There’s lots of Trump scandal news — but one clear scandal

It’s been roughly a week since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, and the underlying Ukraine scandal keeps spiraling in new directions. Recent reports about Trump and Attorney General William Barr’s contact with leaders in Australia, Italy, and the UK have created a sense of sprawling mess, making it seem like a tough-to-follow meta-scandal akin to the Trump-Russia morass.

But despite the new developments — which involve Trump and Barr attempting to enlist foreign leaders’ help in investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia probe — the scandal remains straightforward.

President Trump has turned American foreign policy into an extortion racket, abusing his powers to goad foreign leaders into persecuting his domestic rivals and improve his political standing. The proof for this in the case of Ukraine is irrefutable. The other news stories are supporting evidence that Trump has systematically twisted US foreign policy into a tool for furthering his 2020 reelection bid.

President Trump speaks to supporters at a rally in in Manchester, New Hampshire.
President Trump speaks to supporters at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on August 15, 2019.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The elegant simplicity of this narrative, the way in which it neatly encapsulates so many things wrong with the Trump presidency, is what gives these allegations the potential to bring this administration down. It is important not to let the seeming complexity and international breadth of what’s happening get in your way, in part because confusion and apathy are the White House’s best hope for containing the fallout from recent revelations.

Don’t let the flurry of news confuse you: This a clear, straightforward, and politically devastating scandal.

Eye on the ball

We know that President Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden on the basis of a debunked nonsense allegation during a July phone call — and then tried to cover it up.

We know this because of a federal whistleblower complaint, citing testimony from a number of officials who heard the call and witnessed the White House’s attempts to hide it by moving the call transcript to a server designed for classified information. We know the whistleblower is correct because of a call summary released by the White House, as well as a White House statement admitting the call transcript was transferred to a classified server.

These basic facts are all you really need to know to understand the Ukraine scandal: The president of the United States asking for “a favor” (his words) from a foreign leader — an intervention in the 2020 US election on his behalf. His administration then hid this fact by using powers of classification that were designed to protect state secrets, not politically damaging information. This is an abuse of power, and we know it happened.

The first page of the unclassified memorandum of President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The first page of the unclassified memorandum of President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from July 25, 2019.
Photo Illustration by Alex Wong/Getty Images

All of the defects Trump’s critics see in the president’s character — his venal transactionalism, his mob-esque worldview, his lack of concern for the national interest, his own pseudo-authoritarian instincts — are on display in the Ukraine call, and it paints a damning indictment of a man unfit for the country’s highest office.

The classification of the Ukraine transcript led to more investigations into Trump’s contacts with other foreign leaders. What’s been revealed so far shows that Trump and his attorney general have been trying to bring allies, including Australia, Italy, and the UK, into a probe into the beginnings of the Trump-Russia investigation. They have been asking these countries to look into the looney tunes notion that the Russia scandal is the result of a series of plots involving various allied intelligence agencies and potentially Obama and the Clintons.

The details of these calls are different from the Ukraine call, and the exchanges are less undeniably corrupt.

But it’s still a case of the president using official channels of US diplomacy to enlist foreign countries into politically beneficial investigations spun out of conservative media fantasies. The nuances of the various foreign calls are daunting to grasp, but the fact that the calls were made at all demonstrates that Trump believes US foreign policy and law enforcement should serve him personally — and not the national interest.

Trump wants confusion

The clarity of this narrative, the incontrovertibility of the facts at its core, are what give the Ukraine story its power. Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill and in the conservative press have not been able to muster a remotely credible defense in response; polling shows public support for impeachment rising in the wake of these revelations, not just among Democrats but also among independents and Republicans.

Instead, the president has tried to deflect the Ukraine scandal by talking about Rep. Adam Schiff’s paraphrase of his phone call, changes to the federal whistleblower form, and the whistleblower’s allegedly “secondhand” knowledge of the Ukraine call.

None of this is actually a defense of what the misconduct clearly laid out in the White House’s own call summary; it merely creates a sense of confusion, that there are so many things going on that no one can grasp what’s actually true.

Creating a sense of complexity and impenetrability — a vague sense that “both sides” are doing something wrong even when only one is — has long been a key part of the Trump playbook. The idea, as former Soviet dissident Garry Kasparov identifies clearly in a series of tweets, is to deflect so much that the public tunes out, and pressure on lawmakers to act abates.

Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway (left), chief of staff to the vice president Marc Short, and assistant to the president Joe Grogan listen during a swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office on September 30, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

“As you watch Trump’s defenders lie, deflect, and distract today and in the coming weeks, remember that they don’t care about being caught in obvious lies. Calling bullshit still means you’re talking about the bullshit, not the facts,” Kasparov writes. “They want doubt. They can make up a dozen new lies and new distractions every day while there’s only one truth. Stop chasing them and keep repeating the facts.”

There is no cause for confusion here, no winding and impossible-to-follow morass. There is only a simple and devastating fact pattern powering the momentum for impeachment. The most important question going forward is not what happened, but what Congress is going to do about it.