National View Column: Facts will only get worse and worse for Trump
Republicans said they wanted process, so now they have it. The question is whether President Donald Trump's defenders are willing, finally, to address the substance of the allegations against him.
Thursday's historic vote by the House set out procedures for the inquiry into Trump's conduct that give the president every opportunity to defend himself. Before and after the vote, GOP leaders complained that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was running a "Soviet-style" impeachment process, which must be one of the dumbest things ever said on the House floor. The old Soviet Union didn't do impeachments, with accusation by one legislative chamber, judgment by the other, the nation's highest judicial officer presiding and the ultimate sanction being removal from office. It did purges, followed by a one-way trip to the gulag.
It sounded as if Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his colleagues were grasping at the wispiest of straws, and they were. Odds are that they will continue to do so as long as they can. Meanwhile, however, the process they clamored for will roll on and gather momentum, with or without them.
Trump has groused that his allies should instead be defending him on substance. But how can they? His phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was "perfect" only as an illustration of impeachable behavior. And we know that what Trump called a "word-for-word" transcript of the call omitted key elements of the call, according to one witness. How can anyone defend the president without knowing what's missing?
Moreover, the phone call was just part of a much larger scheme. The evidence that has surfaced thus far indicates that Trump orchestrated a mob-style shakedown, withholding nearly $400 million in military aid and a promised White House meeting in an attempt to coerce Zelensky into investigating — and publicly smearing — Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The play-ball-with-us message was apparently delivered not just by the president himself but also by various emissaries. At the time, Joe Biden was shown by polls to be Trump's most formidable potential Democratic opponent in the November 2020 presidential election.
In other words, Trump was actively and personally colluding with a foreign government to interfere in our coming presidential election. No wonder Republicans prefer to pound the table about process.
Soon the depositions that the House Intelligence Committee has been taking behind closed doors will be made public. What we have learned of them so far is heartening. Patriotic civil servants realized what Trump was trying to do and were aghast. They saw him putting personal political interests ahead of the national security interests he had sworn an oath to protect, and they tried their best to do the right thing within the chain of command.
Ambassador William Taylor, named envoy to Ukraine by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, kept copious notes and was able to produce a detailed timeline of events. He also made sure that his qualms and objections were recorded in text messages, which he surely knew would someday come to light. These are not the actions of some "spy" from the mythical "deep state." These are the actions of a dedicated and experienced diplomat who loves his country.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran who works at the National Security Council as an expert on Ukraine, was assigned to listen in on Trump's phone call with Velensky — and was so horrified he reported the president's extortion attempt to a top NSC lawyer. The lawyer's reaction was to make sure that the rough transcript of the call was buried in a super-secret computer system usually reserved for the most highly classified information, such as ongoing covert operations.
For recognizing the difference between right and wrong, and for volunteering to appear before the House Intelligence Committee despite almost certainly being pressured by his bosses at the White House not to do so, Vindman has had his patriotism impugned. I wonder how many of his Republican critics were awarded the Purple Heart after being injured by a bomb in Iraq.
More witnesses are coming out of the woodwork. When the public hearings begin, Trump's defenders will have to decide what tack to take. Keep harping on process? Taking the route of character assassination? Pulling more sophomoric stunts to disrupt the proceedings?
However Republicans choose to proceed, there's one thing they must realize, even if they are afraid to say it out loud: The facts are only going to get worse for the president. If they can't bring themselves to defend Trump on the merits, they're going to have to explain why not. Process is now just a dodge.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.