WASHINGTON – For the first time in American history, the president has pleaded guilty to an impeachable offense.
This is effectively what happened when the White House released the readout from Donald Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. There is now no question that Trump asked the leader of a foreign country to investigate Joe Biden and his son – a request that was made in the context of a broader discussion of American aid to Ukraine. This was the use of American power and diplomacy for personal and selfish gain. It constitutes corruption.
Impeachment may be inadvisable. The process may be conducted foolishly. It may feed a Republican thirst for revenge against a future Democratic president. It may motivate Trump’s base. The broad, American middle may switch to ESPN.
All of this matters, especially if it increases the chances of Trump’s re-election. But it matters like a fate, not like a choice. In T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” a priest says of unfolding events, “Let the wheel turn.” Archbishop Thomas Becket later comments: “The fool, fixed in his folly, may think/ He can turn the wheel on which he turns.”
No one in our unfolding drama can now turn the wheel on which they turn. Trump’s offense has given the partisan instincts of elected Democrats the added justification of principle. The whistleblower complaint has affirmed those concerns and expanded them. This makes the process of impeachment inevitable. Now the actors are merely choosing what roles they will play.
Trump’s role is to push and push until he meets firm resistance to his abuse of power – something he has rarely experienced. Note that Trump’s call with Zelensky came during the denouement of the investigation of Russian influence. According to the readout, Trump says: “As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller.”
Trump gloated about beating the charge that he conspired with a foreign government to win an election, during a call in which he proposed to conspire with a foreign government to win reelection. The man is immune to ethical instruction. And further, Trump thought releasing the readout of the call would somehow be exculpatory. He has spent so many years in the trash heap of corruption he can no longer recognize the stench.
Because Trump tests boundaries of morality and legality, his defenders are, in effect, calling on Americans to ratify those changes. By all the evidence, Trump believes that politics, stripped of pretense, is the dirty, unethical pursuit of power, which is properly used to destroy your enemies. Republicans who defend or excuse him are providing permission for his redesign of public life. This is perhaps the saddest result of Trump’s corruption: turning good men and women into the bodyguards of a petty, cruel, lawless, would-be autocrat.
Because Trump has chosen to be transparently corrupt, congressional Republicans cannot dispute the facts of the case (as they did during the Mueller investigation). They may still insist: No quid pro quo. But this is more of a rally chant than an argument. Trump’s request for foreign help to win the 2020 election was not like Belgium asking Uruguay for a favor. It was a global superpower asking a country dependent on American military aid – which had just been withheld in a “review” – for favors. Trump pointedly reminded Zelensky that “the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine.”
In the transcript, Trump’s first request concerns the “CrowdStrike” investigation of the Democratic National Committee’s security breach during the 2016 campaign. Conspiracy theorists allege the inquiry was an elaborate hoax to fake a breach and the evidence is contained in a computer server somewhere in Ukraine. Evidently the president of the United States believes this as well. His request will be long remembered at the State Department as one of the most incomprehensible and asinine of American diplomatic history.
Trump’s main request – a joint Ukrainian/U.S. Justice Department/Rudy Giuliani investigation of Biden’s falsely alleged role in preventing the Ukrainian prosecution of his son – is nearly as strange and specious. But it was made by the most visible representative of America, speaking in the name of the American people.
The American people will ultimately decide if this disturbs or bores them. Whatever the outcome, the wheel has begun to turn.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.