The fact that Donald Trump tried to force the president of Ukraine to inflict political damage on Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election is a crime and a colossal abuse of office, but it also presents institutional challenges to Democrats and the press that neither appear equipped to overcome. And the stakes are no longer hypothetical, but will flatly determine whether Trump gets carte blanche to cheat in the 2020 election.
We can see traces of the dysfunction in Democrats’ continued reluctance to begin a full-throttled impeachment inquiry, and in the storyline unspooling in the political media that this scandal might hurt Biden, or benefit Trump politically. Indeed the failures feed off each other in a toxic way.
To understand why, it’s important to describe the scandal clearly, and imagine a proportional response to it.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid on the line, Trump repeatedly hounded the president of Ukraine to work with his henchman, Rudy Giuliani, to manufacture a disinformation campaign against Biden, cloaked in the seeming legitimacy of a Ukrainian law-enforcement investigation. His demands didn’t come out of nowhere, either. Trump involved himself directly in a project Giuliani had been working on since the spring, largely out in the open, perhaps frustrated at Giuliani’s lack of progress.
That was late July, and we only learned about it in September because at some point an anonymous whistleblower decided it needed to come to light. As it happened, and in the months since, the top echelons of Trump’s administration either passively tolerated the crime, or actively participated in it. The vice president participated; the State Department reportedly facilitated meetings between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials. There are very few if any clean hands.
And this is a version of events that basically nobody disputes. Trump won’t frame it this way or call it a crime or a shakedown, but he has admitted to all the alleged facts, as did Giuliani, and the specifics of the conversation came to light from what appear to be defensive leaks, meant to put the cleanest-possible gloss on the story while the whistleblower complaint remains concealed. We still don’t know if Trump made his threat to withhold aid explicit, or if he promised additional bribes should Ukraine play along. What we already know, what is undisputed, is Trump’s most positive spin—and it is devastating.
In a world that hadn’t gone crazy, real impeachment proceedings would already be under way for all manner of past and ongoing crimes. But imagining this were the only thing we knew about Trump’s corruption, the appropriate response would be for the House to use all of its powers, as aggressively as possible, to bring the rest of the story to light and then impeach the president; it’d be for the FBI to investigate Giuliani (and, inevitably, Trump) for conspiring to defraud voters and violate campaign finance law.
It is within Democrats’ power to hold Trump officials in contempt and detain them as they testify before Congress until the whistleblower materials they’ve subpoenaed are delivered. They can pledge to freeze the director of national intelligence and attorney general office budgets until their officials cooperate fully with House investigations. They can refer Giuliani and Trump to the Justice Department for criminal investigation and haul FBI Director Christopher Wray up to the Hill under the expectation that he’d disclose whether he’d opened such an investigation. They could subpoena Giuliani himself, and hold him in contempt if he refuses to appear or answer questions about his conversations with the Ukrainians. These and other steps might pry the materials loose, or corner Trump into pardoning Giuliani, which would itself be an impeachable offense.
In that world, the fundamental unacceptability of what Trump had done, and his ongoing efforts to cover it up, would be the commanding facts of American politics. In the world we inhabit, none of these things has happened. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still will not use the word “impeachment.” In a letter to House Democrats she warned that if “the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.” Over the weekend, Trump and his top cabinet officials poured into the void to contest the very notion that Trump had done anything wrong. Trump threatened and slandered the whistleblower. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed their boss above the law, and fanned debunked Biden smears.
This may come as a relief to legacy news outlets, which can safely treat the Ukraine scandal with less urgency than it merits—if Democrats aren’t making as much noise as possible about it, why should reporters?—and balance it out with stories like “Scrutiny over Trump’s Ukraine scandal may also complicate Biden’s campaign.” Or by covering Trump’s increasingly unhinged and dishonest attacks as though they might be rooted in some kernel of truth. Along the way more and more journalists, Democrats, and regular voters will absorb the euphemisms that we have already seen applied to this story: That Trump merely sought an investigation of Biden, that his goal was to obtain “opposition research” from Ukraine. On our current path, the plain reality of what has happened will be lost to millions of voters in a miasma of scandal and dueling accusations, with no easy way for them to discern true ones from fabrications.
Democrats may wish that journalists would sort this out for the public for them, but they are feeding the very institutional flaws that inhibit journalists from covering one-sided scandals without fear or favor by refusing to respond to it as the emergency they all know it is. They have Trump caught red handed trying to deny the country a free and fair election, and if they—the ones who stand to suffer the most direct injury from such a crime—won’t rise in their own defense, no one else will either.