Opinion

The argument Trump doesn't want his supporters to make

Why Matthew Whitaker may be the only person in Washington who really understands impeachment

One somehow doubts that President Trump is grateful to Matthew Whitaker, the former acting attorney general, for comments he made on television recently concerning the ongoing Ukraine scandal. With his usual heedless candor, Whitaker insisted to his Fox News host on Wednesday that "abuse of power" by a president is not illegal and thus not necessarily grounds for impeachment.

This is totally true, albeit in the same sense in which "corruption" and "lying" and "being a totally obnoxious ass" are not crimes. None of these things has a statutory definition. Thank you, Mr. Whitaker, for being the real last honest man in the GOP.

Because this is really the only argument that remains available to the president and his defenders, isn't it? Whether Trump wants to admit it or not, his political fortunes now depend not on questions of fact but on whether anyone cares that he used the authority of his office to attack a political rival. That he has done so is now more or less beyond doubt. Insisting that he was motivated by anything except a desire to affect the outcome of the next presidential election is as pollyannaish as, well, suggesting that Hunter Biden was on the payroll of a Ukrainian natural gas company because of his vast knowledge of that sector in post-Soviet Eurasian republics — or that Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch had a polite chat on the tarmac one afternoon about a new deluxe edition of Rumors rather than the investigation of his wife's emails then being conducted by the Obama administration.

This is why Republican members of the GOP in Congress are now making procedural arguments about the supposed unfairness — with special emphasis on the alleged secrecy — of the impeachment process. What began by casting doubts on the credibility of the so-called "whistleblower" and continued with a series of niggling hang-ups about details is now a nakedly formalist exercise in saying "No fair!" as loudly as possible. They will continue to embarrass themselves with stunts like Wednesday's attempted storming of the Secure Classified Information Facility because there is nothing else that they can say or do.

Is the process actually unfair? This does not seem to me to enter into the equation. All that matters is whether Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff have enough votes to impeach the president in the House (my guess is yes, though barely) — and whether Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators will stand by the leader of their party (once again, I think the answer is yes). Impeachment is a nakedly political process. There are no clearly defined criteria for what constitutes an impeachable offense — only the willingness or unwillingness of the House to pursue impeachment. The remedy is worthy of the illness.

A more interesting question is why Trump and defenders are in fact shying away from Whitaker's argument. It is not clear to me that it is such a bad one. Anyone who believes that the office of the presidency operates in a sphere outside "politics," in the sense of the word that means partisan elections, is being naïve. Of course presidents do things in the hope that they will help them to be re-elected. Ours is an exhausting news cycle full of distractions. How many of Trump's supporters from 2016 are likely to change their minds because the leaders of a more or less insignificant republic half a world away received money they were due anyway after hearing America's mayor rant at them about a man whose chances of winning the Democratic primary are not nearly as certain as they appeared to be several months ago?

This no doubt sounds very cynical. It is cynical — as cynical as promising that Mexico would pay for the wall or giving Michael Cohen money to shut up Stormy Daniels or giving corporations tax breaks before insisting that they scale back their operations in China and stop laying off hard-working Americans.

This is what this presidency has been like from the very beginning. Why would the end — whether it comes next year or in 2021 — be any different?

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