Why Trump's arrogance is leading the Republican Party down a treacherous path
President Donald Trump is not happy with how his allies are defending him against impeachment, but he has only himself to blame.
“I’d rather go into the details of the case rather than process,” Trump said this week. “Process is good, but I think you ought to look at the case.”
These remarks directly targeted his fellow Republicans defending him in Congress. They've made a show of objecting to the Democrats' impeachment process, launching silly stunts and lobbing a series of baseless arguments charging that the inquiry is unfair or illegitimate, despite the chamber's prerogative to set its own rules. These arguments have been, by far, the preferred topic as the country barrels toward impeachment for Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate, many of whom are deeply reluctant to defend Trump against the charges that he exerted significant and untoward pressure on Ukraine to investigate his political rivals — which the evidence overwhelmingly shows that he did.
In a sharp column, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg wrote for the National Review that there's one thing Trump could do if he wanted the best shot at saving himself from impeachment: apologize.
"I disagree with those who say that the allegations against Trump are not impeachable," Goldberg wrote. "But, politically, apologizing could forestall impeachment by giving politicians and voters a safe harbor: 'It was wrong, but he said he’s sorry. Move on.' The longer the president defends a lie, the more Americans will resent being lied to."
He noted that President Bill Clinton apologized and admitted his guilt when he was impeached in 1998, and this helped solidify his support and prevent his conviction in the Senate.
Also writing for the National Review, former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy — a fervent Trump defender — argued similarly that the president is making a mistake by denying a quid pro quo. The evidence is clear that Trump and his team used the promise of a White House meeting and improperly stalled military aid to induce Ukraine to deliver the investigations the president was seeking. So by denying this quid pro quo, they're just making it harder for themselves, because this argument will inevitably be proven false in open hearings.
"It is untenable to insist that there was no quid pro quo — just as it is outlandish for the president to claim that his July 25 conversation with President Zelensky was 'perfect,' an impossible standard to meet in human endeavors. To stake out an untenable position is a self-defeating strategy in public controversies," McCarthy wrote.
But Trump can't help but defend himself in grandiose terms. The call was "perfect." There was absolutely "no quid pro quo." (Except when they admit that there was.)
And not only does he insist on staking out these ludicrous and unsustainable positions, he seems to think his Republican allies must stake them out, too. Trump reiterated in on Wednesday:
.....the call with the Ukrainian President was a totally appropriate one. As he said, “No Pressure.” This Impeachme… https://t.co/cxUyMyhIkg— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1572435129
McCarthy, unlike Goldberg, doesn't think Trump has committed impeachable offenses. But he does argue that Trump's requests for Ukraine (and China!) to investigate the Biden family were wrong. He also thinks the misuse of the state department was improper. He just doesn't think this is impeachable (he doesn't really explain why, but the obvious answer is that he just likes Trump).
This seems like the argument many Republican senators would like to openly adopt if they could. They know it's a dangerous precedent if presidents are permitted to use the office and the tools of foreign policy to target political opponents. They know it's unconstitutional for the president to stall congressionally allocated funds for personal, venal reasons. They would like to be able to say the president shouldn't do those things, but that Trump should also be allowed to remain president.
But to do so with even a thin veneer of credibility for the Republican Party, Trump himself would have to admit that what he did was wrong. As Goldberg noted, he would have to apologize and make clear that it won't happen again. He'd have to make clear that he understood why what he did was wrong.
Goldberg pointed out, however, that "contrition doesn’t come easy for Trump" and apologizing would humiliate himself and his enemies. For exactly this reason — and the fact that Trump believes, and not without some support, that his success is predicated on never backing down — Trump can't do it. He's far too arrogant and egotistical to apologize now. He did say he was sorry once, after the Access Hollywood tape came out revealing he confessed to sexually assaulting women, but he allowed himself to dismiss it as "locker room talk" and say that it happened years ago. Admitting he abused his office while president is just too high a psychological burden for him to bear.
Republicans may not need an apology to forgive Trump, of course. McCarthy himself seems willing to exonerate the president of any impeachable offense, even while Trump has clearly and repeatedly committed acts that McCarthy regards as wrong and shows no sign of learning from his violations. This is a position that, while clearly craven, could sit comfortably as a mainstream GOP view.
Yet Trump insists his defense must be even harder for Republicans with a shred of conscience to swallow. Not only must they accept that he did what he did, not only must they forgive him despite his refusal to apologize. No, they will be asked to forgive him even when he won't admit the obvious truth of what he did, the evidence of which is growing every day. They must acquit him even as he takes no responsibility. They must save his skin, even as Democrats prepare a deluge of credible, venerated witnesses ready to swear on penalty of perjury to affirm the facts of the president's wrongdoing. They must allow themselves to be dragged into this humiliating process, and they must be humiliated along with him.
He's leading his party down a treacherous path as he digs in his heels while insisting, over and over again, that he did nothing wrong. But the smart money still says that the vast majority of the Senate Republicans will still vote down any article of impeachment, come hell or high water.