The acting chief of staff’s admission changes everything.
John Maynard Keynes may not have been the one who said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But the line, often attributed to him, remains a good one. And it captures my shifting view of the impeachment inquiry.
That view shifted again this week with Mick Mulvaney’s hallucinatory press conference on Thursday, in which he appeared to admit a version of the quid pro quo the president and his minions have spent the past few weeks fervently denying. “Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the D.N.C. server?” the acting chief of staff said of the president. “Absolutely. No question about that.”
He added: “That’s why we held up the money.”
Mulvaney clarified his comments — which is to say, contradicted himself — a few hours later, insisting in a carefully scripted statement, “There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the D.N.C. server.” For this, he offered as proof “the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server.”
True. Except, as everyone knows, the money was released only after several infuriated lawmakers, including Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, pushed the administration to deliver the aid without ever being told the real story of why it had been delayed in the first place.
In other words, a White House that initially insisted it had nothing to hide was, in fact, hiding something. It then claimed that it didn’t intend to do what it clearly intended to do, based on the fact that it didn’t get away with doing it. Next, it compounded the prevarication by admitting to its intentions, and insisting there was nothing wrong with them. And, finally, it reverted to denying those intentions altogether.
What kind of fool is Mulvaney, to take the rest of us for such fools?
Mulvaney’s Inspector Clouseau routine follows a week of disclosures about the extent to which U.S. policy toward Ukraine became the province of Rudy Giuliani to the exclusion of the State Department and National Security Council. Giuliani, in turn, was paid $500,000 by the company of a shady business associate who was helping him dig for political dirt in Ukraine. That associate and his partner were recently pulled from a flight on one-way tickets and arrested on charges of campaign-finance violations connected to the ouster of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. No wonder John Bolton described this shadow foreign policy as a “drug deal.”
Donald Trump’s inveterate defenders insist that the president is entitled to conduct foreign policy any way he wants, and delegate authority to whomever he pleases. That just isn’t true.
No president has the right, ever, to use the powers of his office to enrich himself, which is what Trump appears to be doing by designating his Florida golf resort as the site of the next G7 meeting. No president has the automatic right to impound congressionally appropriated funds, above all for nakedly political ends. No president may delegate foreign policy to anyone who abuses that trust for personal profit. No president should derail the career of a foreign-service officer because she would not violate the trust of her office to enable his political vendettas.
And no president should lie so wantonly about his public conduct or enlist the officers of government in the concealment of that conduct. This has been the story of the Trump administration from its first day.
For Democrats, the question is whether impeachment is the right response to indisputably outrageous acts. I’ve previously been skeptical for several reasons, not least that a party-line vote in the House would simultaneously diminish the stigma of impeachment while boosting the president’s re-election chances. And I was particularly skeptical if the entire case against Trump rested on that one phone call.
Now it’s clear that it doesn’t. Whatever the political calculus, the impeachment inquiry needs to press on, aggressively.
As for Republicans, a question they might usefully ask themselves is whether the standard of behavior they now either accept or embrace in this president is one they are prepared to condone in a Democratic administration. All of their casuistry in Trump’s defense today may, and probably will, be used against them in the future. The wretched bargain that partisans inevitably make with demagogues on their side is that they inspire, and license, the demagoguery of the other.
A suggestion for Nancy Pelosi: Offer the House a vote on censure, neither as a substitute for the impeachment inquiry nor for impeachment itself, but as an opportunity for members to go on record as to how they judge the president. It would give at least a few Republicans, for whom an impeachment vote is a political bridge too far, an opportunity to save a piece of their souls. History will judge the rest.