President Donald Trump had a pretty bad week. Multiple current and former officials defied his defiance of the House’s impeachment inquiry to give damaging testimony about his Ukraine scheme. Rudy Giuliani, his legal fixer of sorts, is reportedly under investigation by federal prosecutors for lobbying without registering as a foreign agent. And the White House had to send Vice President Mike Pence to Turkey to conduct a hasty round of damage control after Trump’s sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria plunged the region into chaos.
The conventional wisdom is that none of this will really matter. There’s a consensus across the political spectrum that the Republican-led Senate won’t convict Trump and remove him from office on Ukraine-related charges, or perhaps any others. It’s a relatively safe bet. GOP lawmakers fear his influence over the Republican base so much that they almost never criticize him or check his power. Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who broke with Trump on Ukraine and China this month, remains an outlier.
Still, ruling out conviction and removal entirely seems hasty. As I’ve noted before, Trump and his allies have yet to offer a plausible defense of his actions. The original whistleblower’s central claims are so thoroughly corroborated at this point that their testimony almost seems unnecessary. Rather than project stability and confidence, Trump has acted more erratic than usual. His betrayal of Kurdish forces in Syria alienated key Republican allies. And public opinion continues to move in favor of his removal from office. Overall, this is one of the easiest impeachment efforts in modern history.
One reason it’s so easy is that Trump has already given the House most of the evidence it needed. The memo that summarizes his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy proves that Trump asked him to investigate two things: a conspiracy theory surrounding Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election, and whether there was any wrongdoing by Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Inviting foreign governments to interfere in the American democratic process by undermining domestic political rivals is a clear abuse of power.
Testimony this week from Trump’s current and former officials supports the conclusion that he and Giuliani did something wrong. Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia and Eastern European expert for the National Security Council, told House investigators on Monday that National Security Advisor John Bolton urged her to speak with a NSC lawyer about the pressure campaign after she learned of it. “I am not part of whatever drug deal [Gordon] Sondland and [Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton reportedly exclaimed to her. “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” he also reportedly said.
Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified before House investigators on Thursday. He offered details about his conversations with Trump and Giuliani that point towards an effort to coerce Ukraine into investigating Trump’s political rivals. “[Sondland and other diplomats] asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit,” he said in his opening statement, referring to a briefing he gave Trump on May 23. “However, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns. It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani.”
When Sondland called Giuliani later that day, the president’s legal fixer made clear what Trump wanted. “In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelenskiy committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues,” Sondland said. “Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.” Burisma is the Ukrainian company on whose board Hunter Biden served; the purported DNC server is part of a bizarre conspiracy theory that blames Clinton and Ukraine for Russia’s election interference in 2016.
Trump and his allies have claimed there was no quid pro quo involved, and that if there were, it’s just a normal component of foreign relations. Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, imploded the first claim on Thursday. “So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding to Ukraine?” a reporter asked him during a press conference. “The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation, and that is absolutely appropriate,” he replied.
“Withholding the funding?” came the follow-up. “Yeah, which ultimately then flowed,” Mulvaney replied. He reiterated the claim shortly thereafter. “But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is, funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happened as well,” a reporter told him. “We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney replied. “We were holding up money at the same time for, what was it, the Northern Triangle countries [in Central America]. We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries so that they would change their policies on immigration.”
It’s true that American presidents have often pressured and bargained with other leaders to achieve foreign-policy goals. Had the White House genuinely leaned on Ukraine to take concrete steps towards curtailing the country’s oligarchs, it would have been perfectly defensible. But there’s nothing legitimate about Trump and Giuliani’s Ukrainian escapade. Sondland’s testimony adds to what is already known about Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy. Taken together, it’s clear that the president’s interest in corruption investigations only extended to two people: his opponent in the 2016 election, and the then-frontrunner to challenge him in 2020. Personal interest triumphed over American interests.
Mulvaney’s remarks, which were carried live by cable news networks, forced the president’s allies to put in another damage control double-shift. “Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump,” Mulvaney said in a statement. He insisted there was no connection between U.S. military funds and the pressure on Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals, and continued to insist that Trump’s efforts were driven by “concerns about corruption.” Giuliani also began downplaying his work on Trump’s behalf with Ukraine, telling Politico on Friday that it stopped in April despite Sondland’s evidence to the contrary.
It’s doubtful that this week’s mixture of damaging testimony and erratic behavior will rally the public behind the president. Polls already show across the board that a clear majority of Americans support the impeachment inquiry. What’s more, they also show a growing level of support for the Senate to convict him. Gallup reported on Wednesday that 52 percent of Americans now support his removal from office. Pew found on Thursday that 58 percent think he has definitely or probably done things that are grounds for impeachment. A majority of public support doesn’t necessarily translate into Senate Republican votes. But sustained pressure could make it harder for GOP senators to justify acquitting him without a valid reason.
Those numbers aren’t likely to improve right away. Trump’s surprise decision to green-light a Turkish invasion of northern Syria and abandon the U.S.’s Kurdish allies earned him a week’s worth of near-universal condemnation, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democratic leaders walked out of a White House meeting on Wednesday after accusing Trump of melting down during their talks. (Trump later claimed it was Pelosi who had an “unhinged meltdown.”) And as if to flout his perceived untouchability, the White House also announced on Thursday that Trump would hold next year’s G-7 gathering at his Doral resort in Florida. Trump would later cave under an avalanche of criticism on Saturday, abruptly canceling those plans. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a more blithe act of corrupt self-enrichment than using the presidency to redirect a major international summit to one of your troubled business properties.
Throughout all of this, the White House seems to think that Republican lawmakers’ support for Trump is an inexhaustible resource. That support, however, seems to be fraying. “You have to go out and try to defend him,” Idaho Representative Mike Simpson told The Washington Post after the Doral announcement. “Well, I don’t know if I can do that!” Florida Representative Francis Rooney even told reporters after Mulvaney’s walkback that he would be open to impeachment. “I’ll be looking at my children a lot longer than I’m looking to anybody in this building,” he remarked. It’s possible that Trump’s belligerent strategy towards impeachment will work—right up until the moment that it doesn’t.