was that people around President Trump had definitely been engaged in some funny business with the Russians, but they had been successful enough in obstructing the investigation that the full details never came to light. Roger Stone appears to have been the central conduit between WikiLeaks—a de facto Russian intelligence asset—and the Trump campaign. His trial for witness tampering begins this week.
In March, with an assist from Attorney General Bill Barr, Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham were enthusiastic in adopting the administration’s mantra: “No collusion, total exoneration.” When Robert Mueller’s July 24 congressional testimony fizzled, it looked as if the entire collusion narrative was finally over. Republicans were ready to move on to their legislative agenda (such as it is). Some implied that even suspecting that the Trump campaign may have colluded with the Russian government was evidence of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Then, the very day after Mueller’s congressional testimony, President Trump made Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky an offer he couldn’t refuse. He not only invited a foreign government to open an un-predicated investigation into a political rival, he conditioned military aid and a White House visit on this “favor.”
Just when President Trump had made the best possible argument that collusion was a hoax the whole time, he went and colluded. As soon as the memo of the call was released, suspicion that the president of colluded with foreign governments seemed less like derangement and more like astute good sense.
Then, as if this were a way of defending himself, the president invited China to investigate Joe Biden. It’s almost like people of poor character repeat bad behaviors even when warned to stop.
This is the lesson congressional Republicans should keep in mind: The Trump White House is bedlam. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about the latest scandal, you can’t predict the next one. If you’re willing to defend almost-sorta-kinda collusion today, you’d better be willing to defend clear-as-day, quid-pro-quo collusion tomorrow.
As Republicans are adjusting their positions on the current impeachment scandal, they should consider what President Trump might do if the Senate does not remove him from office. After all, mixing personal gain with foreign policy isn’t a one-off; the president clearly has a penchant for it. If Republicans hope to weather the storm and reemerge in the sunshine on the other side, they’re going to be disappointed: This storm won’t end on its own. And if the president survives impeachment—and especially if he then wins reelection—he may feel like he’s been given a pass for his past actions and permission to keep carrying on.
One theory of why Republicans in Congress have been willing to defend the president so loyally thus far is that they’re like the frog in the boiling pot. As long as the water heats slowly and gradually, they never really notice how close they are to being cooked.
But they’re not frogs. They’re people. They can see the past and extrapolate into the future. There’s no reason for them to expect that the water will stop getting hotter. Eventually, it’s going to boil.
Maybe congressional Republicans want to spend 2021 defending escalating outrages. Are they prepared to defend the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S. permanent resident and a longtime scapegoat of Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Ankara? What will they say if the president threatens to raise tariffs on China unless his daughter’s business get special treatment? Maybe they will still believe it’ll all be worth it, as long as they get the judges they want and a tax cut and regulatory rollback and owning the libs.
But they should be under no illusions that the administration’s scandals will diminish. If Trump isn’t impeached, it’s only going to get worse.