The Ukraine inquiry is about a lot of things. It’s about the illegal extortion of a U.S. ally for the personal gain of the president of the United States, it’s about the same president’s attempt to cheat in his own re-election campaign, thus denying American voters a free and fair election. It’s about the privatization of diplomacy and a conspiracy of silence among countless senior American officials. But at bottom it is about whether Donald Trump uses the near infinite power of the presidency to advance the public interest or his own.
That framework connects the Ukraine scandal to nearly everything, because Trump’s still unspooling litany of impeachable offenses nearly all originate with some selfish motive, usually cash, hard or in kind. It’s why he and his subordinates and various military aircrews go out of their way to stay at his resorts, and why he tried to shut down the Russia investigation. It’s why he wields regulatory power to punish individuals (Jeff Bezos), companies (CNN), and states (California) that he perceives as enemies, and foments violence against whole populations if he perceives them to be outside his political base.
It’s also probably why he abruptly abandoned America’s Kurdish allies, apparently at the request of—if not on orders from—Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
It may not be necessary to impeach Trump for every impeachable offense he’s ever committed, but it would be both strategically wise and healthy for the future of the republic to widen the aperture of the inquiry enough to make it clear that the Ukraine shakedown wasn’t an isolated impropriety, but part of a much larger pattern.
Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, which both Democrats and Republicans claim to abhor, presents House Democrats with a straightforward choice: Do they mean to impeach Trump to check a box, or to make Republicans pay as steep a price as possible for all of the wrongs they’ve abetted these past three years?
Republicans in Congress have shown that they’re willing to break with Trump over his abandonment of the Kurds, but only to the end of reversing the erratic change in policy, or limiting the harm it will cause. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Trump’s most fawning supplicant, has aligned with none other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in support of a bicameral effort to roll back the new Syria policy and sanction Turkey for its atrocities. That approach may be a necessary part of a larger congressional response to what Trump has done, but on its own it keeps Trump’s motive for abandoning the Kurds in a black box where Trump and Republicans want it.
Nobody knows exactly why Trump did what he did, so we must content ourselves for now with anonymous reports that suggest Trump “followed his gut” or “got rolled” by Erdogan. Even leading Democrats simply grant that Trump’s decision was “impulsive,” as though it’s completely obvious that he didn’t put much thought into it. There is no evidence for any of these explanations. There’s no evidence to suggest he “followed his gut” or had any principled reason for taking this action. There’s no evidence that he considered the public interest even momentarily or that his motives weren’t calculated and corrupt. All we know is that Trump took a mysterious call from Erdogan a week ago, after which he issued a military order that he knew was likely to roil the world, because last time he considered it, his first secretary of defense resigned. We also know that Trump has extensive business interests in Turkey, that Erdogan knows the full story of the Saudi assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and that Trump has been strangely deferential to him all along.
Many Republicans admit that Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds stinks, but they should also have to say whether they support getting to the bottom of his motives. Democrats could make that happen without harming the Ukraine investigation in any way. They could expand the impeachment inquiry to include Trump’s relationship with Turkey. They could demand that the White House release the transcript of his fateful call with Erdogan, along with all of Trump’s Turkey-related financial information. They could introduce a resolution stating the view of the House that these documents are essential to determining whether the president should be impeached for conducting a rogue foreign policy, rather than for a specific abuse of Ukraine policy.
Trump certainly would not welcome this turn of events, and neither would most Republicans. The bigger mystery is why so many Democrats are reluctant to seize the moment. Democratic leaders have advised their members to downplay the impeachment inquiry to their constituents and limit their discussion of it Ukraine. Pelosi wants to complete the impeachment inquiry before the end of the year, even if it means allowing Trump to defy subpoenas knowing that the courts won’t enforce them for many months. As the world ponders what could have driven Trump to betray the Kurds, the same Democrats who wanted to avoid an impeachment inquiry at all costs have decided it’s critically important to end this one as quickly as possible. And for some reason, the fact that Republicans also want the impeachment inquiry to end as quickly as possible hasn’t caused those Democrats to reconsider.
“Dragging the fight into 2020,” Bloomberg reports, “would enhance the Republican argument that Democrats are trying to steal the election, said John Feehery, former spokesman for Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert. It also could draw attention away from the Democratic presidential primaries next year and possibly erode public support for the impeachment push, he said. ‘The further this drags out the more people lose interest,’ Feehery said. ‘They are trying to strike while the iron is hot on this Ukraine matter, which I think is nonsense, but they are actually getting some pretty good traction on that.’”
There is no fathomable reason for Democrats to embrace an impeachment strategy that is also the Republicans’ preferred impeachment strategy, but the worst thing about it is that it will leave us in the dark about the extent of Trump’s misconduct. There will almost certainly be no second impeachment inquiry. Unless Republicans at some point decide to cut Trump loose, the end of the impeachment inquiry will also mark the end of regular oversight. Trump will continue defying subpoenas and return to trying to steal the election, knowing the danger has passed, and the House’s power to do anything about it all will revert to its nadir.
The events of the moment and the likely consequences of curtailing the impeachment inquiry underscore the strategic need for Democrats to escalate. Their inquiry has made Republicans wildly uncomfortable, and Republicans should be made to agonize through as many months of this as possible. But that political upside is ancillary to the higher purpose here, which is to vindicate our collective right to know if our elected leaders are too conflicted to operate in the public interest. The Constitution obligates Trump to faithfully execute the laws and the powers of the presidency on our behalf, but it’s also just a collection of words that can not enforce themselves. For now the only entity that can is the House under Democratic control, and Democrats should be in no hurry to surrender that power.