If Donald Trump were on the phone with the president of Angola or Singapore appearing to solicit foreign assistance, it would barely register on the outrage meter. That his latest purported infraction involves Ukraine makes all the difference, because it provides narrative continuity with the broader “Russian interference” saga that has consumed American politics for three years.
Democrats who recently came out for impeachment in droves have been explicit in drawing this connection.
Explaining his newfound embrace of impeachment, freshman Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) expressed outrage that the Trump administration would "withhold military aid that Ukraine needed to fend off Russian aggression."
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), also endorsing the march toward impeachment, declared that “what Trump has done is sacrifice America’s defense of Europe against Russia. It is deeply unpatriotic.”
Neither of these statements would be intelligible but for the way in which they relate back to Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which was endlessly hyped as the smoking gun that would take down Trump’s presidency. It failed to deliver, but Democrats (including almost every presidential candidate and more than half of the House caucus) nonetheless latched onto aspects of the Mueller report to further their impeachment ambitions. Prior to the Ukraine fracas, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) had already been undertaking what he’d termed an “impeachment investigation” that focused on Mueller’s findings. It was trudging along somewhat uneventfully, with hearings and lawsuits that failed to produce anything especially new or revelatory. Then came the news of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which was exactly the “spark” that Democrats needed to breathe new life into their impeachment dream.
But it would be a mistake to view the Ukraine developments as somehow separate from all that preceded it by way of Mueller, as some Democrats now reportedly want to do as a matter of tactical maneuvering. (Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly favors “narrowing the focus” of the impeachment inquiry exclusively to the Ukraine issue.) For one thing, Nadler and others had long maintained that the alleged infractions contained in the Mueller report alone were sufficient for impeachment, and had spent months engaged in investigative efforts to that end. Suddenly discarding all that work would be a tacit admission that the pre-Ukraine case for impeachment was weaker than they had so ardently insisted.
Even if Democrats were to “narrow the focus” along the lines Pelosi suggests, the foundation provided by the Mueller report and the years-long Trump/Russia saga will inevitably provide the narrative underpinnings of their impeachment drive. The anonymous “whistleblower” complaint released Thursday alleges that Trump sought to “solicit interference from a foreign country" for political gain. That was the core animating theme of the Mueller report, and the current charges have to be viewed through the same prism.
The idea that Trump sought to “solicit interference” from Russia in 2016 was effectively debunked by Mueller, but that didn’t stop Democrats from continuing to depict Trump as hell-bent on “collusion” in some form. That the “collusion” theme had been so relentlessly trumpeted for years in the media was a necessary prerequisite for the current Ukraine allegations to have any narrative purchase. Sen. Kamala Harris confirmed this when she declared on MSNBC that Trump "confessed that he is attempting to collude with a foreign government to yet again manipulate the elections process of our country.” Embedded in that premise is that Trump once before attempted to collude with a foreign government to manipulate the U.S. electoral process. The premise is wrong, but it’s integral in contextualizing why the Ukraine issue spurred such rapid and dramatic movement by Democrats.
Whatever the party leadership might be saying now by way of tactics, the Trump/Russia saga -- despite its embarrassing, anticlimactic failure to dredge up “collusive” wrongdoing by Trump -- will necessarily play a central role in how impeachment is framed, whether in the media, Congress, the presidential campaign, or elsewhere. As it now gets repeated to the point of cliche, impeachment is a “political process” and therefore the political arguments that give the Ukraine developments such political weight are integral to assessing whether the “high crimes and misdemeanors” threshold has been reached. The long fixation on Trump/Russia and Mueller have already provided the contours of that argument. Democrats simply needed a new “hook.”
This latest development is best understood as a Mueller report aftershock, a continuation of the dominant theme of Trump’s presidency. “Ukrainegate” now provides Democrats an opportunity to revive and reframe the previous Russia-specific allegations, because they’re part of the same overarching narrative. Elizabeth Warren, now arguably the most influential Democrat in the country, continues to maintain that the Mueller report alone provided enough material to justify impeachment, and is only mentioning Ukraine as an afterthought. That’s because for the Democratic audience it’s already self-evident how this relates to all that preceded it vis-a-vis Mueller. If Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine, it can be depicted as having served the interests of Russia, even if Russia is no longer the ostensible focus. Democrats are furiously invoking “national security” and Trump’s lack of “patriotism” -- also core tenets of the Russiagate melodrama. Trump even mentioned Robert Mueller himself in the phone call with Zelensky, ensuring that the special counsel’s shadow will continue to hang over all future proceedings.
None of this excuses or justifies Trump’s behavior, which (as usual) is stupid, self-defeating, and corrupt in a variety of respects. But any forthcoming impeachment will be inescapably tied to what came before it in the narrative timeline. The Ukraine phone call is not a singular event, whatever Democrats might now want to claim -- it is the latest iteration of the “collusion” saga that brought such spectacular humiliation to the political and media class.