The operative word throughout the Trump-Russia investigation was “if.” If it could be proved that the Trump Tower meeting featured an explicit promise from Vladimir Putin’s people about leaking unfavorable information about Hillary Clinton, then the presidency was in real trouble. If it could be proved that Donald Trump had fired James Comey to impede inquiries into illegal relations with Russia, then the presidency was finished. If, if, if.
None of those “ifs” ever came to fruition. Now there are only two “if”s in the matter of Donald Trump, Ukraine, and Joseph Biden and his son. 1) If Donald Trump used his position as president to seek to intimidate Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating his political rival, then he’s in trouble. 2) If it can be proved he withheld American military aid as part of that political strategy, he’s in as much trouble as any president has been, ever.
Still, everybody who thinks this may be the end for Trump needs to reckon with the two following caveats. First, unless someone very close to Trump breaks and says something, there is and will be no way to prove #1. And second, the evidence of #2 will only be circumstantial, since the timing could be coincidental. It’s highly unlikely Trump ever said anything explicit about a quid pro quo. We know from fixer Michael Cohen that he doesn’t do explicit. You’re supposed to get his meaning.
Which is to say, absent the emergence of a relatively intimate whistleblower, there will be probably enough for Republican politicians in Washington to block efforts at Trump’s ultimate removal from office as the result of impeachment. But while Republicans can defend Trump, either explicitly or implicitly, they will be standing on incredibly weak ground.
Meanwhile, it looks like there may finally be enough for Democrats to reach the crucial 218 number in their 235-member caucus just from the public admissions so far by both Donald Trump and Rudolph Giuliani—admissions that certainly suggest something deeply untoward was going on. But unless points 1 and 2 can be substantiated, they may find themselves once again disappointed in the outcome of their righteous fury.
What will Trump’s defense be? We can see it already. He’s said Joe Biden is a crook who “did a very bad thing” by supposedly using his power to protect his son Hunter and is therefore deserving of the electric chair. Thus, he’s already assumed the outcome of the “investigation” into “corruption” he apparently demanded. It matters not that the evidence of Biden’s malfeasance was his role in the 2016 ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor who had not prosecuted Hunter and therefore would seem in Trump’s worldview to have been owed thanks by Biden rather than dismissal.
But listen. We all know Trump doesn’t care whether this happened or not. He’s looking to create another “crooked Dem” scenario because that’s how he ran the last time and he won the last time.
The implicit defense Trump will make of himself, and the thing his supporters will say after they’ve exhausted their attacks on Hunter Biden, is that everybody does it—not Hunter’s supposed corruption, but rather the “I’ll do anything to win” behavior that motivated Trump to look to Ukraine to save him from Biden. In this understanding of politics, everybody uses whatever weapon they might find to hand to destroy his enemies. So why should Trump be held to special account? After all, look at how they’ve come after him! Forget your old sports analogies to politics—football and baseball. This is the Ultimate Fighting Championship/Mixed Martial Arts approach, and Trump will be happy to give it a shot.
First and last, Trump and his allies will say, the Democrats are trying to impeach him to protect one of their crooked own. It’s a hand to play, and he will play it. But this is a whirlwind he has summoned entirely upon himself. Why he felt it worth the risk is a matter for therapists, not for political strategists.
Imagine a world in which this hadn’t happened. Two polls this week have Elizabeth Warren up over Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s possible the tide is already turning against Biden. Donald Trump didn’t need to disgrace the presidency for Biden to face tough times in the Democratic primary. In fact, for all we know, his conduct may yet save Biden—and doom himself. And that is something everybody doesn’t do.