The unprompted assassination of Qasem Soleimani, and President Trump’s subsequent threats (against both Iran and the U.S. system of government) have inflamed suspicion that his provocations are orchestrated, in wag-the-dog fashion, to upend the politics of his impeachment.
Three years into Trump’s presidency, it’s natural to suspect that his most erratic and legally questionable decisions are meant to advance ulterior motives, and there’s no reason the killing of Soleimani should be viewed outside the context of his larger, sordid record.
But what this interpretive lens doesn’t capture is the possibility that he’s offering a glimpse of what his presidency will look like when he’s fully unconstrained, after Senate Republicans acquit him in his impeachment, and phony pretexts are no longer necessary.
Hidden motives are a recurring theme of Trump’s administration, though he has done a better job concealing some than others. He fired FBI Director James Comey to obstruct the Russia investigation but ordered up the justification from then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Comey had been dismissed for being unfair to Hillary Clinton. His Justice Department argued in court that he wanted to add a citizenship question to the Census to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, while concealing a lengthy paper trail proving the goal was to increase the electoral power of conservative white people. The Muslim Ban litigation followed a similar pattern, and of course the entire Republican Party now pretends to believe that Trump extorted Ukraine not to cheat in his own re-election campaign, but out of a sincere desire to tamp down corruption there.
There is no reason to grant Trump the presumption that he undertakes other illegal foreign endeavors to advance the public’s interests rather than his own private or political ones. The Ukraine scheme proves that Trump will put countless lives at stake in theaters of war to maintain his grip on power, and the Soleimani assassination probably fits the same pattern. After all, Trump had no pressing need to commit an act of war against Iran, but he does face impeachment, poor election polling, and undisclosed, corrupting debts to the government of Saudi Arabia.
But Trump has also been promising to commit war crimes since his first candidacy, and at some level, he simply wants the kind of fearsome, immoral power that his idols in the world’s most heinous autocracies exercise. He has been chipping away at the constraints on his power since before his inauguration, establishing illicit diplomacies, capturing the institutions of law enforcement, undermining rules-based democratic alliances, and slowly turning all Republican lawmakers into his witting accomplices.
Apart from re-election, the end of impeachment, after a trial in which Senate Republicans acquit Trump, will mark the ultimate failure of institutional constraints—at least in his mind—and a moment of profound danger for the country and the world. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s determination to rig Trump’s Senate trial is both a reason for Trump to order wag the dog-style acts of war and the clearest possible indication that a Congress still partially controlled by Republicans won’t stop him.
But his conduct will still face political resistance, particularly if Democrats commit to making his impeachment loom over every consequential decision he makes between now and November.
Trump convinced himself of his total impunity the moment Republicans in Congress resolved themselves to shepherding him through his impeachment. His first move was to send his mob lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, back to Ukraine to resume their plot to steal his re-election. The Soleimani assassination was an expression of unchecked power in and of itself, but particularly so in broader context: He cut Congress out of the loop, but bragged about the coming strike to paying customers at Mar-a-Lago; he intimated that briefing Democrats in advance of the strike would have been akin to briefing the Iranians themselves; he has since repeatedly threatened to commit war crimes against the people of Iran if their government retaliates for the Soleimani strike, and asserted a dictatorial right to go to war with Iran without even providing notice to Congress.
These actions might seem disconnected from the politics of impeachment, but Democrats should connect them—not just to observe that Trump seeks to change the subject from impeachment to war, but that by conspiring to help Trump survive impeachment, Republicans in Congress will be to blame for every crime and atrocity he commits once they’ve placed him above the law.
One of the shortcomings of the skinny impeachment Democrats settled on is the implication that the Ukraine scheme and coverup are the only things Trump’s done in his first term that warrant his removal from office. Senate Republicans must now find one excuse for acquitting him rather than many, and then—they hope—they can walk away from the process having avoided the taint of the vast majority of his indefensible conduct. Democrats can surmount this problem, but only by optimizing the politics of both the impeachment trial and the uncertain terrain of the post-impeachment world.
When he was still the Senate minority leader, McConnell perfected this kind of politics—not to save American democracy from an unhinged authoritarian, but to make it as difficult as possible for a Democratic president to engage in basic governance. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” he said of President Obama’s first term agenda, “because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”
His basic insight was that if he denied an unconfident majority bipartisan cover, he could harness its fear of doing anything controversial, and its members would fracture all on their own. Ideally, he sought to paralyze Democrats, and make them abandon their own agenda; but even if they pressed forward, lockstep opposition would drain their agenda of popularity and send them into disarray.
Unified Democratic support for Trump’s removal—including from unreliable members like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—would confront Republicans with a similar set of incentives, but it would also create an environment where Democrats could turn Trump’s acquittal into an unrelenting liability for all Republicans going forward.
“Every election in America this fall will be a referendum on this issue…. We’re likely to have as close as we’ve ever had in this country a national referendum on an issue. We don’t usually have national referenda, but this very well could be a national referendum.”
“The votes will be there and the reaction of the public to going to such lengths, such extraordinary lengths, to ignore public opinion, is not going to put the issue behind them, it’s going to put the issue ahead of them.”
This kind of messaging should pertain to the final disposition of the impeachment trial, but these are actually statements McConnell himself delivered on the eve of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, warning Democrats—accurately, it turns out—that they would not be allowed to live down their health care votes. His comments didn’t deter Democrats from enacting the law, but they did anticipate the rough skies Democrats would face in the year ahead, before they crash landed against a historic Republican midterm wave.
The difference between then and now is that Democrats knew more or less what they were voting for, but Republicans do not. They don’t know exactly what they intend to cover up within the narrow confines of the Ukraine scandal, let alone what they will assume ownership of in the near future by allowing Trump to remain in office now. His impulsive assassination of Soleimani should be a reminder to them that Trump will run amok for at least another year in their names. Whatever Trump has just unleashed in Iran, and whatever barbarities he engages in going forward, will be the responsibility not of Democrats, who will have formalized their view that Trump should be removed from office, but of Republicans, who will have gone to the greatest possible length to salvage his presidency. Whatever crimes Democrats uncover in subsequent investigations and through litigation, Republicans will be voting to sanction all of it, and the technical narrowness of the articles of impeachment won’t shield them. Or, at least, Democrats shouldn’t let it. On Monday, former national security adviser John Bolton announced that he would testify in Trump’s trial if subpoenaed by the Senate, as if to remind Republicans that they have ventured blindfolded on to terrain that’s littered with landmines.
The Iran fiasco and the looming impeachment coverup would be inextricable from one another even if Trump’s motives had, for once, been relatively above board. When Republicans vote to acquit Trump, they will be tempting fate but they will also be leaving their fate in enemy hands.