The Trump administration has two contradictory responses to scandals: either to try to normalize misbehavior by shamelessly flaunting it—or to lie about it. On Thursday, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney managed to do both in the space of a few hours. At a press briefing, he baldly admitted that Trump had held up money allocated to Ukraine in order to pressure that country’s government into investigating Democrats. “The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mulvaney said. “Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the [Democratic National Committee] server?” Mulvaney added. “Absolutely. No question about that.” According to Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, Trump saw part of this briefing and “was happy with how Mulvaney did and sent him that message.”
But Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow felt Mulvaney’s comments could create legal problems. In short order, Mulvaney issued another statement that falsely accused the media of mispresenting the briefing and contradicted his earlier statement. “Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump,” Mulvaney claimed. “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
At the earlier briefing, Mulvaney also made news by saying that next year’s G-7 meeting will be held at the Trump National Doral Miami resort in Florida. This Trump property has had difficulty attracting guests but now would receive a cash influx from American taxpayers and America’s allies. The prospect of foreign governments’ lining the president’s pockets is a bald-faced violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been reluctant to impeach Trump, tweeted, “The Constitution is clear: the President cannot accept gifts or payments from foreign governments. No one is above the law. #EmolumentsClause”
Mulvaney’s flaunting of Trump’s misdeeds in Ukraine, his subsequent ham-fisted attempt to deny his own plain words, and the planned emoluments violation in Doral should all force Democrats to reconsider the scope and scale of impeachment. Pelosi has been pushing for a quick and narrowly focused impeachment that looks only at the quid pro quo deal with Ukraine. I initially supported Pelosi’s cautious approach to impeachment, believing that by moving rapidly and focusing only on Ukraine, the Democrats could establish the point about Trump’s corruption without bogging down the political system. My worry was that impeachment would dominate the discourse and make it impossible for the Democratic presidential hopefuls to focus on policy debates.
But it’s now clear that it’s impossible to contain impeachment, since Trump’s only response to being challenged is to become ever more brazen. Mulvaney’s press briefing was an attempt to normalize Trump’s use of foreign policy as a tool to target political enemies. And when that attempt failed, Mulvaney lied about his own words, adding a layer of obstruction to the initial offense. That’s the way it is with impeachment: Trump and his cronies have no ability to defend themselves in a legal manner, so they’ll pile misconduct on top of misconduct.
The nature of Trump’s presidency precludes a focused impeachment. Just as the hunters in Jaws realized that they needed a bigger boat to go after the giant shark, the Democrats will need a bigger impeachment to fight Trump, an impeachment that will force minions like Mulvaney to realize that they face legal peril if they keep covering up Trump’s crimes.
Even beyond the acts that cry out for impeachment, Trump’s handling of foreign policy is increasingly erratic, with terrifying real-world consequences. Trump claims to have secured a cease-fire in Syria between Turkey and the Kurds, an achievement that seems more notional than real. At a rally in Dallas, Trump spoke in the condescending language of imperialism, saying, “Sometimes you have to let them fight like two kids. Then you pull them apart.” As Brett McGurk, a Republican who worked as an envoy for Trump in the Middle East, tweeted, “This is an obscene and ignorant statement. 200k innocent people displaced. Hundreds dead. Credible reports of war crimes. ISIS prisoners escaping. US evacuating and bombing its own positions or handing them to Russia. Two kids in a lot?”
One of the merits of a wider impeachment is that it could encompass this foreign policy misconduct, an area where many congressional Republicans have misgivings about Trump. After all, we still don’t know why Trump green-lit the Turkish invasion of Syria. It’s possible, as many have speculated, that Trump’s financial interests in Turkey are a factor. An impeachment that expanded to include investigating Trump’s Turkish connection would help Congress hold his foreign policy in check.
On Crooked, Brian Beutler observes, “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.” Given this outcome, Beutler rightly argues that Democrats should escalate impeachment.
The major argument against impeachment has always been a pragmatic political one: the fear that it would cost Democrats congressional seats and Senate races. But since Pelosi gave thumbs-up for the impeachment process, it has gained steadily in popularity and now has majority support.
Pollster Geoff Garin, who has worked for Hillary Clinton and many other Democratic candidates, tweeted on Thursday, “I am not big into predictions but here is one I feel confident about: Not a single House Democrat will lose her or his seat next November because of their support for impeachment. In fact, I feel more confident about this with each passing day.” A Morning Consult poll shows that impeachment has been hurting Republicans in Senate races, not Democrats. As Morning Consult sums up, “Republicans representing Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Maine and Iowa all saw their net approval—the share of voters who approve of a senator’s job performance minus the share who disapprove—decline between the second and third quarters of 2019.”
Impeachment doesn’t just help Democrats politically. It also keeps Trump on the defensive and off his guard, thus putting a check on his ability to cheat in the 2020 election. As long as impeachment is an option, Trump and his cronies will know that any cheating they do could be added to the docket. My earlier fear was that impeachment would prevent the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee from getting his or her policy message out. But given Trump’s actions, impeachment is the only way to ensure a clean election.