After putting on hold $391 million in military aid, President Donald Trump last summer pressed the newly elected leader of Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
In so many words, Trump made Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The more we learn, the worse this looks. According to a whistleblower’s complaint, White House officials were immediately troubled by the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky and some senior officials later intervened to “lock down” records of the conversation. Then there was the acting intelligence director’s initial refusal to pass the written complaint to Congress.
This kind of behavior flouts the rule of law. It places a president’s political ambitions over national security. It defies the authority of Congress. And it should spark bipartisan outrage. Only it hasn’t. In fact, some Republicans have humored Trump’s petulant impulses for so long that they seem proud of it.
“My response to them is go hard or go home,” said one of the more quotable GOP trash-talkers, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “If you want to impeach him, stop talking. Do it. Do it. Go to Amazon, buy a spine and do it. And let’s get after it.”
Another Republican, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, called it “yet another pathetic attempt by Democrats to destroy President Trump with falsehoods.”
Tillis’ comments were hardly a surprise, since he desperately needs Trump’s support to win re-election in 2020. But North Carolina’s other Republican senator, Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, opened an investigation of the case. Yet his voice remains mostly muted.
The Democrats, meanwhile, had been poked and goaded by Trump to the point where they had to do something. Party leaders had resisted calls for impeachment because, politically, it has been viewed as a losing proposition. If Republicans stand firmly for Trump in the Senate, there won’t be enough votes to convict the president, if it leads to that. Also, impeachment has not polled well among voters. An impeachment battle could, in fact, rally Trump’s core supporters. But the president’s lawless conduct has given the Democrats little choice.
As a rough transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky shows, Trump did ask for an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a private Ukrainian natural gas company from 2014 to 2019. Before that conversation, Trump had put on hold crucial military aid money to Ukrainians. He contends the money had nothing to do with the “favor” he had asked of Zelensky. But Trump’s account of why he froze that money changed three times last week.
As all of this played out, most Republicans fell dutifully into line, as if Trump’s marginalization of Congress doesn’t include them. But this issue is bigger than who wins in 2020. It’s about preserving the pillars of government, which depend on separation of powers to function properly.
And it’s about right and wrong. At some point both parties need to see past what’s best for them in the next election and consider what’s best for the country.
So, when Republicans boast that the Democrats’ resistance is doomed, they only underscore their own fecklessness. Now it’s the GOP that needs to “buy a spine.”