After weeks of ever-worsening news about how Donald Trump, according to multiple accounts, held up military aid to Ukraine until the country promised to investigate Joe Biden’s (fabricated) corruption and Trump’s nutty conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia probe, it remains remarkable how this godless New York grifter so thoroughly took over a political party that pretended to be about sober conservatism, Christian piety, and balanced budgets. Let’s look at four administration stalwarts up to their necks in this mess: Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Together they represent the four tent poles of the modern GOP circus: the extreme Christian right, the stolid GOP establishment, the corporate Koch brothers wing, and the allegedly anti-deficit, actually white nationalist Tea Party. When those tent poles go down, they could bring the whole sad party with them.
Barr is starting to make career racist Jeff Sessions look like Eric Holder. Even Trump critics in the legal community hoped Barr would cure what ailed the Justice Department after Sessions’s impaired successor—remember Matt Whitaker?—had to leave the stage. Instead Barr has turned out to be just what Trump asked for: his Roy Cohn.
Over the past month we’ve learned that Barr traveled to foreign capitals, at least once circumventing local US diplomatic staff, to “investigate” the debunked notion that some of America’s top allies helped gin up the Russia probe to discredit Trump’s presidency. Equally disturbing, Barr ignored the recommendation of the CIA’s general counsel to criminally investigate Trump’s heavy-handed “requests” of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—even though Trump mentioned Barr on the call, which many believe means the attorney general should have recused himself. (Who knew Sessions had more professional integrity?)
But Barr’s perfidy shouldn’t surprise us. Instead, it should remind us that the Ukraine scandal is less like Watergate—which, bad as it was, involved only domestic politics—and more like the Reagan-Bush Iran-contra scandal and its aftermath, in which Barr was also implicated as George H.W. Bush’s attorney general. While arms for hostages might sound marginally more honorable than arms for political dirt, the attempted trades are comparable: two efforts backed by a GOP White House to subvert the bipartisan foreign policy appropriations of Congress and advance Republican interests. (In case you missed the connection, Trump gave Reagan’s attorney general Ed Meese the Presidential Medal of Freedom on October 8.) Barr, who advised Bush to pardon the indicted conspirators of Iran-contra, is up to his neck in both betrayals of his country. He helps prove that even the pre-Trump Republican Party was more interested in power than rectitude. If Congress is not too busy, Barr should be impeached.
As should Pompeo. In 2016, as a Kansas congressman supported by Charles and David Koch—and best known before that for running an aircraft supply company into the ground—Pompeo warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.” Now he’s helping Trump do just that. After ducking questions about it, Pompeo had to admit he was on the July 25 call in which Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden in exchange for military aid that Congress had already approved. That was bad enough. Then Pompeo attempted to defy Democratic subpoenas for information about the Ukraine mess, complaining his political opponents were “intimidating and bullying” State Department officials. Unfortunately for him, some of those officials have agreed to testify before Congress, and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff suggested that his committee could include Pompeo’s defiance in articles of impeachment involving the administration’s habitual obstruction of justice.
Shortly thereafter, former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker shared a raft of once-encrypted texts that demonstrate the arms-for-political-dirt quid pro quo that Pompeo and other Trump defenders deny existed. Others who were subpoenaed also indicated their willingness to testify. Pompeo should also be impeached. (But Barr comes first.)
Then there’s Mulvaney. The South Carolina Tea Party Republican was a founding member of the wing nut Freedom Caucus and purported to be a mortal foe of deficit spending—at least by a black president, as it turns out. Like Pompeo, Mulvaney opposed Trump in 2016, calling him a “terrible human being,” but then took multiple jobs in his administration; he’s still Office of Management and Budget head as well as acting White House chief of staff. First he peddled the budget-busting Trump tax cuts. Now he’s the guy who gave the order to halt congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine, as Trump directed. He has also been subpoenaed to provide a libraryful of administration documents to the committees investigating impeachment. I don’t think you can impeach a White House chief of staff, but Mulvaney will go down in history as a corrupt hypocrite who helped prove that the Tea Party movement was about big racism, not small government.
Which brings us to Pence. Mother save us. He could have been the GOP’s modern-day Gerald Ford—who, as Richard Nixon’s second vice president, stepped in to save the party when its corrupt leader had to resign—but Pence is now in the running to become the 21st century Spiro Agnew. To be fair, we have no evidence of Pence’s personal corruption, which is what brought down Nixon’s first VP. But Pence has let himself get so close to Trump that he gives the president impeachment insurance.
After news of the Zelensky call broke, Trump first told reporters, “I think you should ask for VP Pence’s conversation, because he had a couple of conversations also.” Then White House officials leaked that Pence’s top national security adviser was on the Zelensky call as well, that the vice president had likely received detailed notes on it, and that he’d been sent by Trump to emphasize the administration’s concern about corruption when Pence met Zelensky during his trip to Poland in August.
Uncharacteristically, Team Pence pushed back on those claims, but it’s probably too late. Trump has set him up so that if congressional Republicans ever begin to walk on two feet again, they will know that impeaching Trump could put in the White House the person behind Pence in the line of succession: Can you say “President Nancy Pelosi”?
If (I can’t honestly say “when”) Trump’s poll numbers sink so far underwater that congressional Republicans abandon him and get behind impeachment, Trump will be swiftly swept away. Mainstream media will lionize the defectors and paper over the rot at the center of the party. Then it will be on the rest of us to remind them that this is Trump’s GOP. As Pompeo once said about Trump, “It’s time to turn down the lights on the circus.”