By Paul Waldman
The Washington Post
Thursday morning brought a remarkable development in President Donald Trump’s impeachment saga: While the president stands to be impeached for using the power of his office to pressure a foreign government to investigate one of his political opponents, he is responding to the crisis by - wait for it - using the power of his office to pressure a foreign government to investigate one of his political opponents.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump told reporters. His allegations about Joe Biden’s son and China are, you’ll be surprised to hear, as utterly bogus as pretty much everything else he learns from trolling right-wing conspiracy theory sites.
China is obviously not the same as Ukraine; they aren’t dependent on us for weapons and protection, so they’re likely to just laugh this request off. Nevertheless, Trump’s bizarre plea shows just how blinkered his view of this whole scandal is.
His strategy - if you can call it that - has quickly come into focus. That strategy is, like so much of what we have seen over the last three years, an unfiltered expression of the man himself. And a look back at the last time we went through impeachment offers such a stark contrast that it illuminates how our politics have changed and how unique Trump really is.
If you were a Republican watching Trump’s Wednesday news conference with the president of Finland, you would not have been reassured. That he would unleash a blizzard of lies is by now to be expected, but perhaps more important was how angry, aggrieved and petulant he was, lashing out at his opponents and the assembled reporters alike. It showed that, regardless of whether you agree with him that this is all a witch hunt, Trump is most definitely not in control of his emotions and reactions.
Behind the scenes, things are as disorganized as you’d expect. As the New York Times reports:
“For now, the White House has no organized response to impeachment, little guidance for surrogates to spread a consistent message even if it had developed one, and minimal coordination between the president’s legal advisers and his political ones.”
That’s the first striking contrast with the way President Bill Clinton approached his impeachment in 1998 over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Though Clinton could be volatile in private, in public he was careful to communicate that he was not only calm and in control, but that he was “compartmentalizing” (in the word that became popular at the time), dealing with impeachment when he had to but spending the bulk of his attention on the work of the presidency.
Though it might have been only partially true - Clinton spent plenty of time on the scandal - that he was working for the American people while Republicans were consumed with an unnecessary impeachment wasn’t just the message the White House decided on; they labored to make it a reality. As Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart describes it, chief of staff John Podesta went so far as to forbid anyone in the White House who wasn’t working directly on impeachment from even talking about it.
In contrast, Trump is making clear that he’s thinking about nothing else. He sits watching television much of the day, furiously rage-tweeting at what he sees. You’ll never hear Trump say, “I don’t want to talk about that, because I have more important things to do.”
Another key contrast with 1998 is that, while Clinton believed that he could prevail if the discussion was as calm and reasonable as possible, Trump believes that his path to success lies in turning everything up to 11, ramping the volume and the outrage.
That’s in no small part because as much as Clinton tried to keep Democrats in line, he was focused on persuading people in the middle that the impeachment was wrong. He had the benefit of a strong economy to help him make the case that he was doing a good job, but at the time it was still possible for people to make judgments that crossed party lines. By the time Clinton’s Senate trial began, two-thirds of the public was on his side.
That was in large part because the Clinton impeachment featured something we often say we need but never actually have: a national conversation. For an entire year, Americans talked in their homes and workplaces and on line at the supermarket about whether Clinton’s misdeeds were serious enough to warrant removing him from office. By the end of that collective deliberation, they decided the answer was no.
There will be no such national conversation this time. It was never likely, given our intense polarization and the fact that the conservative media have such an iron grip on Republicans. But Trump will do everything he can to make it impossible. He wants impeachment to be partisan. If anyone around him suggests otherwise, it won’t matter, because he’s the one making the strategy and doing the communicating.
That strategy is, as always, pure Trump: frenzied, dishonest, impulsive, erratic, angry and convinced that if what’s worst in Americans can be properly stimulated he will emerge the victor.