And so it began — the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump opened on Tuesday. If ever there were a Shakespearean moment in American political history, this would be it.
Trump, a tragicomic character on the world’s biggest reality TV stage, cannot seem to get out of his own way. He flexed and fumed throughout the two-year investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, narrowly escaping an impeachment inquiry in Round One, only to stumble and bumble his way to a trial in Round Two.
Mueller, in fact, suggested that Trump had obstructed justice, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held back on an impeachment inquiry, wanting, perhaps, to simply move on. Trump couldn’t help himself, however. He had to push.
What has emerged is an alleged widespread scheme, orchestrated last spring by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to disgrace then Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and remove her from her post, thus clearing the way for Giuliani to “investigate” the likely frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic primary, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Next thing you knew, last July 25, Trump was on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking for a favor. Trump, we know, wanted Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden. To ensure that the Ukrainian president made good on his promise to investigate, Trump, Democrats allege, withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, which has been engaged in a bloody battle with Moscow-backed Russian separatists for territory in the eastern part of the country, on the border with Russia, for six years. Thirteen thousand people have died in that fight.
The U.S. House of Representatives drafted two articles of impeachment against the president — for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. And here we are — at a crossroads in American history. Trump is only the third president to be impeached. The other two were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither was removed from office.
Johnson, our 17th president, was accused of violating the Tenure of Office Act, which required the president to seek Senate approval before removing a cabinet member whom the upper chamber of Congress had confirmed. Johnson didn’t when he ousted one of his cabinet members, so he was impeached in 1868.
Clinton lied to a grand jury about his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and was impeached in 1998.
How strange that Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, would take offense at Clinton’s alleged malfeasance — and insist that Clinton be removed from office — but would ignore Trump’s actions, which, if true, jeopardized the national security of Ukraine, a critical strategic ally.
Trump would have us believe that all he did was make a “perfect phone call” to Zelensky, but that call was wildly irresponsible. And we know it happened, because he released a transcript of the call, in which he stated, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden.
Why release the transcript? I wondered at first. Now that we see a significantly more elaborate scheme, dating back months, to oust Yovanovitch, we understand why Trump & Co. want us to “read the transcript” — that is, home in on it.
If we do, then we fail to see Giuliani plotting to depose a duly appointed — and, by most all accounts, exceptional — career diplomat. If we do, then we fail to see Trump’s withholding of $391 million in aid to Ukraine. And if we do, we fail to see the wider cast of characters allegedly involved in this sordid plot — including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney and then Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Trump is a master of distraction and deception. Look this way, he tells us, and just like that, we miss what really matters.
If we look closely, we see the parallels with the Watergate scandal. Officials in President Richard Nixon’s White House, with funds from the Committee to Re-elect the President, hired a squad of four CIA operatives and a locksmith to break into and surveil Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington in June 1972. Intrepid reporting by The Washington Post and The New York Times exposed a far-reaching scheme of “dirty tricks” to defeat Democratic candidates at multiple levels of government.
Those tricks ranged from calling up candidates and telling them that their next rally had been postponed several hours when it hadn’t, to ordering 200 pizzas and sending them to a black-tie Democratic fundraiser to disrupt the affair. Donald Segretti, a political operative, masterminded many of the tricks. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.
Giuliani is our modern-day Segretti, hired by Trump, it appears, to play dirty tricks in Ukraine. In Watergate, there was never a question whether anyone’s national security was compromised — it wasn’t. This time, it seems likely, it was.
The question is, what will the Republican-controlled Senate do about it?
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.