It’s not hard to understand why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were able to persuade President Trump to dramatically escalate tensions with Iran by assassinating Gen. Qassem Soleimani. All you had to do was read Trump’s Twitter feed over his long holiday break at Mar-a-Lago to see that he was nearly hysterical over the impeachment, stressed beyond his limits and clearly vulnerable to any suggestion that would give him a sense of control over his destiny. There’s nothing like military action to make a leader feel strong and in charge.
Unfortunately for the president, the turbocharged news cycle of this era offered him only a short respite from his troubles. Pulled back from the brink of war, mostly due to the restrained response of the Iranians, impeachment headlines returned the minute former national security adviser John Bolton made the surprising announcement that he would be willing to testify if the Senate subpoenaed him. (Before the Trump era, responding to subpoenas was not considered optional, but now we know that presidential VIPs can tell the Congress to go pound sand and basically that’s that.)
The stand-off between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the conduct of the trial has been an epic contest of wills between two of the most formidable congressional leaders in American history. Of the two, Pelosi was dealt the weaker hand since she only has half of Congress while the Republicans have both the Senate and the presidency. But she’s kept her caucus together, which is no mean feat in itself, and has managed to squeeze quite a bit out of her delay in sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate.
Since the impeachment vote, we’ve had Rudy Giuliani running back and forth to Ukraine, demonstrating for all the world that this scheme to smear Joe Biden and the Democrats with corruption charges and an alternate 2016 election interference scandal is ongoing. He attended parties at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays and bizarrely told the press that he would like to “try the case” in the Senate when the press asked if he would testify.
Since that momentous vote, there have also been revelations about Giuliani and Trump’s indicted “associates” Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, with reporting about hidden Russian money and hints that it might have been paying Giuliani’s fees. (He says he works for Trump pro bono.) Parnas is desperate to talk to the House Intelligence Committee and wants to make a deal. It turns out Parnas and Fruman were involved in potentially lucrative side deals to sell large quantities of liquefied natural gas from Texas to Ukraine in exchange for the firing of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
In a mind-boggling interview with New York Magazine, Giuliani said in one breath that he has no business in Ukraine and then admits “I’ve done two business deals in Ukraine. I’ve sought four or five others.” So perhaps this was one of them.
Right before Christmas, new emails were revealed under Freedom of Information Act requests that showed Trump political appointee Mike Duffey, the White House official in the Office of Management and Budget responsible for overseeing national security money, telling people that the hold on military aid to Ukraine was at the personal direction of the president.
And just before the New Year, the New York Times published a deep dive into what was happening in the White House last summer when Trump and Giuliani were pushing their plot. We learned for the first time that the Pentagon pushed hard for the money and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Bolton met privately with Trump in August to try to persuade him that withholding the aid was not in America’s national interest. Trump was unmoved.
Just this week, as I mentioned above, Bolton sent a letter saying that he would testify if the Senate subpoenaed him. (He also mentioned that he’d talked it over with McConnell, which suggests to me that he is not on the up and up.) Nonetheless, if his intention is to cover for Trump he would have to call a whole bunch of people liars, since they all testified that he was extremely agitated about the “drug deal” that Giuliani and Trump were cooking up.
All of this has happened since the impeachment vote and every one of the vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election this year has to wonder what other crimes they’ll be defending next fall if they vote to acquit now without even a semblance of a real trial. At least if they have witnesses, they can say they did their duty as they saw it.
Trump himself insists that he wants witnesses — but then, he also insisted that he wanted to talk to Robert Mueller and wanted to release his tax returns. One remaining question is whether or not the president will insist on sending in his henchmen from the House, like Jim Jordan of Ohio, John Ratcliffe of Texas and Doug Collins of Georgia, as part of his defense team in a Senate trial. According to the Washington Post, the senators are not enthusiastic about the House riffraff making a scene. McConnell has supposedly told the White House that their histrionics might offend the moderates. But Trump still wants some kind of a show, so who knows?
On Thursday a number of news organizations reported that Pelosi is preparing to send over the articles as early as Friday, which suggests the trial will probably commence next week. McConnell has at least capitulated to the request that there will be a vote to call witnesses after the House presents its case, and there appears to be some openness to that among the so-called moderates. That was not a given in the beginning. Putting some distance between the hearings and the trial will make the evidence seem fresher and gives Democrats as opportunity to reframe the question around what the White House is hiding by refusing to allow Bolton, Duffey, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others to testify.
As for the public, the latest Morning Consult/Economist poll shows that 57 percent of registered voters think there should be witnesses. Even Republicans are split.
Still, according to this article in Politico, Trump’s base simply doesn’t care what he’s done. They see him as an authentic man of the people who is being unfairly harassed by his enemies. One man is even quoted saying, “It feels like he is our O.J.” That sounds about right.