"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible."
That's what Donald Trump, as a candidate for president, said in January 2016. It seemed like hyperbole at the time, but maybe he was right?
No, Trump has not shot anyone. But he has publicly obliterated his oath of office. And it hasn't cost him the support of a single Republican in Congress.
There is no drama to the impeachment inquiry formally launched by House Democrats on September 24. The key evidence is contained in a call transcript between Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, Trump asks Zelensky to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Using your power as president, which is a public trust, to advance your personal political agenda, is more than enough to warrant impeachment. But it doesn't end there. On Thursday, Trump publicly called on the Chinese government to investigate Biden. There were also text messages released last week from State Department officials that strongly suggest Trump was withholding military assistance from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate Biden.
Yes, a small number of Congressional Republicans have expressed disappointment or concern about Trump's actions. But none have taken any concrete steps adverse to Trump, such as supporting the impeachment inquiry.
Most Republicans, however, are actively supporting Trump: attacking Democrats pursuing the investigation, floating conspiracy theories to muddle the public discussion, and pledging to support Trump at all costs.
Impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. But these Republican members of Congress are accessories after the fact. They may not have been part of Trump's scheme to abuse the power of the presidency for personal political gain. But now they know about it and are doing everything possible to help Trump avoid accountability.
"Donate right now and help Mitch stop her!"
If the House impeaches Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be responsible for organizing the trial to determine if Trump will be removed from office. This is a solemn obligation that is proscribed by the Constitution.
McConnell is trying to exploit his role to raise more campaign cash for his 2020 reelection campaign. "Nancy Pelosi and the left-wing mob want to impeach President Trump. Donate right now and help Mitch stop her!" McConnell's campaign says in an ad running on Facebook.
In a video, McConnell, speaking directly to the camera, says that "the way that impeachment stops is with a Senate Majority, with me as Majority Leader."
McConnell does not attempt to justify Trump's actions in the video. What's important to McConnell is maintaining his power, and he has decided the best way to do that is to promise to protect Trump.
How McCarthy defines "integrity"
In an interview with 60 Minutes, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that the call between Trump and Zelensky was "two leaders having admiration, not intimidation."
McCarthy both mischaracterizes the call and the Constitutional issue. It's not necessary for Trump to try to "intimidate" Zelensky. It's enough for Trump to have asked him to investigate a political rival. But asking for a "favor" while withholding $250 million in military assistance is pretty intimidating.
Tellingly, McCarthy refused to defend Trump's actual conduct:
Scott Pelley: You say the president has done nothing wrong. I take that to mean that you find it appropriate that the president asked Mr. Zelensky for an investigation of his Democratic rivals.
Kevin McCarthy: The question before the House of Representatives is to impeach the president based upon a phone call that the speaker never even heard…
McCarthy is determined to make the issue about Pelosi's conduct, not Trump. He later sent Pelosi a letter asking her to "suspend" the impeachment inquiry, saying it was "reckless" and lacked "integrity."
McCarthy, meanwhile, demonstrated his integrity by running Facebook ads using his "support" for Trump to collect email addresses for his campaign.
Pelosi rejected his suggestion.
Don't take Trump seriously or literally
It's hard to defend Trump's public plea for the government of China to investigate the Bidens. "China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine," Trump said on Thursday.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) had a creative solution; he pretended that Trump was joking.
I don’t know if that’s a real request or him just needling the press, knowing that you guys were going to get outraged by it. He’s pretty good at getting everyone fired up. The media responded right on task. I think he did it to ... provoke you. He plays it like a violin, and everyone falls right into [it]. That’s not a real request.
On Saturday, however, Trump defended his comments about China as legitimate.
But that didn't seem to stop Republicans from embracing the "just kidding" defense. "You really think he was serious about thinking that China’s going to investigate the Biden family?" Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) asked during an appearance on ABC News on Sunday. "I think Senator Rubio said it a couple days ago, he's getting the press all spun up about this."
Look over there!
It's one thing to defend Trump. But Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA), a top Trump ally who is suing a fictional cow, takes things a step further. During frequent appearances on Fox News and other right-wing outlets, Nunes advances conspiracy theories to take the head off Trump.
On Wednesday, Nunes told Fox News’ Martha MacCallum that the "whistleblower" didn't write the complaint himself, but it was ghostwritten by an unnamed third party. "I don’t even believe the whistleblower actually wrote this complaint," Nunes said. Earlier in the day, Trump suggested that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote the complaint.
In other interviews, Nunes called the entire controversy a "hoax" and suggested that the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, who handled the whistleblower complaint, could be guilty of criminal wrongdoing.
Talk is cheap
Perhaps no Republican official has gone as far in condemning Trump's conduct as Mitt Romney (R-UT). He expressed his views on Twitter:
When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated. By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.
Similarly, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) said that Trump's call for China to investigate Biden was "completely inappropriate." Notably, neither Romney not Collins said they supported an impeachment inquiry or any other steps to counter Trump's "appalling" and "inappropriate" conduct.
Trump sought to make an example out of Romney anyway. In a series of tweets, Trump called Romney a "pompous ass" and said Romney should be impeached.
For Trump, it is extremely important for him to hold the line. If even one Republican comes out for an impeachment inquiry, it gives political cover for everyone else. Congressman Mark Amodei (R-NV) said he supported an impeachment inquiry last week. But he was immediately inundated with calls from "Trump campaign’s political director, top House Republicans and the acting White House chief of staff." Soon, he reversed his position.
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Unless he costs them votes or political prestige, I can't see them turning on Trump.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There could be video of the Orange Asscactus handing the nuclear launch codes over to Putin and Republicans would STILL support him.