Last week’s developments materialized so chaotically that it’s easy to recall them through the lens of the conventional wisdom that has taken shape in their wake. According to this story, President Trump managed, through luck and guile, to escape accountability for years’ worth of impeachable offenses until a whistleblower came forward with information about his conduct toward Ukraine that was so clearcut and damning that Democrats had no choice but to abandon restraint and launch impeachment proceedings.
This tale is comforting to the large and influential bloc of Democrats and liberals who convinced party leaders that impeaching Trump might strengthen his political hand, and, against a backdrop of his historic unpopularity, was too politically risky to be worth it. It’s also a false tale. It’s wrong as a matter of chronology; wrong in a way that sells members of Congress who exercised their power short; and, most importantly, wrong in a way that could teach this and future generations dangerous lessons about how to respond to corrupt autocrats like Trump.
As the first full week of the Trump impeachment inquiry begins, most House Democrats have returned to their districts to update constituents and convince them an impeachment inquiry is proper. Many of them will say they believe the process should be limited to the Ukraine scandal and completed with haste. They have lost track of the admirable role they played in exposing Trump’s wrongdoing in this case, and should be encouraged to broadens their horizons.
Democrats didn’t need the whistleblower to know Trump wanted Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election. The Ukraine scandal played out publicly for five months. We’ve known since late April that Trump wanted Ukraine to manufacture evidence of pro-Russia, anti-Democrat conspiracy theories and pass it to Attorney General Bill Barr. By early May we learned he also sought to pressure Ukraine to manufacture dirt about Joe Biden, and had deployed his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani as an intermediary. In August, we learned that Trump had actually moved to withhold aid to Ukraine.
Congressional Democrats knew about this scheme the whole time and were deeply distressed by it, but did little to stop it, because they believed impeachment was a non-starter.
On September 13, and on what seemed to be a parallel track, we learned that the Trump administration had taken steps to bury a mysterious complaint that an intelligence community whistleblower had submitted, as provided by law, to the IC’s inspector general. House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff could have responded to this attempt to withhold information from Congress the way other chairmen had: by expressing frustration and asking a court to enforce his subpoenas. Instead, fatefully, he made a big public stink about the administration’s failure to turn the whistleblower’s complaint over to Congress.
The Democratic leadership’s opposition to impeachment nevertheless persisted, even when we learned that the whistleblower complaint pertained to the still-unfolding Ukraine scandal, and a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, during which Trump had made an inappropriate request of some kind. In response to Democratic paralysis, the Trump administration continued to withhold the complaint and record of this call from Congress. Democrats didn’t reach their breaking point until Trump essentially confessed that he’d tried to force Ukraine to destroy Biden, and it was only after they had unified in support of an impeachment inquiry that the administration’s wall cracked. The White House released a summary of the call the next day, allowed the whistleblower complaint to be transmitted to Congress shortly thereafter, and declassified the complaint hours later.
It’s true that Trump’s effort to silence the whistleblower was new and troubling in its own right, and we didn’t know about Trump’s direct involvement in the Ukraine scheme until after the whistleblower’s existence became public. Now we know there may be a vault full of incriminating records that Trump improperly classified to hide wider-ranging misconduct. But a factual recounting of the events that brought us to this point makes clear that what forced those revelations to light was the Democrats’ decision, at long last, to stop tolerating Trump’s abuses of power. All they had to do was rediscover their spines and Congress’s almost gravitational power to draw information out of the executive branch was magically restored.
Democrats should take heed of these mechanics because they carry important lessons about how they should conduct this impeachment inquiry and how they should confront future Donald Trumps. The details of the Ukraine scandal aren’t more serious or straightforward than is the fact that Trump has used his private properties to collect taxpayer dollars and foreign bribes. Or that he obstructed an investigation of a foreign attack on the U.S. Or that this isn’t even the first time he tried to recruit foreign interference in our elections. Or that he stole Pentagon funds to build a wall Congress has rejected along the southern border and deployed troops there as a campaign stunt ahed of a midterm. And on and on. Those scandals passed without repercussion not because they’re minor or hard to grasp, but because Democrats, in their determination not to impeach Trump, did not demand accountability for them with one voice.
It will hopefully be a long time before Democrats have to confront another president as wretched and corrupt as Trump, but when that time comes, the experience of the past week shows they should not waste nine months convincing themselves confrontation will only make their nemeses stronger. The Ukraine scandal may command more public attention than others have, but it is not too late for Democrats to insist that the articles of Trump’s impeachment cover a pattern of abuse, rather than an isolated incident.
The good news is that the Ukraine scandal is umbilically connected to many others. It revealed that Trump may have improperly classified transcripts of his calls with other corrupt world leaders to hide them from subordinates and investigators. The Russian government has even warned Trump not to release the transcripts of his calls with Vladimir Putin without permission. Trump has threatened the whistleblower who catalyzed the impeachment process, which means the Ukraine scandal now encompasses witness tampering—but once that avenue of inquiry has opened it makes no sense to close it to evidence that he tried to intimidate Michael Cohen out of testifying to the House oversight committee, and dangled pardons to Russia investigation witnesses who then withheld critical information from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In attempting to appease Trump, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky assured him that he’d paid his dues by staying at one of Trump’s hotels. Democrats can either blind themselves to that part of the call summary, or treat Trump’s violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses as their own category of abuse that folds in his theft of federal dollars and his gangster-like shake downs of other governments.
It is within Democrats’ power to expose the full depths of Trump’s corruption and alert all future presidents that they can not conceal such behavior or expect to get away with it. But once they conclude their inquiry, that window will close, and unless Republicans decide to oust Trump from office, Democrats will cede to him the impunity he needs to continue those abuses, and use the federal government to seek retribution from his tormentors. All the way through at least November of next year.
The belief that there’s some political advantage in limiting the scope and duration of this inquiry stems from the same delusion that convinced Democrats that impeaching Trump would surely backfire. They will only let this opportunity pass them by if they convince themselves they played no role in bringing Trump to the precipice of accountability, when it was their determination to go on the offensive that did all the work.
This article has been updated.