The president won in 2016 by breaking norms, and he has not changed.
Donald Trump came to power by leaping over all norms and conventions, and his behavior did not change when he reached the White House. The office did not make the man, as some were hoping.
He entertains his sympathizers. He scares his detractors, while his political adversaries believe that, in the midst of the daily tsunami of news, it becomes harder and harder for them to explain that abnormal things are happening. The president’s maneuvering with Ukraine have convinced Democrats not only that he has crossed the line this time, but also that they will be able to persuade the public that what he has done is inappropriate for a president, as well as contrary to the Constitution. Impeachment will be a political trial of the president, but also of the current abnormality in the U.S.
Facing the possibility of a humiliating impeachment that, even if it does not remove him from the White House, may affect his chances of reelection in 2020, Trump has reacted by turning it up a notch, by asserting that there is nothing wrong with anything he has done and doing it again in broad daylight. This week he publicly asked China, as he did before with Ukraine, to investigate a political rival.
“There has long been a clear pattern where Trump can’t defend his conduct so he just normalizes it. Which is precisely why it’s so dangerous,” Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama, commented this week, not missing the chance to highlight the abnormality of some of the current president’s actions and the White House’s new way of working.
Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns spoke forcefully when he was asked this week about Trump’s provocative request for political help from Beijing. “I worked for five presidents, Republican and Democrat, none of those presidents would have come close to what the president did,” he declared. Burns, undersecretary of state and former ambassador to NATO, is one of the 300 former national security officials who, when the first revelations emerged about Trump’s dealings with Kiev and the suspension of military aid to the country for apparently political reasons, signed an open letter that argued that the president’s actions were “an unconscionable abuse of power.”
Several surveys have confirmed support of initiating the impeachment process.
Asking for help “from this dictatorship in Beijing” to investigate an American citizen is “a new low” from this presidency, [Burns] told CNN. “It's legally wrong. It's morally wrong. And the president has to hear that from people on Capitol Hill, especially from Republican senators and Republican members of the House. … This is unprecedented. If anybody thinks that inviting this dictatorship in Beijing to investigate a distinguished American is a good idea, they should speak up because it's a terrible idea,” he insisted.
Few have echoed this and other pleas in the same vein. With support nearing 90% among conservative voters, criticizing Trump is a risky path onto which few Republicans journey, even if the test of loyalty gets increasingly harder. Despite asking for foreign help in elections, and despite the fact that foreign interference has historically been considered a threat to the country’s sovereignty, Republicans have remained mainly silent in the face of Trump’s provocative request.
Sens. Ben Sasse ( of Nebraska) and, once again, Mitt Romney (of Utah) struck the discordant note. “Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps,” Sasse said Friday. Romney suffered the president’s Twitter wrath yesterday, with the president responding to his critics by calling him a “pompous ass,” using an extremely vulgar term, a sign that the most basic manners have been thrown out the window.
The majority of Republicans, however, prefer to criticize Democrats’ optimism about the impeachment rather than to pass judgment on Trump’s calls to Ukraine or China. Some have even defended him. “I don’t think there’s anything improper about it,” said Sen. Ron Johnson. Republican silence is even more deafening if you take into account that Trump is trying to validate a theory that clashes head on with the conclusions of their own work in Congress; basically, that it was Ukraine and not Russia that intervened in the 2016 elections.
In the last two weeks, various surveys have confirmed a shift in American public opinion, which now mainly supports the initiation of the process to impeach the president. Defending him, staying quiet or distancing themselves from him will become more complicated as the process advances and some senators or members of the House believe that it may affect their chances of reelection. In 2020, unlike in 2018, more Republican seats are up for reelection than Democratic seats.