Yesterday and again this morning, the president of the United States tweeted that Representative Adam Schiff should be questioned for “treason” and possibly arrested. He also approvingly quoted an absurd statement from an increasingly unhinged Trumpist pastor named Robert Jeffress that threatened a “Civil War like fracture” (led by Evangelicals!) if he is impeached and removed.
Given the lack of serious grounds on which to defend these statements, Trump’s apologists fell back to the claim that they were “just tweets,” and that we should instead always focus on his actions. If he doesn’t actually attempt to have Schiff arrested, they said, then we need to stop our “pearl-clutching,” and if he doesn’t actually attempt to start a civil war, then all we’re dealing with is a metaphor no worse than the “war” rhetoric we see all the time in politics and public controversies.
These arguments don’t hold water. One of the reasons why the Ukraine scandal is starting to have legs is that it demonstrates that the Trump you see on Twitter is not some virtual persona distinct from the man himself; they are one and the same. There is no “just Twitter.” There is just Trump, and Trump can and will operationalize his vendettas and conspiracy theories, including by running unofficial diplomatic operations through his personal legal team. He can and will break through the safeguards erected around him, even in matters of grave national importance.
We know from Twitter and other public statements that Trump obsesses over various conspiracy theories, especially when they have the potential to magnify his 2016 victory. He has repeatedly claimed that “millions and millions” of people (including illegal aliens) voted unlawfully for Hillary Clinton, and time and again expressed doubts that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. This, above and beyond the evidence of a quid pro quo and the calls for a dependent, desperate foreign nation to investigate a domestic political opponent based on mischaracterized facts, is what makes the summary of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky so jolting: Trump was attempting to enlist a foreign leader in the private investigation, led by his personal counsel, of a debunked conspiracy theory.
In fact, his commitment to this absurd theory is so complete that he apparently tossed aside his advisers’ repeated warnings that it had been debunked and allowed it to taint American diplomacy. This weekend, former Trump homeland-security adviser Thomas Bossert spoke on the record to ABC News and the New York Times and noted that members of the administration had “repeatedly” tried to convince Trump that there was nothing to the notion that a Crowdstrike server in Ukraine held the key to questioning the reality of Russian election interference.
In my initial post about the conversation with Zelensky, I gave Trump a pass for his request for assistance in investigating 2016 election interference. I did so because it is, in theory, entirely proper to ask for foreign help in tracking down any valid leads that could help determine if another nation — or an American — engaged in inappropriate or unlawful conduct to influence the outcome of an American presidential election. But Trump’s actual ask was tainted by his conspiratorial obsessions.
Think of Zelensky’s position. His nation desperately needs American military assistance, and so he makes a direct ask for a key weapons system. Trump responds not with a reasonable request but rather with a question about a conspiracy theory, and then he urges Zelensky to work not just with the proper conduit for investigations of election interference, Attorney General Bill Barr, but also with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani — the same man who Bossert said would “feed” him “all kinds of garbage,” including that conspiracy theory.
Trump was thus placing immense pressure on the government of Ukraine to validate a thoroughly debunked theory, and in so doing to place an even greater strain on American politics. And from Ukraine’s perspective, obtaining access to a supply of American weapons that can deter further Russian aggression might well have been worth (in the short term, at least) the cost of sowing political chaos in the United States. Could any reasonable person trust a pro-Trump Ukrainian “investigation” when Ukrainian lives and territorial integrity were on the line?
Indeed, the entire sordid affair demonstrates how ultimately even Trump’s most loyal aides can’t always prevent him from abusing the vast powers of his office. Trump’s first term has been marked by repeated moments when presidential friends or advisers either ignored or slow-walked his most problematic commands. As the Mueller Report indicates, Don McGahn’s defiance and Corey Lewandowski’s delays in carrying out presidential edicts may well have saved Trump’s presidency once already. But here a determined Trump used his own counsel to conduct his own diplomatic initiative according to the dictates of a conspiracy-obsessed mind.
Americans have always paid close attention to their presidents’ words for a simple and profound reason: Words convey beliefs and intentions. For four years, Trump’s defenders have persuaded tens of millions of Americans that his words matter less than the words of other presidents, that there exists some kind of unbreachable firewall between bad tweets and bad acts. The Ukraine scandal shows that this is not true. Trump is like any other president in one key respect: His words matter, and when, as is so often the case, they’re irresponsible, irresponsible actions can and will follow.
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