Donald Trump is now entangled in the biggest scandal of his presidency but, perversely enough, it is the opposition that is splintering into competing factions. On Sunday the president confirmed key details of a whistle-blower’s accusations by acknowledging that during a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky he brought up corruption allegations against former vice president Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. In a scrum with reporters outside the White House, Trump said he told Zelensky “the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.” Although Trump denied any wrongdoing, his own account lines up with a Wall Street Journal report that Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden’s business activities in Ukraine. Other reporting suggests that Trump might have withheld congressionally approved funding to the Ukraine contingent on investigating the Bidens.
If the most serious accusations against Trump in this latest scandal hold up, then he’s guilty of crimes far worse than anything Richard Nixon was charged with in the Watergate hearings. Even without further evidence, Trump’s own words are a confession of a breathtaking and impeachable abuse of power.
Yet despite the severity of the alleged offenses, those in opposition to Trump, instead of unifying, are feuding among themselves. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is facing an increasingly restive caucus fed up with her unwillingness to impeach. Republicans who might be upset at the new outrage are, with a few exceptions, failing to speak out against him. Some on the left, unhappy about Biden’s front-runner status, are more eager to stir up speculation that there might be something underhanded about Hunter Biden’s doing business in Ukraine.
In short, this is a classic pattern of the Trump era: The president’s criminal behavior doesn’t create a unified opposition but rather Democratic infighting that makes Trump stronger.
The key to understanding this topsy-turvy situation is to realize that the Democrats don’t really have a leader who can rally them under a unified banner. Until the presidential standard-bearer is picked, the de facto head of the party is Nancy Pelosi. But on the crucial issue of impeachment, Pelosi has decided to forgo leadership by limiting herself with an arbitrary rule: she won’t proceed with impeachment unless she knows she has substantial Republican support. The logic here is that without Republican cover, impeachment will look like a partisan exercise and hurt Democrats with swing voters. But by enforcing this rule, Pelosi has handed over decision-making to the Republicans, causing the Democrats to fracture.
On Saturday, CNBC reporter John Harwood asked a Pelosi adviser if the Ukrainian news was changing her mind on impeachment. The response: “no. see any GOP votes for it?” Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau responded to this report by tweeting, “This is pathetic. This is not what we worked so hard for in 2018.” This scorn is well-deserved. Hoping for a GOP revolt against Trump is, at this late date, a fool’s errand. As even neoconservative Never Trump stalwart Max Boot acknowledged, most Republicans “have fallen strategically silent when it’s imperative to stand up for the rule of law against the most corrupt president in our history.”
Favreau is not the only Democrat who is starting to take aim in Pelosi’s direction. On Friday, Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections.” The following day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used even more direct language: “At this point, the bigger national scandal isn’t the president’s lawbreaking behavior—it is the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach him for it.”
But the divide between the pro-impeachment forces and Pelosi isn’t the only significant Democratic fault line. There are also some anti-Biden Democrats who, without approving of Trump’s actions, welcomed greater scrutiny being given to Hunter Biden’s work as a lobbyist. Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, one of the lonely left-wing voices at the newspaper, argued that “Hunter Biden’s activities overseas are shady and Trump is also shady; the entire ruling class is shady!”
Bruenig’s formulation is too glib. All the investigations by journalists have found no wrongdoing on Joe Biden’s part in connection with this son’s lobbying, in Ukraine or elsewhere. It is true that, simply for the sake of appearances, Hunter Biden should have avoided the high-profile work he did in countries like Ukraine and China. Hunter Biden is, to put it as charitably as possible, a man who has made innumerable shifty choices. But the appearance of corruption, bad as it is, pales next to all of Trump’s crimes. On a shady scale of 100, Hunter Biden would be a 10—with Trump a full 100. The danger of lumping the two together is that it obscures the sheer scale of Trump’s transgressions.
Democratic primary voters have every right to consider Hunter Biden’s career and decide if it’s relevant to his father’s presidential bid. The unfortunate consequence of the latest disclosures—inevitable, as long as Democrats don’t push for impeachment or have a leader offering a compelling counter-narrative—is that the media is likely to treat Hunter Biden’s poor judgment as a scandal of equal merit to Trump’s abuse of power in targeting the Bidens. This is a victory for Trump, whose best hope for survival is to convince his supporters that his opponents are as bad as he is.
This sorry situation is unlikely to change until the Democrats pick a presidential nominee. Maybe then, with luck, they’ll have a standard-bearer who isn’t waiting for GOP support, like Pelosi, but is willing to tackle Trump directly.