The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Whistleblower Complaint Will Touch Off a Political War of Attrition

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Legally, the whistleblower’s complaint and its allegations are straightforward: President Trump, both in direct communications and through Rudy Giuliani, made clear that the administration’s policy toward Ukraine was dependent upon the Ukrainian government’s willingness to pursue an investigation of the Bidens.

By far the most important paragraph is the last one, contending that in July, Trump “issued instructions to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.” This passes the point of winks, nods, hints, and nudges; the Ukrainians hadn’t delivered anything good on the Bidens, so Trump cut off assistance. Making the provision of congressionally mandated American security funding to an ally — one still being invaded by Russia, in case anyone forgot — dependent upon that ally’s finding dirt on a political rival is a straight-up abuse of presidential power.

Legally, Trump may have been on solid ground in halting the funds if he’d used the procedure laid out by the Impoundment Control Act, which gives Congress 45 days to effectively veto a president’s attempt to stop such an expenditure. But the administration has not used the Impoundment Control Act on a foreign-aid expenditure this year.

Politically, the calculus is . . . a little different. Very, very few voters who currently support Trump will abandon him, in part because of the sunken-costs theory, but also because they don’t particularly care about U.S. policy toward Ukraine one way or the other, and — this is really important — the Bidens’ interactions with Ukraine look pretty shady, even they turn out to have been above-board. A lot of Americans, and not just hardcore Trump supporters, will believe that the moment Hunter Biden, who had never worked in the natural-gas industry before, started making $50,000 per month from a Ukrainian gas company, wealthy foreigners had successfully attempted to buy the Obama administration’s goodwill. They won’t be mad at Trump for wanting Ukraine to look into it, and they won’t be upset at the hardball tactic of suggesting that U.S. aid would be withheld until it did. They’ll scoff at the argument that Biden’s gleeful tale of strong-arming the Ukrainians was just good statesmanship, while Trump’s demand for an investigation represented impeachable corruption. As for the voters most committed to opposing Trump, they would oppose him no matter what.

So it almost doesn’t matter what the whistleblower complaint included, or what Giuliani says under oath before Congress if he’s asked to testify. The Democratic majority in the House was itching to impeach before the Ukraine allegations, while Republicans were never going to reach the point of concluding that, like Richard Nixon before him, Trump had to resign for the good of the country. There’s no possible revelation that could change impeachment-hungry Democratic legislators’ minds, and there’s no possible revelation that could get their Republican counterparts to believe that it’s worth enraging Trump’s base and joining an impeachment effort.

In short, the battle lines have already been drawn and each side is dug in, convinced that it’s right and it will quickly and decisively win the coming battle. Democrats want to impeach and in fact need to; Republicans want the same fight, convinced it will backfire on Democrats. The Ukraine transcript was just Gavrilo Princip’s shot; the chain reaction of consequences is already underway. From now until November 3, 2020, American politics is going to be the political equivalent of the Battle of the Somme: an ugly, nasty slog in which each side attacks the other with everything they’ve got but very little changes.

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