November 2, 2019

Impeachment Is Getting Real

Democrats could advance their cause by showing respect to Republicans — including John Bolton.

It is all so very grave, yet it feels only like a continuation of the past three years of fraught and crazy political conflict. But impeachment of the American president came much closer this week.

I believe retired Gen. John Kelly, President Trump’s former chief of staff, when he told the Washington Examiner that he had told Mr. Trump that if he did not change his ways he would get himself in terrible trouble. “I said, ‘Whatever you do don’t hire a yes-man, someone who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached.’”

He knew his man. Mr. Kelly was in the White House for 17 months, from July 31, 2017, to Jan. 2, 2019. I ask Trump supporters, or anyone with even a small knowledge of what a White House is, to consider how extraordinary it is for a chief of staff to say such a thing to the president. Can you imagine James Baker saying to Ronald Reagan, “Keep it up, buddy, and you’ll break the law and be thrown out”? You can’t because it does not compute, because it isn’t possible.

When Mr. Trump first came in I would press his supporters on putting all of American military power into the hands of a person with no direct political or foreign-affairs experience or training. They’d say, confidently, “But he’s got the generals around him.” His gut would blend with their expertise. But though they went to work for him with optimism and confidence in their ability to warn him off destructive actions or impulses — though they were personally supportive, gave him credit for a kind of political genius, and intended to be part of something of which they could be proud — they found they could not. This president defeats all his friends. That’s why he’s surrounded now, in his White House and the agencies, by the defeated — a second-string, ragtag, unled army.

In fact the president wasn’t so interested in the generals’ experience and expertise. In fact he found them boring but with nice outfits. One by one they left or were fired. This should disturb the president’s supporters more than it does. And they should have a better response than, “But they’re jerks.”

To impeachment itself. It received a powerful push forward when the House voted Thursday for a new, public phase in the inquiry. This means among other things that the Democrats think they have the goods. They wouldn’t go live unless they did.

They feel the great question is clear. That question is: Can we prove, through elicited testimony, that the president made clear to the leader of another nation, an ally in uncertain circumstances, that the U.S. would release congressionally authorized foreign aid only if the foreign leader publicly committed to launch an internal investigation that would benefit the president in his 2020 re-election effort?

The odd thing is I think most everyone paying attention knows the answer. It’s been pretty much established, from leaks, reports, statements and depositions. Can I say we all know it happened? I think the definitive question for the hearings will turn out not to be “Did he do it?” but “Do the American people believe this an impeachable offense?”

The president’s defenders have argued that in the transcripts of the phone call the White House released, he never clearly lays out a quid pro quo. I suppose it depends how you read it, but in a book I wrote long ago I noted that in government and journalism people don’t say “Do it my way or I’ll blow you up.” Their language and approach are more rounded. They imitate 1930s gangster movies in which the suave mobster tells the saloon keeper from whom he’s demanding protection money, “Nice place you have here, shame if anything happened to it.”

In the past I’ve said the leaders of the inquiry will have to satisfy the American people that they’re trying to be fair, and not just partisan fools. So far that score is mixed. Republicans charge with some justice that it’s been secretive, the process loaded and marked by partisan creepiness. If I were Adam Schiff now I wouldn’t be fair, I’d be generous — providing all materials, information, dully inviting the Republicans in. That would be a deadly move — to show respect and rob Republicans of a talking point.

It should be communicated to the president’s supporters that they must at some point ask themselves this question: Is it acceptable that an American president muscle an ally in this way for personal political gain? If that is OK then it’s OK in the future when there’s a Democratic president, right? Would your esteem for Franklin D. Roosevelt be lessened if it came to light through old telephone transcripts found in a box in a basement in Georgetown that he told Winston Churchill in 1940, “We’ll lend you the ships and the aid if you announce your government is investigating that ruffian Wendell Willkie”? You’d still respect him and tell the heroic old stories, right?

Some of the evidence in the hearings will be colorful and stick in the mind. There will be phrases from testimony or questioning that encapsulate the scandal, such as “What did the president know and when did he know it?” and “There’s a cancer growing on the presidency.” That will have impact. If White House workers attempted to deep-six evidence of the president’s conversation, doesn’t that suggest consciousness of guilt?

There is John Bolton’s testimony, if he testifies. He’s not known as a shy man. He is a conservative who has made his career as a professional (worked for four presidents, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, head of the National Security Council), a foreign-affairs tough guy, a Fox News contributor. Some, perhaps many conservatives were heartened when he came aboard with the president in the spring of 2018.

He would know a great deal about the issues at hand. Did the president act in a way he disapproved of on Ukraine? Was there a side-game foreign policy? All that would be powerful. But what if he was asked to think aloud about what he saw of the way Mr. Trump operates, of what he learned about the president after he came to work for him, of what illusions, if any, might have been dispelled? To reflect (as the generals who used to work for the president reflect, off the record)? What if he is questioned imaginatively, even sympathetically, with a long view as to what history needs to be told?

If he did this under oath and answered as he thought right, honest and helpful, if he was asked the question, “After all you’ve seen, is it good for America that Donald Trump is president?” “Tell us about what you’ve observed about the nature and mind and character of Donald Trump.” “Share your thoughts as a respected professional who has worked with presidents and who knows what the presidency is.”

Public candor would take plenty of guts and could have reputational repercussions.

But it would not just be powerful, it could be explosive. History, at least, would appreciate it.

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