Donald J. Trump used the power of his office to blackmail a foreign ally into undermining a political foe here at home. Nothing in U.S history approaches that abuse of presidential power, yet the gravity of the charges apparently does not matter.
The overwhelming evidence proving those charges – the sworn testimony, the emails and direct messages, the de facto public confessions by President Trump, his personal attorney and his acting chief of staff, explaining that yes, they did pressure Ukraine to produce political dirt – that too does not matter.
It does not matter because over the course of the past month, GOP officials have made clear their grim determination to protect Trump from all consequences for his actions, and that doesn’t seem likely to change. So the question arises:
If the Republican wall holds, if this process concludes without Trump being held accountable for his actions, what constraint – legal, moral, ethical, political – would Trump have grounds to respect in the future? If he has members of his party so uniformly cowed in fear, what new corruption would he and others in his administration not dare to undertake?
Very little, I’m afraid.
A Donald Trump who knows he is unaccountable to anyone is dangerous in the extreme. By nature he will fill any vacuum, leverage any weakness, seize any power left unprotected. When you’re famous, as he once said, you can walk up and grab women by the genitals, and that’s pretty much his modus operandi in every facet of life, including his presidency.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for insufficient loyalty. The next day, he held a celebratory meeting in the Oval Office, with Russian officials as his invited guests, whom he thanked by giving them classified information.
On July 24, 2019, special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his testimony to Congress, conceding he could not prove – or disprove – collusion. The next day, July 25, Trump placed his infamous phone call to Ukraine’s president, during which he brazenly pressured for investigations into his American political opposition. When Ukraine’s president asked for Javelin anti-tank missiles, the next words out of Trump’s mouth were “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
He did that because he felt freed, unbound, and he was. He doesn’t see it as cheating, because he doesn’t recognize its existence as a concept. There are the things he can get away with, and those he can’t, at least not yet.
And now that his fellow Republicans have so abased themselves in his service, now that they’ve become a collection of so many Lindsey Grahams, what inner reservoirs of self-respect, courage and patriotism can they draw upon to confront him the next time? None. The only reason we know what we know about the Ukraine scandal is because the American people put Democrats in charge of the House in 2018 – without it, we would all be in total darkness about what happened. And as we’re learning, that check on his behavior has proved insufficient.
Of course, these dangers compound significantly should Trump somehow, by hook or by crook, manage to get himself re-elected. With that validation, with all the mechanisms of check and balance rendered impotent, why would he not gratify his instincts to repress all opposition, to ignore any law he finds constraining?
So that’s where we stand: Through the cowardice and petty self-interest of his own party, a corrupt and maybe crazy president is being granted permission to indulge his worst instincts without fear of repercussion. There’s no way that ends well, not for any of us.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Veteran journalist Jay Bookman is a columnist for the Georgia Recorder, which first published this essay.