Politics & Policy

Some Stories Never Die

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, September 9, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

This is an excerpt from episode 172 of The Editors podcast.

Rich: Without further ado, let’s get into the week’s news. Jim Geraghty, the news that dominated this week was the testimony from acting Ukrainian ambassador William Taylor behind closed doors, although we’ve seen his 15-page opening statement, which, if you’re into these sort of things, is gripping reading. Seems more detailed and credible than the opening statements of Kurt Volker and then Sondland, whose first name, I must confess, I don’t know, the EU ambassador, both of whom were okay for Trump, and this was not. It strongly suggests that there was a quid pro quo, at least the intention of a quid pro quo, a lot of maneuvering around a quid pro quo, and an irregular Ukrainian policy channel that was running outside of the normal channels, where everyone thought pressuring the Ukrainians on these investigations was not a very good idea. What did you make of it?

Jim: It was pretty darn bad, Rich, from the administration’s perspective. Bill Taylor is clearly a guy who, the suspicion is, takes copious notes after every single conversation, who clearly was intent upon establishing a paper trail. He clearly had doubts when he stepped into the position. He had been a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine ’06 to ’09, so he knew the region, well-respected, knew what he was getting into, and had to be talked into taking the job by Mike Pompeo. Apparently, Mrs. Taylor thought this was a terrible idea. Life lesson, always listen to your wife.

Because it sounds like once he got there, he found that there were two channels between the Ukrainian government and the U.S. government, one through the official channels and then this second one through Giuliani. Now, a lot of people were . . . There was a huge brouhaha over this around the middle of the week. I think what jumped out to me and just struck me as the most mind-boggling aspect, and one of the reasons . . . an aspect that should be fairly easy to either confirm or deny or conflict pretty easily.

At one point, Taylor describes, and this is I guess technically secondhand, but that there was sufficient concern amongst Secretary of Defense Esper, Secretary of State Pompeo, CIA director Gina Haspel, and National Security Advisor John Bolton. All four of them felt that this was a serious problem about withholding aim to Ukraine, that they opposed it, they didn’t understand the reasoning behind it, but that none of them could get a meeting with the president. If those four people can’t get a meeting with the president . . . What is he, hiding? This is a matter . . .

First of all, if you’re president of the United States, and all four of those people think you’re making a mistake, at minimum, you should listen to them. You should think about “Okay, these are all people I picked. These are all people I entrusted with these duties. All of them are telling me this is a terrible decision and I shouldn’t do it.” I think, at very least, you got to hear them out. If you really disagree with them, they either have the option of resigning or you can fire them, but you can’t just totally ignore them, or apparently just be too busy to meet with these four positions. It’s baffling. Also, we know from precedent things like Tenet used to go into the morning briefing with President George W. Bush all the time. You can’t quite understand why these people would have such a hard time having a meeting with the president.

If that doesn’t check out, then Taylor has actually done the cause of impeachment some damage, and it means that his account of things is exaggerated or the worst possible spin is put on it and stuff like that. But if it checks out, you can’t have a president who’s hiding from four of his top advisors on national security and refuses to meet with them. That’s just too dysfunctional to go forward, and you’ve got to end it. You can’t deal with a president who simply won’t meet when his top advisors say, “No, you’re about to make a terrible mistake here, Mr. President.”

Rich: MBD, there’s a direct contradiction here between Taylor and Sondland. I guess Sondland is trying to reposition what he said, but Sondland is like, “Oh, this is all above board. There was no quid pro quo. We’re just pressuring them on corruption.” Then you have Taylor basically saying, “No, Sondland was the guy, a major player who was doing it. I had these conversations with him. Sondland might say the president says there’s not a quid pro quo, but they’ve got to do these things to get the money. There’s not a quid pro quo, but the president is a businessman. He wants you to provide the deliverables before he signs the check.” It seems to me before all is said and done on this impeachment process in the House, you’ve got to have these guys, Taylor and Sondland, at a witness table together hashing this out.

Michael: Yeah. I found Taylor’s testimony pretty compelling. I thought the really troubling thing was that . . . I always thought from the beginning that the nature of the conversation was quid pro quo, that this is just the nature of foreign relations when you are a patron state like the United States and you’re dealing with a client state like Ukraine. When the patron starts asking for things and you are dependent on them, you have to think that the strings are going to be pulled if you don’t deliver.

What was troubling was Taylor was describing that, in a sense, the administration just wanted the announcement of investigations. They just wanted the PR rather than the reality. That really drains the case out of those who say, “Okay, maybe there was quid pro quo here, but the U.S. has a legitimate interest in the corruption,” the Luke Thompson argument that I was open to.

Rich: Hi, Luke.

Michael: Taylor sort of pulls me . . . The testimony pulls me away from it because it looks like, if Taylor’s testimony checks out, this is just what he wanted. He wanted the announcement. In effect, he wanted the political effect.

Rich: Is that the case, or is it when a foreign government or a politician here in the United States has actually committed to something publicly, then they’re more committed to it than if they’re saying, “Yes, yes,” in private?

Michael: Of course, but it just . . . The policymaking hash that was laid out and described just did not seem inconsistent with any notion of statesmanship or even, really, political savvy. It was very blunt, very direct, very ham-handed. The fact that it also goes along with this weird . . . As you look deeper, I think a lot of people glossed over the CrowdStrike elements. I know that didn’t feature as tightly in Taylor. But when you start scratching the surface of that, it’s like this was a conspiracy theory that the president and Giuliani were chasing-

Rich: It’s bonkers.

Michael: . . . themselves into a rabbit hole here. Yeah, I think Taylor’s good reputation and the events he described, for me, the takeaway was I felt Democrats are now . . . Yuval Levin has written about this on our website, that once you get the process going towards impeachment inquiry, there’s a momentum that gathers, and I saw a lot of momentum there. It will be very difficult, I think, for Democrats to put that out in public, a very easy story of abuse of power for personal political benefit, I think it’s going to be very hard for them not to impeach him.

Rich: Charlie Cooke?

Charlie: Well, the question now is whether this is impeachable and not whether it happened. The question is not whether there was a quid pro quo. The question is not whether there was inappropriate behavior or wrongdoing. The question is whether the Congress wants to impeach the president, whether it’s a good idea to do so as we enter an election year, whether the public thinks this is sufficiently serious to warrant removal, whether the Democrats can keep the momentum up, whether Republicans think that there’s a double standard here, that we know of wrongdoing by other presidents that didn’t lead to impeachment or to removal.

I don’t think there’s an argument that nothing happened. Alan Dershowitz, this morning, argues that this is not an impeachable offense. Others have argued persuasively that it is. That question is, of course, an entirely political one, but the case that we are talking about a nothing or that this is a witch hunt or that this is peripheral, marginal, simply cannot be made now, in my view.

We will watch as it plays out. We will watch as Republicans such as Matt Gaetz get more and more ridiculous in their antics. We will watch as the language that was deployed by Democrats in defense of Bill Clinton is picked up by Republicans. Whether there’ll be an impeachment, I don’t know. I suspect not. But there is certainly—

Rich: You mean a removal?

Charlie: No, I mean an impeachment.

Rich: You don’t think he’ll get impeached by the House?

Charlie: I think he probably will. I think there’s a chance still that he won’t. Depends how quickly they can do it. If they can move quickly, he will be. If it drags out for whatever reason — I can’t imagine why it would — if it does, I think the chances of the House pursuing it long into an election year are less. But let’s not pretend that we’re not now talking about an actual scandal and an actual subject for impeachment.

Michael: Hey, Charlie, President Zelensky is a consenting adult. I don’t know what language will be used by Republicans picked up from the 1990s. I think the question you raise, though, is—

Charlie: They used lynching, and we had this whole silly debate about this.

Michael: That’s true.

Charlie: It turns out, of course, that that word was used over and over and over again in 1998, including by Joe Biden. That’s how this goes. We live in a partisan nation. Congress is far more likely to vote along ideological or partisan lines than it is to protect its prerogatives, and so there is an interest for the party that shares the president’s label to cast any attempts to investigate his behavior as the Salem witch trials. It’s going to be funny watching Republicans adopt the same language Democrats did, and Democrats adopt the same language Republicans did, and Adam Schiff become Ken Starr.

Michael: My question for you, though, is do you think that there’s so much public fatigue with Democrats and the Russia collusion story and so on that, in a sense, the Democrats have already spent too much of their credibility to carry this off without damaging themselves?

Charlie: I don’t know. I would’ve thought that more likely before I saw the polling. The reality is this could go both ways, couldn’t it? You could have the voters, after an initial spasm of excitement, saying, “I’ve been hearing about this from day one, from before Trump was even president. Enough. Let’s have the election next year.” Or the Russia scandal — or non-scandal as it turned out — could serve as a backdrop that makes it seem to those who don’t pay close attention as if Trump has got worse and worse, has been embroiled in scandal since day one, and that it’s about time there was an impeachment drive.

I don’t know which one is more likely. I do know that Democrats will have to move quickly if they’re going to get this done, because I think the closer we get to Election Day, the less useful a process impeachment looks and the stronger the argument, whether it’s made in good or bad faith, that they’re trying to preempt a vote.

Rich: Jim, I think sadly, from my point of view, it looks like Pelosi judged this whole thing very shrewdly, because for a couple years, or since the election at least, the midterms, she’s like, “Nope, we’re not doing it. Nope, that’s not what this is about. No, we’re not doing it.” Then she sees the window opening here on Ukraine, says, “Yeah, actually, we are doing it.”

The polling so far has showed a window did open. It’s not just Democrats who have swung in favor of impeachment, the ones that were still holdouts. You’ve seen the numbers swinging in some polls among independents a little bit, among Republicans in some polls as well. There’s no downside that’s evident at the moment. Maybe we’ll see that down the road, but I’ve begun to think actually the equities have switched here.

Trump, who’s not being served well in this chapter of his presidency . . . The facts haven’t gotten better the way they did in the Russia probe, even though the media was hysterical throughout the duration. They’ve gotten worse, probably will continue to get worse. And his reaction has been pretty terrible. The human scum thing was disgraceful. The only way he’s going to turn the page on this is to get impeached and, almost certainly, acquitted by the Senate. When that happens, then, two weeks later, we’ll be like, “Whoa, impeachment happened? Wow, I can’t even remember that. Seems like it was a decade ago.”

Whereas for Democrats, there’s no downside evident, again, at the moment. It’s a plus 50 percent issue in some polls. It’s more popular than probably some of the other things they would want to do, and they’re getting this drip, drip of revelations that are helpful for them. I take Charlie’s point. You don’t want to push it into April 2020. But I don’t see a major downside if it slides into the new year, which it looks, by the way, whatever they ideally want to do, it looks like it probably will.

Jim: Yeah. I was going to say, in normal circumstances, if you were going to get impeached, nobody likes getting impeached, nobody wants . . . Trump, I guess, famously said, “You don’t want that on your resume.” You’d want it done as quickly as possible, get it into the rear-view mirror, and let it just become a chapter in the book of your presidency and not something . . . I actually think the longer this drags on, the better it is for Trump for the 2020 election.

I think, also, probably the strongest argument Republicans have right now is: “We’re so close to the 2020 general election. Why would you want to do this? Why would you want to take away . . . Why would you try to have a Senate decision on whether Trump should continue as president right before the American public gets to have its say on whether Trump should continue as president?” I can think of easily four or five Democratic senators who would be saying, “Yes, let’s get this done as quickly as possible.” Their names are Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and all these people who’d much rather spend January in Iowa and New Hampshire than stuck in Washington listening to hearings all day.

In terms of the merits, it’s very tough to say, A, this is no big deal, this is private matters, this is normal. None of this stuff is going to fly. I think you see it in the poll numbers.

The other thing was that, from the very beginning of the Russia stuff, I’ve counted myself on the skeptical side of it because I just figured at some point you’d have to have either audio tape or written messages or emails, something indicating Trump and Putin cackling together. That would just be . . . The idea that the Russian government and FSB, the successor to the KGB, would manage to get their claws into an American presidential candidate and turn him into the Manchurian candidate, and that all of this would escape the attention of the NSA, all of this would escape the attention of the CIA, FBI, all of our vast intelligence-gathering apparatuses would completely miss all of this, just never passed the smell test. I’m pretty sure we have a lot of people who try to keep an eye on what Vladimir Putin is doing on a day-to-day basis.

In this case, all the information is from the American side. We’re getting some stuff from Ukraine, but the issue isn’t really how Ukraine responded. In fact, Ukraine seems to have done something semi-honorable by saying, “Look, we want to play ball here, but we’re not going to claim that somebody is under investigation when they’re not. And we’re not going to investigate someone if there isn’t real evidence of a crime here.” I wrote that long timeline saying Hunter Biden stinks to high heaven, and it’s probably very unethical, at the very minimum, a giant, glaring appearance of conflict of interest, but there’s no evidence a crime was committed either here in the United States or over in Ukraine. You don’t get to say, “Hey, let’s dig into this guy,” just for the sake of placating the American president.

It’s pretty darn bad. I suppose the longer this drags on, eventually the exhaustion factor could start playing in the president’s advantage.

Rich: Well, Michael, I think the—

Charlie: Even then, Jim—

Rich: Go ahead, Charlie.

Charlie: Even then, Republicans have a rhetorical problem because they’ll have to make one of two arguments. The first is “We’re too close to an election. Let’s judge the president at the polls.” The second is “This is bad, but it’s not an impeachable offense. It’s the sort of judgment call which the president should be held accountable for by voters.” Then they’ll have to stand next to him in their home state and say, “We need to reelect President Donald J. Trump.”

It’s easy for Republicans to push this away by acknowledging there’s something there and pointing at November of next year as the obvious end point . . . until they are asked to campaign for him, which they’re going to have to do. There is a problem here for Republicans in the long run because there’s no escaping it, unless they take the view “Look, the whole thing is a scam. The whole thing is made up,” but that’s now an untenable position.

Jim: The only other thing I’d throw in there is that under a normal presidency, you could say, “You know what, let’s do a resolution of censure. Let’s all go on record expressing our disapproval. Bad, president, bad. Don’t do that again,” slap him on the wrist, and everybody moves on and there’s no risk of his presidency coming to a premature end. Then when you get asked about it on the trail, “Look, I expressed my disapproval of the president. He shouldn’t have done it, but now it’s time to focus on the real issues,” blah blah blah blah blah.

But you can’t do that with this president. Trump would then take the name of any Republican who voted on that resolution of censure and probably campaign for the Democrat against them. He doesn’t take any of this stuff lying down, or relaxed or laid back about any of this. He really boxes them in. He gives them very limited options.

Rich: Michael, one, on the question of whether he should be impeached and removed or whether this is a best matter to be adjudicated in an election, I think that’s the strongest ground for the president and for Republicans to argue. There was a Marist poll the other day; I think it had support for the impeachment inquiry above 50. But far down in the questions they asked, they asked, “Do you want him to be impeached, or do you prefer that there be an election?” and like 57-38, people wanted the election. I think that’s the strongest ground.

To Jim’s point, contrition is such a powerful force when properly mustered in our politics, and clearly the play here, and a lot of Trump people might say, “Oh, that’s too conventional. He’s never going to do it,” certainly never going to do it is true, but I think the obvious play would’ve been to say, “Yeah, I see how this looks now. I shouldn’t have done it. I really think Hunter Biden is corrupt. I let that take too much control over my actions, and I was pressuring them. I realize how it looks. I shouldn’t have done it. And by the way, here are all the facts right here in one day,” go to it, and you wouldn’t have the drip, drip now. And you’d have, as Jim points out, Republicans be able to say, “Well, let’s put it behind us. He said he’s regretted it. We think it’s wrong.” Instead, they’ve been dragged into this position where everyone has to say the letter is perfect.

As you were saying, the letter wasn’t perfect. You were saying there was implicit quid pro quo there all along. But they’ve also made quid pro quo the trip wire, which wasn’t necessary. It seems to me the best defense is not impeach and remove twelve months from an election, and ultimately release the money. This was a terrible process, shouldn’t have happened, but end of the day, no harm, no foul.

Michael: They could try it. I think there’s probably growing resentment among elected Republicans that they laid out this “no quid pro quo” trip wire and then were immediately pushed backward over their heels over it.

We have to remember the base of the Republican party was still with Nixon when elected Republicans abandoned Nixon. I’d be careful about . . . The elected officials, how they respond to this still matters if they really tire of him. It could matter to the president ahead of the time that we see a big collapse in support in his polling. I think there’s a lot that’s still uncertain here about how people will react, and also just how Trump is going to react if he feels cornered and politically abandoned.

Rich: Just seems to me if Trump were removed by the Senate, it would split the party asunder. It would hand whoever the Democratic nominee is the election. I wrote this in a column today. Republicans haven’t won the popular vote in a presidential election since 1988. How are they possibly going to win with any significant division? Trump obviously is not—

Charlie: They won in 2004.

Rich: What’s that? Once, yeah.

Charlie: They won the popular vote in 2004.

Rich: Yeah, once since 1988.

Michael: Did they win a majority?

Rich: If I said never, I misspoke. Yeah, once since 1988. So how are they possibly going to win an election when they have any significant division? Anyway, we should move on.

Rich: Exit question to you, Jim Geraghty. William Taylor’s testimony will be remembered as an inflection point in the impeachment drama, yes or no?

Jim: You mean the written testimony or if he does it before the cameras in some future hearing?

Rich: I should say his opening statement that we’ve seen.

Jim: Okay. I think the televised . . . When he does it on camera, it’ll be a bigger deal.

Rich: MBD? Inflection point, yes or no?

Michael: No, I think this is still all downstream of the transcript release, the own goal.

Rich: Charlie Cooke?

Charlie: I think it’s an inflection point, yes, because it represents the moment at which it became impossible to insist that nothing had happened here and that there was no grounds for an impeachment drive.

Rich: I agree with Charlie. I think it’s a minor inflection point. I take MBD and Jim’s points there will be bigger things to come, just from Taylor alone, the rest of the deposition, and I think which has to be public testimony. I think Democrats would want that. He will likely be one of their star witnesses. But it is, at least, a minor inflection point in that it knocked the “no quid pro quo” argument back on its heels.

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