For the president it was all in a day’s work, and ever since the first stories broke three weeks ago about Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to help find damaging information about the Bidens and about Hillary Clinton, there has been some version of the Minnesota performance virtually every day.
Many Americans have become inured to the president’s volatile behavior. Yet even by the standards of this presidency, Trump has been operating beyond his often-untethered bounds. His Twitter feed has been more frantic, his public comments angrier and more abusive, his sense of victimhood more on display than ever. Including his attacks on the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, there may be no period in the entirety of Trump’s presidency comparable to the behavior now on display.
Along the political spectrum, there is a shared sense that the country has entered into a new and more worrisome phase of Trump’s presidency. To some who have long been critical of the president, Trump’s actions with regard to Ukraine and his call to China to launch its own investigation of Biden and his son have brought a heightened sense of alarm. Others, who have been more measured in their assessments of the president over time, see the country in a period of crisis that will test the strength of America’s constitutional democracy and its institutions.
“The crisis of the last few weeks over President Trump’s unlawful and unethical behavior is different and more damaging than any other involving past presidents over the past half century,” Nicholas Burns — a retired career diplomat, former undersecretary of state and Trump critic for some time — noted in an email exchange. “Trump’s behavior in the Ukraine scandal is qualitatively different and more challenging to our democracy.”
Andrew Card, White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush, called the contents of the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “grossly inappropriate.” He supports the opening of the impeachment inquiry, though he has reserved judgment as to whether the president committed impeachable acts. Still, he worries about the way it is all unfolding.
“Social media has brought the mob very close to the rule,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this. I blame all parties. The president takes advantage of emotions, and I think that some of the leaders of the Democratic Party take advantage of it by generating emotions.”
The signs of the damage to Trump’s standing have begun to pile up as the investigations continue. Last week, one poll after another highlighted the degree to which public opinion about impeachment has shifted, with majorities now in favor of the inquiry started by House Democrats after months in which a majority opposed such a proceeding. The percentage of people who say Trump should be impeached and removed from office also has risen. One of those polls came from what has long been the president’s favorite news organization, Fox News, which brought a cry of condemnation from the president.
The president’s behavior gives expression to the judgment he seems to have reached, that what he faces is not going away and requires him to fight back with all the energy he can muster. The urgency and defensiveness of his statements — he has repeated again and again that the call with Zelensky was “perfect”— and the sharpness of his attacks on those who are closing in on him underscore the frustrations and anger.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has attacked the current impeachment inquiry as “an unconstitutional coup d’etat” and who says Trump will emerge victorious in his reelection bid, is among those who sense a deeper level of frustration — and therefore combativeness — on the part of the president. On Fox News on Friday morning, he suggested Trump would benefit by ratcheting back. “On occasion, I think he would be better off to edit his tweets,” he said. “He says things that are stronger than he needs to say them.”
Most Republican elected officials have remained silent. For many, what they see is troubling but not necessarily impeachable. They contend there is nothing to be gained and likely much to lose by taking on the president at this moment. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has not called for impeachment but nonetheless has been sharply critical of the president’s actions with regard to Ukraine and China, has felt the lash from the president. Others are not eager to jump into that spotlight.
Trump has also given Republicans another way to vent with his decision to allow Turkish forces to move into northern Syria against the Kurds, who have been among America’s staunchest allies in the fight against Islamic State forces there. Even loyalists like Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have condemned the decision as one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the Trump administration. The breach within the GOP comes at one of the most vulnerable moments of Trump’s presidency.
This is just the fourth impeachment process in the nation’s history, but it is the third in the past half-century. No two are alike. The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 involved a long struggle between the president and Congress over race and equality in the period of reconstruction after the Civil War that ultimately was triggered when Johnson ignored an act of Congress (later declared unconstitutional).
The impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon grew out of a politically motivated burglary that ultimately revealed efforts to subvert the Constitution and Nixon’s role in trying to cover it up. President Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and abuse of power, but the triggering cause was his having had sex with a White House intern.
What the current inquiry will become is still an open question, with Democrats facing difficult questions about how narrowly or broadly to make the investigation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has yet to ask for a vote of the full House for any aspect of the proceeding. There is no requirement that she do so, but it was done in previous cases.
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the point person as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has made at least two missteps — reading at a public hearing what was a bogus version of the Trump call and separately claiming no contact with the whistleblower before the complaint became public knowledge — that have drawn legitimate criticism.
The core issue in the impeachment inquiry remains Trump’s willingness to pressure Ukraine to go after political rivals, including one, Biden, who could become his 2020 challenger, a project in which he allowed his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani to circumvent the State Department and the National Security Council to run a shadow operation. Adding to the intrigue were the arrests on Thursday of two Giuliani associates, who were detained shortly before they were to depart the United States carrying one-way tickets.
A look at Trump’s Twitter feed from the time of the first revelations about the phone call with Zelensky and the existence of a whistleblower’s complaint that had been reviewed by the intelligence community’s inspector general shows a president under great stress and flailing as he fights back.
“Another Fake News story out there – It never ends!” he tweeted in part on the morning of Sept. 19, at a time The Washington Post was revealing first details of the call. The tweet continued, “Is anyone dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.”
The next day he was attacking “the Radical Left Democrats and their Fake News Media partners, headed up again by Little Adam Schiff.” A day later, he said “the pretend Ukraine scandal is another malicious seditious effort to protect the Obama/Clinton gang.”
The following week, while at the United Nations, he sent out 11 tweets or retweets, in part to announce that he was going to release a transcript of the telephone call. He sent out another nine between 10:25 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. that night. The next day, in the space of 15 minutes, his Twitter feed spewed out 11 retweets from people calling the rough transcript proof that he did nothing wrong or attacking Democrats.
The morning of Sept. 26, the day that acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire testified before Schiff’s committee, brought another burst, with 40 tweets or retweets going out between 7 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. One, in all capital letters, read, “THE GREATEST SCAM IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN POLITICS!”
As the week progressed, Trump used Twitter to escalate his attacks on Schiff and to defend himself. “IT WAS A PERFECT CONVERSATION WITH UKRAINE PRESIDENT!” read one. Another said, “I AM DRAINING THE SWAMP!” Three tweets popped within minutes on the morning of Sept. 28: “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” “MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN!” “KEEP AMERICA GREAT.”
On the night of Sept. 28, there were two dozen mostly retweets after 10 p.m. followed by another roughly two dozen retweets before noon on Sept. 29. That night he began to attack the whistleblower and, again, Schiff. “His lies were made in perhaps the most blatant and sinister manner ever seen in the great Chamber,” read one tweet.
The next days brought more denunciations of Schiff, the Democrats and his accusers. He described Schiff as a “lowlife” and attacked the “Do Nothing Democrats” for “wasting everyone’s time and energy on BULLSHIT.”
On Oct. 2, his anger moved from Twitter to words spoken in the White House. During an Oval Office appearance with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, he said Schiff should be looked at for treason and, comparing Schiff with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said: “I won’t say it because they’ll say it was so terrible to say. But that guy couldn’t carry his ‘blank’ strap. You understand that?” He was referring to a jock strap.
He attacked the media. “We have the most dishonest media that you can imagine and you should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said to the assembled reporters. He likened the whistleblower to a spy and called Biden and Hunter “corrupt.” “I think Biden has never been a smart guy, and he’s less smart now than he ever was.” He ended that encounter by calling the media “the enemy of the people,” adding, “Have a good day everybody. Go write some phony stories. . . . Just another day in paradise.”
Later in the day, at a joint news conference with Niinisto, Trump said, “I always cooperate” when asked if the administration would cooperate with subpoena requests from the House, while labeling the inquiry “a fraudulent crime on the American people.” Later, his White House counsel sent a letter to Congress calling the impeachment effort unconstitutional and asserting there would be no cooperation.
In the news conference, Jeff Mason of Reuters asked what Trump wanted about Biden from the Ukrainians. That set the president off on a long but unresponsive answer. Mason tried repeatedly to get a belligerent Trump to answer the question, which he would not do.
The following two nights, in tweets, he claimed the power to do what he had done with Ukraine. “As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!”
A day later he called Romney “a pompous ass” who “never knew how to win.” He added, “He is a fool who is playing right into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats! #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY.”
Last week, as criticism mounted over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, giving Turkey the opening to attack the Kurds, he blasted out another tweet that revealed how he thinks about his powers. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I have done before!).”
“I suspect part of what has happened,” Gingrich said in an interview, “is just kind of exhaustion. It’s a little bit like being in the batter’s box, and you endure the entire Mueller process. It disappears. You take a deep breath and think you can go out for a beer, and you’re still in the batter’s box. And there’s a cycle which I think drives him crazy.”
He added, “I think Trump’s a pretty good fighter who sort of thought in his mind we’d get to the end of this cycle. And what he’s discovered is, he can’t move on. . . . I think there will come a point where he will shift gears and go into more of an endurance mode.”
Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, said he sees Trump as ill-suited by temperament for the impeachment test. Impeachment is a lengthy process, he said, but Trump “looks at every day as a fire sale. How many things can I do to control or dominate the day. . . . Every day is a new day and a new war.”
Tom Ridge, the former secretary of homeland security and governor of Pennsylvania, has long criticized Trump’s behavior but said the impeachment inquiry “has probably brought it to the fore in a much more dramatic way.” The president’s use of Twitter to respond is “the worst possible use of his platform as president of the United States to deal with these issues.”
Card offered a final observation by taking a step back. “I feel our democracy is tarnished today, and I want to get out there today and start to polish it up,” he said. “Impeachment is always a stain on democracy. I think leaders should always be picked and removed by the ballot box. But impeachment is there. It should be respected. It should be taken very seriously, without hyperbole.”
Philip Bump contributed to this report.