(Bloomberg Opinion) — Until Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump’s impeachment struggles were going slightly better than expected. Then Trump himself, as is his habit, upended the news cycle — and one of his best defenses against his accusers.
In the morning, the White House released the whistle-blower complaint that kicked off the Ukraine scandal. It largely confirmed elements of earlier news reports, but also showed that the whistle-blower was piecing his information together from secondhand sources inside the White House. There were no promises to a foreign leader or an explicit quid pro quo.
In a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was calm and credible. He didn’t besmirch the whistle-blower or the inspector general. But he stood his ground and explained his rationale for seeking guidance from the White House counsel and the Justice Department before sending the unprecedented whistle-blower complaint to Congress.
Then, at about 1 p.m., reports began to surface of Trump’s remarks earlier in the day to the U.S. mission at the United Nations. The whistle-blower and his or her sources, Trump suggested, should be executed. “I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information, because that’s close to a spy,” he said. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart, right, with spies and treason? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Let those remarks sink in. Trump is saying that officials who believed they witnessed him coerce a foreign leader to investigate his political rival were no different than traitors or foreign spies. Conflating loyalty to the sovereign with loyalty to country is what despots and dictators do. The American presidency was designed — created, even — to keep those loyalties separate.
In addition to being despicable on the merits, Trump’s remarks also highlight his gift for self-sabotage. Earlier in the day, Maguire testified under oath that at no point did Trump ask him about the identity of the whistle-blower, which Maguire himself does not know. Trump could have used that testimony to close off another avenue in the impeachment inquiry: whether the president sought vengeance against those who spoke to the inspector general.
That is what a competent president would have done. Instead, Trump has given his impeachers more ammunition. It is reminiscent of Trump’s efforts to coerce White House staff to lie about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
That episode was sleazy and inept, but not politically fatal. The meeting was with a Russian lawyer who was offering the Trump campaign some weak opposition research about Hillary Clinton — information that didn’t, in the end, pan out. Trump’s lies about the encounter fed the speculation that there was more to it than there really was.
The Ukraine scandal is following a similar pattern. Musing that the whistle-blower is a traitor, and his sources spies, lends credence to the view that their account is accurate: The argument is not that they are wrong, but that they have breached his confidence. In addition, Trump’s remarks undermine a point he and his surrogates had been making earlier, which is that the whistle-blower complaint is speculative hearsay.
Indeed, the whole Ukraine episode shows again how Trump is his own worst enemy. Trump got into this mess because he believes one of his possible opponents for the presidency was involved in an abuse of power in Ukraine, and he wanted the Ukrainian president to investigate. All he has to show for his efforts so far, however, is an impeachment inquiry into his own abuse of power.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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