So here’s a variation on the strategy I wrote about on Monday night. Some Republicans like Tucker Carlson and Rob Portman have settled on the view that what Trump did with Ukraine is bad — but not impeachable. That’s a smart position to stake out early in the process since it attempts to remove the subject from the realm of facts to the realm of law, where matters are much less uncertain. After all, Democrats could turn up damning evidence of Trump’s conduct. Imagine Gordon Sondland testifying that the president was worried about Joe Biden beating him next fall and told him that the Burisma investigation would help avert that. If the GOP concedes the Democrats’ point that this is an impeachable offense if it’s proved then Trump’s fate is in Adam Schiff’s hands.
The safer play is to say, “Yes, yes, Trump behaved inappropriately in asking Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens but that’s just not enough of a crime to justify removing a sitting president from office. Scold him, censure him, but let the voters issue a verdict on his job.” Taking that position renders the Democratic investigation largely moot (although if they can prove Trump intended a quid pro quo, that would change the game) and leaves Trump’s fate in Senate Republicans’ hands. It doesn’t matter what facts Pelosi and Schiff produce; we don’t execute people for speeding and we don’t oust presidents over petty nonsense like trying to influence the coming election by jumpstarting a foreign probe of the then-frontrunner from the other party.
That’s the strategy Lindsey Graham endorsed this morning on Fox, more or less. The difference is that Graham, as Trump’s foremost apologist in the Senate, won’t even concede that the call with Zelensky was inappropriate. Carlson and Portman are happy to do that knowing that it doesn’t really matter and, if anything, might mollify Trump critics a bit to see members of his own party criticizing him (mildly) for something they’re angry about. Graham can’t even be bothered. Portman can adopt the “bad but not impeachable” line on this if he likes; Graham’s taking the “not bad and therefore certainly not impeachable” approach instead. And he wants his colleagues in the Senate to tell Pelosi that right now.
Graham plans to have Senate Republicans sign a letter calling Ukraine call not worthy of impeachment pic.twitter.com/MtkrELR89Y
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) October 9, 2019
That’s clever inasmuch as a letter like that would operate a bit like a judicial order granting a motion to dismiss before a trial takes place. Graham is accusing the Democrats of failing to state a claim. Instead of waiting around for them to impeach, why not let them know up front that the Senate sees nothing actionable here? Maybe it’ll convince Pelosi not to bother with impeachment. (Highly unlikely.) Maybe it’ll be a morale booster to Republican voters who are worried about what Trump might be guilty of. (More likely.) Maybe it’ll provide a pretext for McConnell to hold a truncated/expedited trial after Trump is impeached, since Republican “jurors” will already be on record as saying that no high crime or misdemeanor was committed as a matter of law. (Likely.)
Not everyone in the Senate will sign such a letter, of course. Romney won’t. Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and Ben Sasse won’t. Various Republicans for various reasons will want to communicate to voters that they’re troubled by what Trump is accused of and are determined to let all the facts come out before reaching a conclusion. Call that the “nominally undecided” group. The next group, Portman’s “bad but not impeachable” faction, might not sign such a letter either. Obviously they disagree with Graham that Trump did nothing wrong. And even if he drafted the letter to avoid the question of whether Trump behaved appropriately or not and focused instead on whether there’s an impeachable offense here, Portman probably still wouldn’t sign it. He’s worried enough about the politics of this issue to have made a point of saying that what Trump did is bad. He won’t want to leap head-first into a GOP effort to prejudge the Democratic impeachment articles by insisting that there’s no crime even in a worst-case scenario.
All Graham needs to settle this matter, though, is 33 other Republicans to join him. If 34 GOPers in the chamber out of 53 are willing to commit to the position that nothing Trump did or conceivably could have done is impeachable then the impeachment and removal effort is officially doomed. Are there 33 other Republicans who are so cowed by Trump and his voters that they’d be willing to take that position right now?
I wouldn’t rule it out.
I assume Graham’s letter idea is being coordinated with the White House, in which case it’s part of a two-pronged strategy. The first prong is to make the case aggressively that the Democratic inquiry is a sham; it’s unfair, it’s an affront to due process, therefore any facts it produces are inherently suspect. That was the thrust of Pat Cipollone’s letter last night. Cipollone is playing offense. Graham’s letter would be playing defense, trying to frame the terms of the debate for the coming impeachment trial in the Senate. It doesn’t matter which facts the Democrats’ sham inquiry produced. There’s simply no crime here. Case dismissed.
The absolute best part of the clip, by the way, is the bit at the end when Graham exhorts Fox viewers to pray for the Kurds, as if they’re at risk of being victimized by a hurricane or some other disastrous natural force which America is powerless to influence. He took a similarly dubious view in a tweet this morning when he asked people to “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration.” The Trump administration? I’ve only heard of one person within “the Trump Administration” who supports the decision to bug out of northern Syria as Turkey prepares to immolate American allies. It’s interesting, if not at all surprising, that Lindsey refuses to name that person.
It’s amazing how able he is to compartmentalize his disgust at Trump’s Syria policy with his zeal in defending Trump on impeachment, frankly. They’re two distinct matters, granted, but politicians use leverage they have over one matter to exact concessions on unrelated matters all the time. Pundits keep warning that Trump is playing with fire by antagonizing Senate Republicans on Syria at the very moment that they’re about to take his fate in their hands on impeachment, but is he really playing with fire? Graham is heartbroken about abandoning the Kurds and yet here he is on Fox trying to blow up the impeachment effort on the president’s behalf before it even reaches the Senate. With ass-kissing like this, why should Trump feel pressure to throw the Senate GOP a bone on foreign policy?