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October Surprise Part III: 'Nonpartisan' Johnson Crashes Impeachment As Trump Surrogate


With this third and final installment we complete a series by Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory promoted by the Trump White House and its allies -- with particular attention to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. In the first installment Blumenthal explained how Johnson came to serve as Trump's instrument in the creation of "multiple untruths" to distract from the criminal realities exposed by the Mueller Report and the prosecutions of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. In the second, Blumenthal examined Johnson's ill-fated intervention in Trump's attempt to coerce the new government of Ukraine to corruptly intervene in the 2020 election. The following article recounts Johnson's role as a Trump surrogate during impeachment -- and how the false narrative he advanced then has served as the template for White House "Obamagate" mythology.

This series was first published by Just Security, an electronic journal based at the Reiss Center for Law and Security at New York University Law School, and is reprinted with permission.

Johnson Serves His Purpose: The House's Impeachment Investigation

Trump's main strategy in dealing with the House impeachment inquiry was to engage in character assassination of the witnesses. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council, had listened in on Trump's July 25 call with Zelensky and afterward reported it immediately to the White House Legal Counsel. "It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent," he would testify on Nov. 19. What Vindman would say was well known.

In anticipation of his appearance, Ron Johnson trotted out as Trump's surrogate to trash him. In an 11-page letter dated Nov. 18 addressed to the ranking Republican members of the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Johnson attacked the inquiry "as a continuation of a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage the Trump administration that probably began in earnest the day after the 2016 presidential election," but which he also traced even farther back, omnisciently stating that "my first-hand knowledge and involvement in this saga began with the revelation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept a private email server."

Throwing in his kitchen sink—the Steele Dossier, the Strzok-Page text messages, and "the false narrative of Trump campaign collusion with Russia"—the discerning Johnson could see that these elements "all fit a pattern and indicate a game plan that I suspect has been implemented once again." Vindman's testimony, according to Johnson, could be understood as part of that very "pattern" and "game plan." His background—coming to America as an immigrant from the Soviet Union at the age of three, his rise within the army from combat officer in Iraq to Russian expert for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the NSC—was dismissed. Johnson suggested that Vindman's true motive was subversion by acting as an agent of the "Deep State."

"I believe," he accused, "that a significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their 'turf.' They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office. It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile."

After arranging Vindman into his conspiracy theory, Johnson wandered into further recollections of his August 31 meeting with Trump. He added a new anecdote about Trump that pointed to yet another underlying reason for his withholding aid from Ukraine: his anti-NATO bias and pro-Russian tilt. Trump, in Johnson's telling, "reminded me how thoroughly corrupt Ukraine was and again conveyed his frustration that Europe doesn't do its fair share of providing military aid. He specifically cited the sort of conversation he would have with Angela Merkel, chancellor Germany. To paraphrase Trump: 'Ron, I talk to Angela and ask her, 'Why don't you fund these things,' and she tells me, 'because we know you will.' We're schmucks, Ron. We're schmucks.'"

In his fervent defense of Trump, Johnson seemed blithely unaware that his story of Trump calling the U.S. "schmucks" for playing the leadership role within NATO, in order to explain withholding military aid to Ukraine, only undercut his argument. Johnson didn't appear to grasp how he was further establishing the pattern of Trump's bad faith.

Johnson insisted on adding another story in his letter that he believed would exonerate Trump, this one from his September 5 meeting in Kyiv with Zelensky. "At no time during this meeting—or any other meeting on this trip," he wrote, "was there any mention by Zelensky or any Ukrainian that they were feeling pressure to do anything in return for the military aid, not even after [Senator Chris] Murphy warned them about getting involved in the 2020 election—which would have been the perfect time to discuss any pressure."

Johnson made a mistake in bringing up Murphy. The Connecticut Democrat was not a mannequin. He knew what he had said and what Zelensky replied, and that it was not what Johnson portrayed. The same day that Johnson issued his letter, on November 19, Murphy responded with a letter of his own, addressed to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the intelligence committee, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the oversight committee, conducting the impeachment inquiry.

Murphy wrote that "the most disturbing element of Senator Johnson's letter was his assertion that certain Administration staffers, most notably Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, may be actively working to 'sabotage' the President's foreign policy agenda, despite having no actual evidence of such sabotage." Murphy rejected the "deep state" conspiracy theory, instead describing how "ethical public officials saw corruption occurring" and decided to "tell the truth" about "a shadow foreign policy."

Murphy then recounted some of the recent sordid history of US-Ukraine relations. He criticized the composition of the delegation to Zelensky's inauguration that included Johnson as unfortunately "mid-level" and "partisan." While Murphy wrote that Johnson "did not support the president's decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine," he noted that Johnson was not in the dark but cognizant of the game being played and "was not alarmed like I was about Giuliani's efforts."

In their meeting with Zelensky, it was Murphy who took the initiative in raising "the pressure on Zelensky from Rudy Giuliani and the president's other emissaries to launch investigations into Trump's political rivals—namely the Bidens." Murphy urged Zelensky "to ignore requests from Trump's personal political representatives" and only deal with the United States "through official channels." Murphy described the scene as anxious and fraught. Zelensky was "gravely serious" about the withheld military aid, and Murphy wrote, "I felt the enormous burden this suspension of aid was putting on the new leader of an already fragile democracy."

Johnson, for his part, did not join his colleague in supporting Zelensky against the Giuliani juggernaut, but sat close-lipped. In Johnson's version of this meeting, he denied that Zelensky expressed any concern. Murphy, however, directly contradicted Johnson. With customary senatorial courtesy, Murphy wrote that while he did "not dispute any of Senator Johnson's factual representations…I came to a very different conclusion regarding the way that Zelensky reacted to my comments…. I interpreted Zelensky's answer to my question as a concession of the premise of my question—that he was receiving improper overtures form Giuliani to interfere in the 2020 election."

Murphy then deconstructed Trump's use of the charge of "corruption" as a lever to advance his scheme. He observed that Johnson conveyed to Zelensky "that 'corruption' was a clear concern of President Trump…simply relaying what the president had told him." "But," Murphy explained, "it's clear that in other conversations through the Giuliani back channel, 'corruption' had become synonymous with two specific investigations that would personally benefit the president, and indeed, as we learned later, these were the only two 'corruption' matters that Trump raised directly with Zelensky on the July 25 phone call."

Murphy concluded: "President Trump preyed on a vulnerable foreign nation, dependent on the U.S. for its very survival, and used taxpayer money as leverage to get that nation to work for the personal political benefit of the president." Johnson had no response to Murphy whatsoever.

The Witness and the Juror

At noon on January 16, 2020, the House Managers walked from their side of the Capitol to the Senate to deliver their counts of impeachment and a 111-page memorandum of new evidence that had emerged since the House vote on impeachment on December 18, including the Government Accountability Office's report that Trump's withholding of aid to Ukraine without notifying Congress was illegal. Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the senators in "the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States."

Trump attorneys opened their defense on January 25, insisting that there was "no evidence," according to Pat Cipollone, the White House legal counsel, while Jay Sekulow, Trump's chief lawyer, suggested that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election.

The next day, on January 26, the New York Times reported of an "explosive account" by John Bolton in an unpublished manuscript that Trump had told him "that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens."

The Times also reported that Bolton gave a more detailed version of the May 23 Oval Office meeting where Johnson had been present. Trump "railed about Ukraine trying to damage him and mentioned a conspiracy theory about a hacked Democratic server, according to Mr. Bolton." Trump thundered his denial on twitter: "I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens." Queries to Johnson were directed to a statement he had made in October when the meeting first was revealed: "Senator Johnson does not recall in any meeting or discussion with the president, or any member of the administration, that the term 'quid pro quo' was ever used. Nor does he recall any discussion of any specific case of corruption in the 2016 election, such as Crowdstrike, the hack of the DNC servers, Hillary Clinton campaign involvement, or Hunter and Joe Biden, during general discussions of corruption, which is endemic throughout Ukraine."

"A show-trial spectacle," Johnson called the impeachment trial. "This has been blown so far out of proportion." He yawned that he would "be bored if both sides took 24 hours." He waved away the GAO finding that Trump's impoundment of the funds approved by the Congress for Ukraine was illegal. "I don't think it's particularly relevant." And he showed contempt for the emergence of Bolton as a prospective witness. "The House had an opportunity to call John Bolton," Johnson said. "They decided not to. The House was in such a rush to do this impeachment. They did, from my standpoint, a pretty sloppy job. Now, they want the Senate to do their job for them."

Those glib statements elided the fact that Bolton had threatened to fight any House subpoena in a drawn-out court battle, but had since promised to comply with a subpoena from the Senate. There was, Johnson claimed, "no impeachable offense." He denied that Trump's actions were an attempt to eliminate Joe Biden as a candidate. "I never viewed his desire to find what happened in Ukraine as having anything to do with the 2020 election. It was all a look back, trying to explain in some way, shape or form how he ended up with the special counsel."

Johnson voted against allowing the House Managers to call any witnesses, including John Bolton. At the time, three-quarters of Americans believed that witnesses should be allowed to testify in the Senate trial, according to Quinnipiac polling. Before the closing arguments, Johnson announced there was no case: "That's why I will not vote to convict. I'll vote to acquit." On February 5, Trump was acquitted with only one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney, of Utah, voting guilty on one count of impeachment.

Headlong into "Obamagate"

As soon as the trial without any witnesses ended in his favor, Trump launched a retaliatory purge, firing Lt. Col. Vindman; firing the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson; firing the Inspector General of the State Department, Steve Linick, who was investigating alleged misconduct by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; firing the chairman of the oversight panel of the federal government's economic stimulus fund, Glenn Fine; firing the deputy Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who was probing Trump's failed response to the coronavirus crisis; firing the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, Mitch Behm, who was investigating irregular contracts awarded by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, the wife of Republican Senator Majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Johnson dashed to the Green Room to defend Trump's vengeance, appearing on May 17 on CNN's State of the Union with Jake Tapper. "I'm not crying big crocodile tears over this termination," he said about the dismissal of Inspector General Linick at the State Department. Johnson explained that the independence of inspector generals was strictly a fiction. "And so," he said, "they serve at the president's will." Yet under Obama, Johnson had been a champion of inspector generals, declaring it essential that they be "completely independent," warning against "retaliating against people that were issuing reports," and proposing a bill to strengthen the system. Now, he encouraged the wrecking of what he had previously tried to shield.

Johnson was already floating the "Obamagate" scheme, Trump's through-the-looking-glass conspiracy theory to explain the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel and the impeachment as all one connected plot against him, and to weaponize it for the campaign.

Johnson's work started with a letter on May 18 to Barr demanding that a supposedly incriminating email — from Susan Rice summarizing a meeting with President Obama and other officials presumably about unmasking Michael Flynn on January 5, 2017 — be declassified in the interest of "transparency." The next day the mysterious email was released. It showed that Obama had stated that any investigation into Flynn's discussions with Russian officials must be done "by the book." "The only encouraging bit," commented Tim Miller, the former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, "is the realization that if By-The-Book Gate is the best these goobers have got, then it turns out that they're as incompetent as they are corrupt."

The fizzle of the Rice email did not dampen Johnson's zealotry. He shifted into a high gear, publicly releasing his lengthy list of targets of the imaginary perpetrators of "Obamagate." But as Johnson readied his subpoenas, John Bolton finally published his book.

Bolton's memoir, The Room Where It Happened, filled in the gap in Johnson's airbrushed version of his May 23, 2019 Oval Office meeting with Trump. Bolton added additional episodes of Trump bargaining U.S. national security for his reelection effort, for example, with China. And he corroborated the other evidence gathered for Trump's impeachment as an eyewitness to the Ukraine "drug deal," all too late for the impeachment but not for the 2020 election. Bolton's direct account refuted Johnson's cynical credulity about what Trump knew and when he knew it. On August 20, 2019, Bolton wrote, "I took Trump's temperature on the Ukraine security assistance, and he said he wasn't in favor of sending them anything until all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over." Case closed.

In anticipation of the "Obamagate" and Durham investigations, Trump appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network on June 22 to accuse President Obama. "Treason. It's treason," Trump said. "Look, when I came out a long time ago, I said they've been spying on my campaign, I said they've been taping…Turns out I was right. Let's see what happens to them now…100 years ago, or 50 years ago, they would have been executed."

* * *

Charles Sykes was a Republican talk show host in Wisconsin who was responsible for helping to launch Ron Johnson on his political career. After his election to the Senate, Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal and President Reagan's former speechwriter, brightly described how a star was born. "A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, 'Yes, yes, yes!' Another said, 'I have to agree with everything that guy said.' Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, 'The reason I'm a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.'"

"We were a thing," Sykes recalled. He imagined Ron Johnson was an independent free of the Republican "establishment," "very much his own man." Since Trump's election the talk show host and the sorcerer's apprentice have taken different paths. Sykes has been thoroughly disillusioned with the Republican Party, become a leading Never Trumper, written a book titled How the Right Lost Its Mind, and helped found the Never Trumper journal, The Bulwark. "What happened to Ron Johnson?" Sykes asked. "On one level, his story is not all that much different from the rest of the GOP, which has transformed itself into Trumpist camp followers." It turned out that Ron Johnson was not who Sykes thought he was. "He was poised to be very much his own man. Instead, he became Trump's."

Yet, in an interview with Politico on the "Obamagate" investigation, Johnson presented himself as the same old Ron Johnson. "I'm a very nonpartisan guy. I just am," Johnson said in an interview. "I like using the word nonpartisan. I'm not doing anybody's bidding." The record is otherwise.

(Author's note and full disclosure: When Ron Johnson disclosed his list of people he intends to subpoena in his "Obamagate" probe my name appeared on it. Apparently, this involves the most obscure conspiracy theory within the larger conspiracy theory, a "second dossier" to Christopher Steele's Dossier originating with the Clinton campaign. There is, in fact, no such "second dossier," which is not a "dossier" at all but two emails consisting of raw notes of an inquiring journalist that he collected from conversations about Trump's Russian relationships, sent to some friends, including me, which I shared with another longtime friend, who unbeknownst to me happened to share it with his longtime friend, Christopher Steele, who unbeknownst to that friend sent a paragraph he found interesting in one of the emails to the FBI. None of this had anything to do with the Clinton campaign; no one in this chain knew who the next person would share it with; and none of it had any relevance to anything significant that subsequently occurred. I debunked this conspiracy theory in testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 16, 2019. It seems that Ron Johnson and his crack staff have failed to properly acquaint themselves with the work of that Republican-led but bipartisan committee.)

Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, the third volume in his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, published in September 2019 by Simon and Schuster. the first two volumes are A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angel. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post and Washington editor and writer for The New Yorker. His books include the The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and The Permanent Campaign. He has been a senior fellow of the NYU Center on Law and Security and is a fellow of the Society of American Historians.

October Surprise Part II: How Ron Johnson Unwittingly Exposed Trump's Ukraine Plot

Today we publish the second article in a three-part series by Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory promoted by the Trump White House, its media allies, and Republicans on Capitol Hill -- notably Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. In the first installment Blumenthal explained how Johnson came to serve as Trump's instrument in the creation of "multiple untruths" to distract from the criminal realities exposed by the Mueller Report and the prosecutions of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. It concluded with Johnson's bizarre visit to Moscow in July 2018, where he advanced Trump's coverup of Russian interference in the 2016 election -- and opposed the extension of US sanctions on Russia. The second installment examines Johnson's role in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump's impeachment.

This series was first published by Just Security, an electronic journal based at the Reiss Center for Law and Security at New York University Law School, and is reprinted with permission.


The Ukraine Scheme

In April 2018, Trump hired Rudy Giuliani, as his personal attorney, who in turn hired two associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, Russian born businessmen living in Florida, where they had contrived a variety of sketchy schemes. (One of Parnas' firms, Fraud Guarantee, which had no identifiable customers or office, paid Giuliani a $500,000 consulting fee.) At a dinner at the Trump Hotel on April 30, Parnas reportedly told Trump that the U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was "unfriendly to the president and his interests," that her presence stood in the way of the Giuliani operation. Trump vehemently replied that she should be fired.

The effort to discredit and oust Yovanovitch was launched immediately. On May 9, Parnas and Fruman got Congressman Pete Sessions, a Republican of Texas, to write a letter to the State Department demanding her dismissal, claiming she had "spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration," in exchange for a promise to raise $20,000 in campaign contributions through a pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action. Sessions appeared as "Congressman-1" in the federal indictment of Parnas and Fruman. "Parnas and Fruman committed to raising those funds for Congressman-1. Parnas met with Congressman-1 and sought Congressman-1's assistance in causing the US Government to remove or recall the then-US Ambassador to Ukraine," the indictment stated.

Giuliani's group quickly added new partners, who reportedly met regularly to plan their strategy, using the Trump Hotel as their headquarters. There was, secretly, Congressman Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee with an incorrigible penchant for arcane conspiracy theories, and his aide, Derek Harvey. There were the conservative husband-and-wife team of lawyers, Joseph DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, Fox News talking heads, who represented not only Parnas and Fruman but also the Ukrainian oligarch Dimitri Firtash, who had been Putin's man in Kyiv and was under indictment for corruption by a U.S. federal court. And there was John Solomon, the ubiquitous right-wing journalist, who, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, "has a history of bending the truth to his story line" and "distorting facts and hyping petty stories." As it happened, DiGenova and Toensing were his attorneys, too.

Beginning in March of 2019, the team instigated Solomon to produce a series of convoluted articles in his venue, The Hill newspaper in Washington, that asserted that Ambassador Yovanovitch had conspired with Hillary Clinton's campaign and George Soros and his agents to leak damaging information about Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman and the former political consultant for the Russian backed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, and that the ambassador conspired to suppress Ukrainian investigations into corruption in order to cover up Joe Biden's involvement in his son's business. Solomon also wrote that Firtash was a victim of "the Soros group" and framed by Robert Mueller to get "some dirt on Donald Trump." "I said," Giuliani explained, "'John, let's make this as prominent as possible. I'll go on TV. You go on TV. You do columns.'"

Trump's personal assistant, Madeleine Westerhout, provided Giuliani with contact information for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "God almighty I have a lot of stuff in writing," Giuliani said, and on March 28 sent over to Pompeo a dossier containing Solomon's articles trashing Yovanovitch. On April 5, six former U.S. ambassadors sent the State Department a letter expressing deep concern about "recent uncorroborated allegations" against here that are "simply wrong."

Yovanovitch sought advice on how to handle Solomon's onslaught from Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, a former hotelier who had given Trump's inaugural committee a large donation. Sondland told her, "You need to go big or go home," suggesting that she "tweet out there that you support the president." She also consulted Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. "It will all blow over," he said.

Meanwhile, William Barr, Trump's attorney general, prepared to go where his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had not.

On April 10, 2019, Barr announced that he was launching an investigation into "both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign," and emphatically added that "spying did occur." Four days later he appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to conduct the probe. "I think it's a great thing that he did it," Trump said. "I am so proud of our attorney general that he is looking into it. I think it's great." On April 24, Trump told Sean Hannity of Fox News that in fact an investigation had unearthed evidence of a plot on the part of Ukraine to help elect Hillary Clinton, "sounds like big, big stuff, and I'm not surprised." Giuliani tweeted, "Keep your eye on Ukraine."

On April 24, Yovanovitch received an abrupt telephone call from Carol Perez, director general of the State Department's foreign service. "She said that there was a lot of concern for me, that I needed to be on the next plane home to Washington. And I was like, 'What? What happened?' And she said, 'I don't know, but this is about your security. You need to come home immediately. You need to come home on the next plane. And I said, 'Physical security? I mean, is there something going on here in the Ukraine?' Because sometimes Washington has intel or something else that we don't necessarily know. And she said, 'No, I didn't get that impression, but you need to come back immediately.' And, I mean, I argued with her. I told her I thought it was really unfair that she was pulling me out of post without any explanation, I mean, really none, and so summarily."

"I do wonder why it's necessary to smear my reputation falsely," Yovanovitch testified before the impeachment committee, "Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want."

George Kent, the deputy assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, confirmed her account in his testimony. "Mr. Giuliani, at that point, had been carrying on a campaign for several months full of lies and incorrect information about Ambassador Yovanovitch, so this was a continuation of his campaign of lies." About John Solomon and his stories, Kent was scathing. "It was, if not entirely made up in full cloth, it was primarily non-truths and non-sequiturs." But the State Department ordered Kent not to complain. "I was told to keep my head down and lower my profile in Ukraine," he said. The intimidation signaled that the Giuliani operation was in charge.

On May 19, Trump gave an interview to Fox News brazenly laying out the conspiracy theory he wanted to be affixed to Biden. "Biden, he calls them and says, 'Don't you dare persecute, if you don't fire this prosecutor'—The prosecutor was after his son. Then he said, 'If you fire the prosecutor, you'll be okay. And if you don't fire the prosecutor, 'We're not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees, or whatever he was supposed to give. Can you imagine if I did that?"

Johnson's Front Row Seat

A day after Trump's interview on Fox News, Ron Johnson wandered into the scene. On May 20, in Kyiv, he attended the inauguration of the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in the company of Sondland, Volker, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas. Perry seems likely to have had his own ulterior agenda. He would secure a lucrative oil and gas deal from Ukraine for two of his political supporters, who also happened to have hired Giuliani's law firm, after Perry proposed that Zelensky take one of them as an "adviser." At the same time, Giuliani was rooting around Kyiv, trolling for disinformation to use against Biden and meeting with people close to Yuri Lutsenko, the prosecutor general, embittered at Yovanovitch and Biden for their anti-corruption efforts. Lutsenko had met previously with Giuliani and Parnas, volunteered himself as a source for Solomon's stories, but finally had a falling out with Giuliani when he failed to initiate an investigation into Biden.

Johnson came to Kyiv brandishing credentials as a close observer of the state of play. Serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation and vice chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, he had advocated military aid since the Russians had invaded eastern Ukraine in 2015. He arrived amidst the upheaval at the embassy, the orchestrated publicity campaign against Yovanovitch and her sudden removal under the cloud of a false threat to her security. Johnson was surely aware of the broad nature of these events but apparently made not a murmur of protest. He presented himself as an expert on the ground and influential figure in his own right, but he was beginning his career as an innocent abroad.

Upon the delegation's return to Washington, the four men met on May 23 with Trump in the Oval Office. Their agenda, according to Johnson, was to secure a statement in support of Ukraine, an invitation to Zelensky to the White House and the appointment of a new ambassador with "strong bipartisan support." Trump was having none of it. "He said that Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of terrible people," Volker testified. "He said they 'tried to take me down.' In the course of that conversation, he referenced conversations with Mayor Giuliani. It was clear to me that despite the positive news and recommendations being conveyed by this official delegation about the new president, President Trump had a deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine rooted in the past. He was clearly receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view." "It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President's mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani," Sondland testified. When the meeting was raised during the impeachment, Johnson's mind went blank on Sondland's account. "I am aware that Sondland has testified that Trump also directed the delegation to work with Rudy Giuliani," he wrote. "I have no recollection of the president saying that during the meeting. It is entirely possible he did, but because I do not work for the president, if made, that comment simply did not register with me." After the meeting, Sondland, Volker and Perry, anointed to work with Giuliani, dubbed themselves "the three amigos."

Indeed it was that Oval Office meeting, Ambassador William Taylor testified, in which "the irregular channel began," with the three amigos, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Giuliani in pursuit of Ukraine investigations of Biden in exchange for military aid and a White House visit.

One other man was present at the May 20 meeting, Charles Kupperman, deputy to National Security Advisor John Bolton, who reported back to Bolton. "It was a classic," Bolton wrote in his memoir, The Room Where It Happened:

"I don't want to have any fucking thing to do with Ukraine," said Trump. "They fucking attacked me. I can't understand why. Ask Joe diGenova, he knows all about it. They tried to fuck me. They're corrupt. I'm not fucking with them." All this, he said, pertained to the Clinton campaign's efforts, aided by Hunter Biden, to harm Trump in 2016 and 2020. Volker tried to intervene to say something pertinent about Ukraine." Trump replied, "I don't give a shit." "Perry said we couldn't allow a failed state, presumably a Ukraine where effective government had broken down." Trump said, "Talk to Rudy and Joe." "'Give me ninety days,'" Perry tried again." Trump interrupted, "Ukraine tried to take me down. I'm not fucking interested in helping them," although he relented to say Zelensky could visit him in the White House, but only if he was told how Trump felt in the matter. "I want the fucking DNC server," said Trump, returning to the fray, adding, "Okay, you can have ninety days. But I have no fucking interest in meeting with him."

Trump's violent obscenities, contempt for Ukraine's precarious security, obsession with conspiracy theories, bottomless sense of personal grievance, and complete knowledge and command of the Giuliani operation somehow escaped Johnson's memory and were airbrushed from his account.

Two weeks earlier, Trump had summoned Bolton to a meeting in the Oval Office with Giuliani. Also present were Trump's chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and legal counsel Pat Cipollone. Trump ordered Bolton to work with Giuliani in dredging up material to be used against Biden and influencing Zelensky to start an investigation. Bolton simply ignored Trump's directive. He wanted no part of what he called a "drug deal." "Even after they became public, I could barely separate the strands of the multiple conspiracy theories at work," Bolton wrote in his memoir.

Giuliani continued his gyrations for an investigation of Biden, but Zelensky did not start a probe and Trump withheld the nearly $400 million in military aid that the Congress had approved. The stalemate led to Trump's notorious "perfect" phone call to Zelensky on July 25. Trump's statement at the top of the conversation was often cited: "I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it." But what followed, the part spelling out the "favor," was his demand for confirmation of his conspiracy theory and for Ukraine to work with Barr to pursue it. "I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you're surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it if that's possible." In short, the object of the Trump-Zelensky call, a key piece of evidence in Trump's impeachment, is the same object that is central to the overarching conspiracy theory of "Obamagate."

Two weeks earlier, on July 11, Johnson jumped down a rabbit hole to follow the trail of the Trump conspiracy theories. The White Rabbit that Johnson chased was a heavy set and shady Ukrainian named Andrii Telizhenko, a former low-level employee at the Ukrainian Embassy to the U.S. who had parlayed himself into Giuliani's fixer, boasting of smoking fine cigars and sipping expensive whiskey with him from Kyiv to New York. Telizhenko was a man of many dubious deals. He had offered a Ukrainian magazine editor cash to lobby Republican senators on behalf of two pro-Russian media outlets in Ukraine that broadcast propaganda in favor of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, according to a CNN report. Telizhenko was also the consultant for "international relations" for Pavel Fuks, the Ukrainian oligarch who had reportedly been Trump's partner to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. (Fuks was also Giuliani's client.)

Telizhenko was a fertile source of conspiracy theories for Giuliani, which he retailed to an avid Trump, who insisted to everyone from his attorney general to his national security advisor that they prove to his satisfaction. Telizhenko's tales ranged from Biden's corruption to how the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. ordered him to work with the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to dig up damaging information on Paul Manafort. (Telizhenko's talent was featured on numerous programs broadcast by the pro-Trump, far right One America News Network, including "The Ukraine Hoax: Impeachment, Biden Cash, and Mass Murder" and "Ukrainian Witnesses Destroy Schiff's Case – Exclusive with Rudy Giuliani," in which Giuliani interviewed him.) Borys Tarasiuk, Ukraine's former foreign minister, familiar with Telizhenko's antics for years, told the Kyiv Post, "I don't think that this person deserves much attention. He's a crook."

"I was in Washington," Telizhenko recalled, "and Senator Johnson found out I was in D.C., and staff called me and wanted to do a meeting with me. So I reached out back and said, 'Sure, I'll come down the Hill and talk to you.'" Telizhenko told the Washington Post that he and Johnson discussed a whole range of theories, particularly "the DNC issue," focusing on what the Post described as his "unsubstantiated claim" that the Ukraine Embassy directed him to find "incriminating material" on Manafort. Seeking a comment from Johnson, the Post received this strange and uninformative response: "An individual close to Johnson confirmed that staff members for one of his committees met with Telizhenko as part of an ongoing investigation into the FBI and its probes of the 2016 election. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to say whether the senator was involved." Telizhenko resolved that mystery, posting a picture of himself meeting with Johnson on his Facebook page. How Johnson knew that the peripatetic Telizhenko was briefly in Washington was left unexplained.

Johnson returned to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky on September 5, this time accompanied by Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, and the new U.S. ambassador William Taylor. Zelensky's "first question to the senators was about the withheld security assistance," Taylor testified before the impeachment inquiry. "Both senators stressed that bipartisan support for Ukraine in Washington was Ukraine's most important strategic asset and that President Zelensky should not jeopardize that bipartisan support by getting drawn into U.S. domestic politics." Yet that day Trump extended the hold on the aid.

The whole affair burst open on September 9. Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community notified the House and Senate intelligence committees that a whistleblower had filed a complaint on August 12 about Trump's pressure on Ukraine to investigate Biden as the price for releasing military aid. The House demanded the release of the complaint and announced it would investigate Trump and Giuliani's operation. On September 10, Bolton resigned. On September 11, Trump released the Ukraine aid. On September 25, the White House released a version of Trump's "perfect" call asking Zelensky to "do us a favor, though." On September 27, Volker resigned. That day, Johnson and Grassley sent a joint letter to Barr, citing Telizhenko as their source, demanding, "Are you investigating links and coordination between the Ukrainian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Hillary Clinton or the Democratic National Committee? If not, why not?"

Johnson Digs a Hole

On October 3, Trump held an impromptu press conference on the South Lawn of the White House. "Mr. President, what exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call?" asked a reporter. "Well," he replied, "I would think that, if they were honest about it, they'd start a major investigation into the Bidens. It's a very simple answer." Then he added, "And by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine." Trump's remarks caused an uproar, taken as a brazen confession about Ukraine and committing another offense in his call for China to interfere for his political benefit.

Visiting the Middleton, Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, Ron Johnson immediately defended Trump's comments. "I want to find out what happened during 2016," he said, adding about Trump's call for China to investigate Biden, "I don't think there's anything improper about doing that." The next morning, moving on to Sheboygan, Johnson tried to clean up his statement. "No, and I'm not sure that's what's happening," he said, denying Trump was calling on China to interfere in American politics.

Then Johnson leaped into the breach in a valiant effort to absolve Trump. He seemed to believe that by disclosing previously unknown stories he could be the hero. But in two interviews he gave on October 4, one to the Wall Street Journal and the other to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Johnson seemed to provide further evidence of Trump's guilt and dissembling, and made himself appear to be playing the fool.

To the Wall Street Journal, Johnson claimed that in a phone call on August 31 Trump flatly denied any quid pro quo of Ukraine political assistance for U.S. military aid. "He said, 'Expletive deleted—No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?" Johnson explained that he had learned about the quid pro quo from Sondland the day before. Sondland, he said, told him Ukraine would appoint a prosecutor to "get to the bottom of what happened in 2016—if President Trump has that confidence, then he'll release the military spending." Johnson went on: "At that suggestion, I winced. My reaction was: Oh, God. I don't want to see those two things combined."

To the Journal-Sentinel, Johnson elaborated on the August 31 call with Trump. "I tried to convince him to give me the authority to tell President Zelensky that we were going to provide that. Now, I didn't succeed." The Milwaukee paper reported, "Trump said he was considering withholding the aid because of alleged corruption involving the 2016 U.S. election. Johnson stood by the president, saying he was sympathetic to his concerns and didn't see any bad motives on his part. 'What happened in 2016? What happened in 2016? What was the truth about that?' Johnson said about Trump's concerns."

With his stumbling interviews, Johnson revealed that he had been aware of the internal discussions about a quid pro quo before they were made public with the disclosure of the whistleblower's complaint, that rather than seek the truth of the matter he accepted Trump's falsehoods, and confirmed that Trump's motive involved not one but two conspiracy theories, one about Biden and the other about DNC server. Johnson also appeared to have inadvertently made himself into a material witness in an impeachment inquiry with a conflict-of-interest in serving as a juror in a Senate trial. "Republican Sen. Ron Johnson just did Trump no favors on Ukraine," ran the headline on an analysis in the Washington Post by Aaron Blake. Johnson "apparently thought [he] might help President Trump weather his Ukraine problem. But what he said was decidedly unhelpful for Trump."

Instead of rescuing Trump, Johnson had created more trouble. His effort to wipe up his little mess trying to justify Chinese interference had led to a bigger mess that seemed to implicate Trump in all the charges against him. Johnson now tried to contain his muddle with more damage control. He booked himself on NBC's Meet the Press for Sunday, October 6. His performance was an overlooked minor absurdist classic, half Samuel Beckett and half Abbott and Costello. Johnson was waiting for Godot to arrive with the answer to his quandaries while explaining who was on first.

The dialogue started with Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, playing himself as an earnest journalist asking the question that should be asked, in other words, the straight man. "Let me start with something you told the Wall Street Journal late last week. You had said when Mr. Sondland — Gordon Sondland seemed to imply that — the frozen military aid was connected to a promise by Zelensky for investigations, you said, 'At that suggestion, I winced. My reaction was, 'Oh God. I don't wanna see those two things combined.'" Why did you wince and what did you mean by 'those two things combined?'"

Johnson's opening lines established a tone of whining victimization followed by a non sequitur. "Well, fir– first of all, your setup piece was –you know, typically, very unbiased. But, you know, le — let me first, before I started answering all the detailed questions, let me just talk about why I'm pretty sympathetic with what President Trump has gone through. You know, I'm 64 years old. I have never in my lifetime seen a president, after being elected, not having some measure of well wishes from his opponents. I've never seen a president's administration be sabotaged from the day after election. I — I've never seen — no– no measure of honeymoon whatsoever. And so what President Trump's had to endure, a false accusation — by the way, you've got John Brennan on — you oughta ask Director Brennan what did [FBI agent] Peter Strzok mean when he texted [FBI agent] Lisa Page on December 15th, 2016?" (Strzok had been removed from the Mueller investigation after his text messages to Page, which contained anti-Trump sentiments, were disclosed.)

With the formalities of throat clearing out of the way, the interview took off. It is worth quoting at some length to convey the full extent of the Trump defender dissolving into dogmatic incoherence in the face of the skeptical reportorial question.

CHUCK TODD:
–I have no idea why—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
We're gettin'– no, that's– that's—
CHUCK TODD:
–why—
SEN.RON JOHNSON:
–a setup. It is entirely—
CHUCK TODD: — why a Fox—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–relevant to this point.
CHUCK TODD:
–why a Fox News conspiracy, propaganda stuff is popping up on here.
SEN.RON JOHNSON:
It is—
CHUCK TODD:
I have no idea—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
It is not. That is—
CHUCK TODD:
I have no idea—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–that is– that is exac—
CHUCK TODD:
–why we're going here.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–that is ex– that is—
CHUCK TODD:
Senator, I'm asking—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
Because this is underlying—
CHUCK TODD:
–about–
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–exactly why—
CHUCK TODD:
I'm as—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–President Trump is upset and why his supporters are upset—
CHUCK TODD:
All right, w—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–at the news media.
CHUCK TODD:
Oh, okay, this—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
You know– you know, Chuck—
CHUCK TODD:
–is not about the media—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–here's the deal, here's the deal—
CHUCK TODD:
–Senator Johnson — Senator Johnson, please!

At this point, Johnson launched into a lengthy discussion of how the Ukraine government supposedly tried to help Hillary Clinton, ending with the assertion, "There is potential interference in– in the 2016 campaign—"

CHUCK TODD:
Let me ask you this—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
That's what Trump wants to get to the bottom of. But the press doesn't want to.
CHUCK TODD:
Ambassador—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
The people who wrote this article are being pilloried. I'm being called a conspiracy theorist. John Solomon's being called a conspiracy theorist because the press is horribly biased. And Trump and his supporters—
CHUCK TODD:
Hey, look—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–completely understand that.
CHUCK TODD:
–I understand that a way to avoid answering a question is to attack us in the press. I'm well aware of that.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, no, well—
CHUCK TODD:
And that doesn't work.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–I'm tr– I'm trying to lay—
CHUCK TODD:
Let me ask you something—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–the groundwork in order to answer your question—
CHUCK TODD:
So Senator, do you– do you not believe the Russians interfered in the presidential elections to benefit Donald Trump?
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
They– they abs– they absolutely did. They absolutely did. And I don't know to what extent the Ukrainians did. I don't know to what extent DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign were involved in kinda juicin' up the– the Ukrainian involvements as well.
CHUCK TODD:
Do you just ask those—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
There are a lot of unanswered questions. Chuck, I just want the truth. The American people want the truth.
CHUCK TODD:
So, do you not trust the Amer—
SEN.RON JOHNSON:
Trump– President Trump's supporters—
CHUCK TODD: –do you not trust the FBI?
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–want the truth.
CHUCK TODD:
You don't trust the CIA? I'm—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, no I don't—
CHUCK TODD:
–I'm just very confused here
SEN.RON JOHNSON:
Absolutely not—
CHUCK TODD:
You don't trust any of those—

Round and round went Johnson, repeating the names of officials of the FBI and CIA he said he did not trust, while Todd vainly attempted to return the interview to a standard question-and-answer format.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, I don't trust any of these guys in the Obama administration. I don't trust any of 'em.
CHUCK TODD:
Senator, let me ask you this.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I– I– I've got—
CHUCK TODD:
'Cause one of the things—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–a lotta questions that have remained—
CHUCK TODD:
–one of the things—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–not answered.
CHUCK TODD:
–that you came on here to do—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I just want the truth, Chuck.
CHUCK TODD:
I– so would I—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I just want the ch– truth. No, you—
CHUCK TODD:
So would I—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–you — you set this thing up totally biased. I could never really get into the full narrative. We don't have enough time to go through all the things I can talk about in terms of—
CHUCK TODD:
You're right. Because you came here—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–my interaction with the president—
CHUCK TODD:
–and chose to bring up something about Lisa —
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, you– you s– you started—
CHUCK TODD:
–Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
SEN.RON JOHNSON:
–the piece with something incredibly biased that– I– I would never be able to get the truth out.
CHUCK TODD:
Senator, I– I– I don't know why you just came on here to personally attack the press and avoid answering questions—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
Be– because of your setup piece—
CHUCK TODD:
–about what's happened here.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
Because of your setup piece.
CHUCK TODD:
Senator, it's pretty clear– we're only dealing with the facts that we have, not the facts—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, that– that– that's what I wanna—
CHUCK TODD:
–that you wish them to be.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–deal with and I can't get the answers. And I can't get the answers. The American people can't get the answers. Something pretty fishy happened during the 2016 campaign. And in the transition, the early– the early part of the Trump presidency, and we still don't know. Robert Mueller was—
CHUCK TODD:
We do know the answer.
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–completely blinded and he– he'd never—
CHUCK TODD:
You– you're choosing—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–he never looked into any of that.
CHUCK TODD:
–you're choosing not to—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
And he should've.
CHUCK TODD:
You're—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
Ho– hopefully—
CHUCK TODD:
–you're just making a choice—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–hopefully, William Barr will.
CHUCK TODD:
You're ch– you're making a choice—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
Hopefully, William Barr—
CHUCK TODD:
–not to believe—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
–will get to the bottom of this.
CHUCK TODD:
You're making a choice not to believe the investigations that have taken place, multiple—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, I'm– I'm trying to get to the truth. I wanna look at the entire truth, Chuck.
CHUCK TODD:
Does the truth—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
The media doesn't.
CHUCK TODD:
And the truth is only when it– when it benefits– when you believe—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
No, but that's—
CHUCK TODD:
–it politically—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
You're totally false—
CHUCK TODD:
–comfortable with you? I don't understand—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
You're– you're totally incorrect—
CHUCK TODD:
–what truth are you looking for—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I want the complete truth.
CHUCK TODD:
So– well, so are we—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I want the complete truth.
CHUCK TODD:
I'm sorry that you chose—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I doubt that.
CHUCK TODD:
–to come on this way, Senator. Thanks very much. Joining me now—
SEN. RON JOHNSON:
I'm– I'm sorry you started the piece that way.

And, so, Johnson's effort at damage control was concluded, but only at the commercial break. He resumed explaining himself a month later. Once again, attempting to help Trump, he got himself into more trouble.

(To be continued.)


Author's note and full disclosure: When Sen. Johnson disclosed his list of people he intends to subpoena in his "Obamagate" probe, my name appeared on it. Apparently, this involves the most obscure conspiracy theory within the larger conspiracy theory, a "second dossier" to Christopher Steele's Dossier originating with the Clinton campaign. There is, in fact, no such "second dossier," which is not a "dossier" at all but two emails consisting of raw notes of an inquiring journalist that he collected from conversations about Trump's Russian relationships, sent to some friends, including me, which I shared with another longtime friend, who unbeknownst to me happened to share it with his longtime friend, Christopher Steele, who unbeknownst to that friend sent a paragraph he found interesting in one of the emails to the FBI. None of this had anything to do with the Clinton campaign; no one in this chain knew who the next person would share it with; and none of it had any relevance to anything significant that subsequently occurred. I debunked this conspiracy theory in testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 16, 2019. It seems that Johnson and his crack staff have failed to properly acquaint themselves with the work of that Republican-led but bipartisan committee.


Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, the third volume in his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, published in September 2019 by Simon and Schuster. the first two volumes are A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angel. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post and Washington editor and writer for The New Yorker. His books include the The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and The Permanent Campaign. He has been a senior fellow of the NYU Center on Law and Security and is a fellow of the Society of American Historians.




October Surprise: Ron Johnson's Journey Through 'Multiple Untruths' To The Fable Of Obamagate

What follows is the first article in a three-part series by Sidney Blumenthal, author and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, revealing the origins of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory promoted by the Trump White House, its media allies, and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Blumenthal's investigation focuses on the role of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a central figure in promoting the conspiracy. It is a vital story as the 2020 presidential election approaches – and with it the likelihood of an "October Surprise," based on Obamagate fabrications, emerging from Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department.

This series was first published by Just Security, an electronic journal based at the Reiss Center for Law and Security at New York University Law School, and is reprinted with permission.


The Lugar Center is a fairly recent addition of the sort of traditional institute in Washington that prevailed before Donald Trump. Its mission is to advance an internationalist foreign policy, "bipartisan governance," and bring together experts to "bridge ideological divides." It was founded by one of the last of the moderate Republicans, Richard G. Lugar, the late U.S. senator from Indiana, who once seemed to define the mainstream of a now bygone party, in the forefront of legislation to curb nuclear proliferation, but was purged in a brutal primary, losing to a Tea Party candidate who declared rape that resulted in a pregnancy was a "gift from God."

On May 27, the Lugar Center released its first comprehensive Congressional Oversight Hearing Index, an in-depth study of the due diligence of every committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate in holding the executive branch accountable, concluding with a grade for each committee. "If a House or Senate committee is failing to meet historical standards, because of partisan bias, the inattention of the committee chair, or any other reasons, the COHI will illuminate that shortfall," the Center stated. While many committees received high grades, the lowest grade—an "F" for failure—was awarded to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The report observed that the committee previously had been "one of the most active in the Senate," but that its hearing schedule had "fallen dramatically." On the Lugar Center's carefully considered Bell Curve, the committee was at rock bottom and its chairman had flunked.

Trump's Senators

Just a week later, on June 4, that chairman, Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who had come to power on the Tea Party wave that carried out Richard Lugar, rammed through authorization for 35 subpoenas to fulfill President Donald Trump's reported demand at a meeting on May 19 of Senate Republicans to get "tough" on the "Obamagate" conspiracy, a purported "Deep State" plot of the Obama administration and the intelligence community to destroy his presidency by investigating his campaign's links to and possible collusion with the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Days before, on May 24, Trump declared, "I'm fighting the deep state…I have a chance to break the deep state. It's a vicious group of people. It's very bad for our country. And that's never happened before…They never thought I was going to win, and then I won. And then they tried to get me out. That was the insurance policy. She's going to win [Hillary Clinton], but just in case she doesn't win we have an insurance policy. And now I beat them on the insurance policy, and now they're being exposed…And a lot of other things are going to come out, but you don't even need other things. What they've done is so corrupt, they've tried to take down a duly elected president of the United States, happens to be in this case, me, but we can never allow it to happen again."

Then he praised Ron Johnson as his champion. "And I want to take my hat off to Ron Johnson. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. The job he's doing is incredible…I see that a lot of subpoenas out. So it's a much different thing. We caught them in a very corrupt, you could call it treasonous, because it is, it's treasonous. We caught them in a very corrupt act."

On May 11, when asked at a press briefing to explain the crime Trump was accusing former President Barack Obama of having committed, he said, "It's been going on for a very long time …You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody." A short while later, on May 13, Trump tweeted it was "the greatest political scandal in the history of the United States, OBAMAGATE. Fake News@CNN and Concast's own MSDNC are only trying to make their 3 year Con Job just go away."

As Johnson geared up to send out his flurry of subpoenas, Trump tweeted encouragement to his tens of millions of followers, "America is proud of Ron Johnson. He never gives up!" Johnson retweeted, "Thanks, @realDonaldTrump."

Every Democrat on both the Judiciary Committee and the Homeland Security Committee objected to the motion to issue subpoenas in pursuit of Trump's theories. "I can't support this kind of dragnet authority to conduct politically motivated investigations," said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in response to the push from the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the ranking member on Homeland Security, called it a "fishing expedition… which did not become a priority until we entered into an election year." Then both committees approved on a Republican party line vote the authority to grant a total of 88 subpoenas to plumb the mysteries of "Obamagate."

Enter Barr's Justice Department

While Trump was furiously tweeting about "Obamagate" and urging on Ron Johnson, Attorney General William Barr stepped from behind his curtain to make a statement on May 18 about the ongoing investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation being conducted by his appointee, U.S. Attorney John Durham. In light of Trump's accusation of criminality aimed at former President Obama, Barr clarified that Obama and Biden would not be targets. "Whatever their level of involvement based on the level of information I have today, I don't expect Mr. Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man." He added, "Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others." Then he offered misleading words in his usual banal style: "As long as I'm attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends. This is especially true for the upcoming elections in November."

But Barr indicated something other than Olympian reserve above the campaign fray. His statement, while intended to make his actions appear purely non-political, laid out the political scenario for when the scheme will reach its crescendo. He pointed Durham to target and prosecute Obama subordinates for "potential criminality." Without naming names, Barr's list consists of those very same former prominent officials on the subpoena lists of Ron Johnson and Lindsey Graham. Those lists are the ramshackle skeleton of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory: former CIA director John Brennan, former director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI director James Comey, former national security advisor Susan Rice, former ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and a host of former intelligence community officers who have long been hate figures in the Trump demonology. (As a matter of course, the Democrats' request to add the gallery of Trump usual suspects to the subpoena list was blocked: Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and more.)

An agitated Barr would not allow his signaling in his May 18 remarks to remain his last. "We can't discuss future charges, but …." he said in an exclusive interview on June 10 with Fox News, as he then proceeded to discuss future charges. "But people should not draw from the fact that no action has been taken that taken yet [sic], that that means that people or people are going to get away with wrongdoing." Barr repeated the Trump conspiracy theory including parts that fly in direct contradiction of a Justice Department Inspector General conclusions on the matter: "For the first time in American history, police organizations and the national security organizations were used to spy on a campaign, and there was no basis for it. The media largely drove that, and all kinds of sensational claims were being made about the president that could have affected the election. And then and then later on, in his administration, there were actions taken that really appear to be efforts to sabotage his campaign." Barr promised that Durham was "looking at" a whole range of Obama officials to indict.

The Two Rivers Meet

The summer hearings seem barely disguised as preparation for an October Surprise. Barr has emerged from the shadows just as the previously moribund Senate committees suddenly have stirred to life as "Obamagate" star chambers. In a symbiotic relationship, the Senate operations will orchestrate propaganda for Fox News and the Wurlitzer of right-wing media in an overture to Durham's report and possible indictments that may be sprung during the climax of the presidential campaign. "I'm going to do this through October," Graham tellingly said in a June 5 interview on Fox News. At his hearing authorizing subpoenas, he filled the air with threatening cries. "Comey and McCabe and that whole crowd — their day is coming," he said. He felt compelled to demean Robert Mueller and the Mueller Report as "off script." The lengthy list of names he brandished "need to be fired, they need to be disciplined"—though none are in any current government position from which they could be "fired" or "disciplined"—or, Graham threatened, "they are good candidates to go to jail." Another Republican member of the committee, Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, appearing to have a flashback, railed about Hillary Clinton. "What did Hillary Clinton know about the dossier and when did she know it?" he chimed in. But Hillary Clinton is not on the subpoena list, at least for now.

Ron Johnson's statement at the June 4 meeting of the Homeland Security Committee in which he hammered through his authority to mass produce subpoenas made plain that a good deal of the animating motive and guiding focus of both the Senate and Durham investigations is the case of Michael Flynn, Trump's first and short-lived national security advisor.

Flynn committed perjury by lying to the FBI about his discussions after the election with the Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, telling him not to retaliate in kind to U.S. sanctions imposed under Obama because there would be a new policy under Trump, an implication that the sanctions would be lifted. Flynn then lied about his conversations to Vice President Mike Pence, who publicly repeated his falsehoods. Through the FBI's "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation into whether Trump's associates were cooperating or conspiring with Russia to influence or interfere in the 2016 election, Flynn's contacts were discovered and exposed. He was fired by Trump, pled guilty twice and then sought to rescind his plea. In December 2019, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, David Horowitz, issued a report stating that the standard for "predication," opening an FBI investigation into Flynn's Russian ties, was legitimately authorized, based on "an articulable factual basis that [he] may wittingly or unwittingly be involved in activity on behalf of the Russian Federation which may constitute a federal crime or threat to the national security," and finding no evidence of political bias or improper motivation.

What Really Happened with Flynn

On February 14, 2017, the day after Flynn's dismissal, Trump pressured FBI director James Comey not to open an investigation. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." The Mueller Report concluded that "the circumstances of the conversation show that the President was asking Comey to close the FBI's investigation into Flynn." Trump directed Flynn's deputy, K.T. McFarland, to write a document to "confirm" that Trump had not directed Flynn. She refused and instead wrote a memo to the White House legal counsel to memorialize the "irregular" request that appeared "like a quid pro quo in exchange for an ambassadorship," according to the Mueller Report. When Comey refused to drop the Flynn probe, Trump fired him, triggering the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russian interference in the election. Trump's personal attorney John Dowd called Flynn and left a voicemail for him: "We need some kind of heads up. Um, just for the sake of…protecting all our interests, if we can, without you having to give up any…confidential information." Then he called Flynn's attorney to warn him that if "there's information that…implicates the president, then we've got a national security issue." Trump refused to provide a written answer to Mueller's question to him about Flynn.

On May 5, Barr's Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the case against Flynn, who was awaiting sentencing. Barr's filing claimed that the FBI investigation was "conducted without any legitimate investigative basis," Flynn's lies lacked "materiality," he was somehow tricked by the FBI agents into lying, and anyway the FBI really didn't think he was lying. The DOJ prosecutor quit the case in protest. In a report on the DOJ motion on June 10 to the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Court judge Emmet Sullivan, former federal judge John Gleeson stated that the DOJ's claims "are not credible," and instead are "preposterous," and "riddled with inexplicable and elementary errors of law and fact." "The facts surrounding the filing of the Government's motion to dismiss constitute clear evidence of gross prosecutorial abuse," Gleeson wrote. "They reveal an unconvincing effort to disguise as legitimate a decision to dismiss that is based solely on the fact that Flynn is a political ally of President Trump." On Trump and Barr, Gleeson concluded, "If the Executive wishes for the Judiciary to dismiss criminal charges—as opposed to issuing a pardon or taking other unilateral action—the reasons it offers must be real and credible."

The Tracks of Senator Johnson's Disinformation

Seeking to "dominate the battlespace" for Trump's retribution, Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson have been assigned the task of serving subpoenas throughout the long hot summer, the equivalent of lobbing flash grenades and tear gas to clear the path for Barr's march to October. Johnson's statement to his committee, amounting to his order of battle, was a haphazard series of distortions, omissions and half-truths, which he claimed were "undisputed," his characteristic method, as he said, to challenge the "false narrative" against Trump.

Well, no, the Steele Dossier, compiled by Christopher Steele, the former MI6 British secret service agent who had spent much of his career doing intelligence work in Russia, was not, as Johnson asserted, ordered up by the DNC and Clinton campaign to produce "fabricated foreign opposition research." Steele was in fact initially hired by the conservative website The Free Beacon and paid by Republican donor Paul Singer to help the Jeb Bush campaign. There has been no proof that the Steele Dossier's principal substantive allegation regarding the Russian effort to assist in Trump's election was false, or that the information was manufactured by the Russian government or its agents deliberately using Steele as its outlet. On the contrary, the U.S. intelligence community as well as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have stated that the Russian government and its intelligence services intervened in the election to help Donald Trump. Some of the indisputable facts of that interference are set forth in the Mueller investigation's indictment of 13 Russian agents and three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, which the group itself described as "'information warfare against the United States,'" using "fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016…. supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ('Trump Campaign') and disparaging Hillary Clinton." The Mueller Report, moreover, identified 272 contacts between Trump agents and Russian operatives, not one of which was reported to the FBI. Mueller stated, "the investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference."

Well, no, despite Johnson's insistence, it was not the Steele Dossier that "was used to instigate an FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and obtain FISA warrants." The origin of the investigation can be traced to the former foreign minister of Australia and ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer, who was alarmed after Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos informed him that Russia indicated to the Trump campaign that the Kremlin could assist in the election through the anonymous release of derogatory information on Clinton. Downer told his government, which in turn related it to the FBI, which then interviewed him.

Well, no, the "unmasking" of "Trump officials by dozens of political appointees in the waning days of the Obama administration"—that is, national security and law enforcement officials—was neither unusual nor illegal. And, as it happened, Flynn, often claimed to have been unmasked, was not after all masked in the FBI document on his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Well, no, Flynn was not the innocent victim of a "surprise" FBI interview. His perjury cannot be blamed on being startled. No FBI agent instructed him to lie. And, well, no, the case against Flynn would not have been dismissed on the basis of an FBI memo that was suddenly suppressed. And so on.

Johnson's tendentious complaint amounts to a defense of Trump on the curious assumption that the FBI has no legal predicate to engage in counter-intelligence operations against foreign adversaries, particularly Russia in light of its history of corrupting American officials and intelligence officers, not that Johnson or the staffers who wrote his statement grasp the absurdity of their own argument. In order to vindicate Trump—and Flynn—both of them must be the victims of the "Deep State" (i.e., the U.S. intelligence community, State Department and professionals of the Justice Department), who must be the true perpetrators, and the official findings of culpability for those who have committed crimes must be reversed. "The Department of Justice has a solemn responsibility to prosecute this case—like every other case—without fear or favor and, to quote the Department's motto, solely 'on behalf of justice,'" stated former judge Gleeson. The perversion of justice requires the inversion of the storyline.

Senator Joseph McCarthy's Successor

Johnson's mélange of misleading assertions may be fabricated, but it is also prefabricated. The rickety edifice of his argument was manufactured prior to arriving at his shop, indeed, delivered to him with instructions and quickly constructed. His value appears to be in following instructions. If he were an imaginative flimflam man in his own right, Trump (and Barr) would not rely on him to perform as expected. (In this respect he stands as a contrast to Lindsey Graham.) Johnson's method is apparently second-hand, borrowed from Trump, who acquired its secrets from his first lawyer and mentor in the dark arts, Roy Cohn, who honed it as counsel to another senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.

The original technique perfected by McCarthy was best described by Richard H. Rovere, the writer for The New Yorker, who knew McCarthy and was the author of the most incisive biography. Rovere wrote:

The multiple untruth need not be a particularly large untruth but can instead be a long series of loosely related untruths, or a single untruth with many facets. In either case, the whole is composed of so many parts that anyone wishing to set the record straight will discover that it is utterly impossible to keep all the elements of the falsehood in mind at the same time. Anyone making the attempt may seize upon a few selected statements and show them to be false, but doing this may leave the impression that only the statements selected are false and that the rest are true. An even greater advantage of the 'multiple untruth' is that statements shown to be false can be repeated over and over again with impunity because no one will remember which statements have been disproved and which haven't.

The Senate hearings on "Obamagate" promise to be a cavalcade of witnesses, each linked in a chain of "a conspiracy so immense" to prove the "multiple untruth." The witnesses' appearances under subpoena project a perceived assumption of guilt, as McCarthy instinctively understood when he exploited his senatorial immunity to use the Chamber as the stage setting for a courtroom where his accusations never had to meet the rules of evidence. Even the odd disconnected fact that somehow arises in the "Obamagate" hearing will be, as it was by McCarthy, hammered out of shape and into line to fit the larger untruth.

But Ron Johnson is no Joe McCarthy, who was, at least before Trump, "the most gifted demagogue ever bred on these shores," according to Rovere, "a fertile innovator, a first-rate organizer and galvanizer of mobs, a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and something like a genius at that essential American strategy: publicity." McCarthy was a little-noticed sleazy Republican senator, pocketing money on the side from various lobbyists, and looking for a dramatic issue to exploit for his reelection when at a dinner a companion suggested that he use his perch as chairman of the subcommittee on Permanent Investigations to seize on Communist subversion. "That's it," said McCarthy. "The government is full of Communists." In a speech in 1950 at Wheeling, Wester Virginia, he told a Lincoln Day gathering of a Women's Republican Club that he had the names of 205, or 81, or 57 Communists in the State Department. His crusade of "Multiple Untruth" was off to the races, the first against the "Deep State," accusing not only the State Department but also the CIA and the Army of being infiltrated by Communist agents, and accusing General George C. Marshall of being part of "a conspiracy so immense." McCarthy's youthful counsel, Roy Cohn, created new investigations to ferret out subversives and homosexuals when McCarthy himself was stumped for fresh targets. McCarthy played the Washington press corps like a Stradivarius, inventing stories as he walked the corridors of the Capitol with reporters, terrorized two presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, reached 50 percent approval with the public (a number that Trump has never attained), and was allowed free rein by his fellow Republican senators until his utility as a weapon to smear Democrats as traitors ended when he veered too far off the rails in his attack on the Army. He was censured (Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut was prominent in proposing the motion), fell into an alcoholic stupor, and drank himself to death.

Roy Cohn went back to New York, where he would meet Donald Trump and introduce him to the Mafia families who were Cohn's clients and would pour the concrete for Trump Tower. Cohn would teach him his methods of intimidation and deceit, and before his death from AIDS pass his handling over to his protege Roger Stone, who made his chops as a "ratfucker" doing dirty tricks in Nixon's reelection campaign and became Trump's chief political advisor.

In 2016, Stone apparently kept Trump closely informed in advance of Wikileaks' schedule for publication of Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian military intelligence. In written testimony to Mueller's questions, Trump denied any such knowledge. But in the unredacted version of the Mueller Report, the special counsel wrote that "the President's conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President's denials and would link the President to Stone's efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks." Stone was scheduled to report to federal prison on June 30 for seven counts of federal crimes including lying to Congress, witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, before being sprung by Trump's commutation that raises questions whether the two might be prosecuted in the future for obstruction of justice. The line from McCarthy to Trump, from demagogue to demagogue, is just a hop, skip and jump.

Johnson's Political Groundings

In Ron Johnson's telling, the miraculous revelation that he should run for the U.S. Senate struck him in a single blinding moment like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. A voice spoke to him. "I was sitting at home watching Fox News and Dick Morris came on," he recalled. The polymorphous perverse political consultant, a Fox News talking head, in 2010 flacking for the Tea Party, from which he was personally profiting with a series of front groups, uttered these inspirational words: "You know, if you're a rich guy from Wisconsin, step up to the plate." Johnson turned to his wife and asked, "Is he, like, talking to me?"

Johnson had not run for any political office before. He was an accountant who made his fortune the old-fashioned way: he married it. His wife's brother, Patrick Curler, installed him as president in the family business, which Curler had inherited from his father. The Pacur company (named for Pat Curler), based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, manufactures specialty plastic wrapping for medical devices among other products.

Johnson's most notable public appearance before his Senate run was as a witness in early 2010, testifying before a state senate committee hearing against the Child Victims Act that would eliminate the statute of limitations for reporting crimes of pedophilia. The Green Bay, Wisconsin Catholic Diocese had just confessed that there were "substantial" allegations of sexual abuse of minors against 48 priests. Johnson, a Lutheran, was a member of the diocese's financial council, which would be involved in any compensation, and he made the novel argument that efforts at achieving justice would only "have the perverse effect of leading to additional victims of sexual abuse if individuals, recognizing that their organizations are at risk, become less likely to report suspected abuse." Johnson, however, failed at the time to inform the committee of his membership on the Church's finance counsel. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which identified him as an "Oshkosh businessman," reported, "Johnson had little to say about the victims of sexual abuse in his testimony. His was largely a financial concern." The bill was also opposed by the insurance industry. Johnson later explained he was concerned about its financial effect on other groups and businesses. The bill was successfully killed. Johnson's shielding of child molesters in the priesthood was his first success in public policy.

In 2009, a year before Johnson said he heard the commanding voice of Dick Morris, he was already speaking at Tea Party rallies, the start of his self-financed campaign for the Republican senatorial nomination. "I'm happy to associate myself with the people of the Tea Party," he said. But few knew who he was, he seemed vague about specific Tea Party doctrines, and Tea Party groups denied that they endorsed his candidacy. Yet his money overwhelmed opposition and wariness. When he gained the nomination at the state convention, he admitted, "I think what was most gratifying to me about it is it really wasn't endorsing me because people don't really know who I am." He was elected in the Republican wave of 2010, defeating the incumbent Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold.

Johnson proved himself to be a reliable party-liner. He called Obamacare's provision for contraception "an assault on religious freedom," accused Planned Parenthood of being "vested in the barbaric practice of harvesting human organs," insisted there was no "scientific evidence" for climate change, tried to gut financial regulation, and, echoing what he heard on Fox News, took to denouncing "The Lego Movie," which he labeled "insidious" anti-business "propaganda." The film's cartoon villain was an evil businessman. "That's done for a reason," he explained. "Our news media is not on our side, certainly not entertainment media."

There was one other position on which Johnson hewed to the party line: the Obama administration's supposed weakness toward Vladimir Putin, a "megalomaniac" and "a danger to the civilized world." Johnson demanded in 2015 that Obama take a more aggressive stance against Russia, especially on Ukraine. Obama, he charged, had "not taken the time to explain why Vladimir Putin's aggressive expansion threatens our national security and the world order."

When Trump clinched the Republican nomination for president, but before the Republican National Convention, Johnson tried to create some degree of separation from him. His endorsement, he said, would not be "a big embrace." "I'll certainly be an independent voice where I disagree with a particular nominee." After the Access Hollywood tape was disclosed—"Grab 'em by the pussy"—Johnson behaved as though Trump would lose. "I'm not going to defend the indefensible," he said. "But I will hold whoever is our president accountable." At a campaign rally just before the election, Johnson called for Hillary Clinton to be impeached for her emails when she became president. "I'm not a lawyer," he said. "I would say, yes, high crime or misdemeanor. I believe she is in violation of both laws." He may have never realized how foolish that sounded.

With Trump's freakish victory Johnson instantly transformed himself into a courtier. He was more than a dependable vote, more than another Republican who held his tongue and held on for dear life. He has aggressively inserted himself into peculiar situations abroad, suddenly popping up in the middle of Trump's clandestine relationships with Russia and Ukraine, and giving murky explanations for why he was there, what he was doing and who sent him. In Moscow and Kyiv, here was Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt-like American archetypal figure from the 1920s, the conventional businessman booster from the small-town Midwest, as Zelig, Woody Allen's nebbish chameleon who makes startling appearances ingratiating himself with almost every celebrity of the same period. The key to both fictional personalities is the urge for conformity. Johnson's one-dimensional lack of complication has landed him in the midst of tangled situation. His simple-minded Republican ambition to get ahead has propelled him into Trump's abyss, which he has mistaken for a ladder of success.

Johnson Goes to Russia

"What does July 4th mean to me? Freedom," tweeted Ron Johnson, on July 4, 2018. He celebrated that day in Moscow with a group of seven other Republicans. (There were no Democrats on this congressional delegation.) The Republicans announced that they hoped to meet with Putin, who would have a summit with Trump the next month in Helsinki, where Trump declared that he accepted Putin's statement that Russia had not interfered in the U.S. election. But Johnson and the others were not granted an audience with the Russian leader. Instead they were greeted by Sergei Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States, Michael Flynn's interlocutor, and now a member of Russia's upper house of parliament. "We heard things we'd heard before, and I think our guests heard rather clearly and distinctly an answer that they already knew—we don't interfere in American elections," said Kislyak. Another Russian official they met, Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov, said "he had met with many American lawmakers in years past and that this meeting 'was one of the easiest ones in my life,'" according to the Washington Post. "The question of election interference, he said, was resolved quickly because 'the question was raised in a general form.' 'One shouldn't interfere in elections—well, we don't interfere,' Nikonov said." The Post reported: "On Russian state television, presenters and guests mocked the U.S. congressional delegation for appearing to put a weak foot forward, noting how the message of tough talk they promised in Washington 'changed a bit' by the time they got to Moscow. 'We need to look down at them and say: You came because you needed to, not because we did,' Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military expert, said on a talk show on state-run television."

As soon as Johnson returned home, on July 7, the former hardliner on Russia told the right-wing Washington Examiner that "he's worried that Congress over-reacted to Russia's election interference, which resulted in legislation that tied Trump's hands with mandatory sanctions. 'I've been pretty upfront that the election interference —as serious as that was, and unacceptable—is not the greatest threat to our democracy,' he said. 'We've blown it way out of proportion—[as if it's] the greatest threat to democracy…We need to really honestly assess what actually happened, what effect did it have, and what effect are our sanctions actually having, positively and negatively.'" He added, "And I think you'd be hard-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working all that well."

The next day, TASS, the Russian state news service, publicized: "US Sanctions Against Russia Not Working–US Senator Johnson." Sputnik International headlined: "GOP Senator After Moscow Visit: US Sanctions On Russia 'Not Working That Well.'" Johnson had provided a propaganda coup for Putin.

Later that July, Trump was busily engaged in what the Mueller Report documented as the fourth of his ten obstructions of justice against the investigation into his collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election: "The President Orders [Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus to Demand [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions's Resignation." Trump was obsessed with raising a conspiracy theory that the Clinton campaign had colluded with Ukraine against him to counter the reality of what Russia actually had done. The Mueller Report cited his tweet of July 25, 2017: "Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign—'quietly working to boost Clinton.' So where is the investigation A.G."

Trump soon worked his obsession into an elaborate "multiple untruth" that it was Ukraine that hacked the DNC server, not Russia, that Ukraine falsely blamed Russia, that when the FBI attempted to retrieve the server Ukraine gave it to the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which he claimed was a Ukrainian company and supposedly hid the server in order to protect Hillary Clinton's role in the secret plot against him. None of these claims were true.

Fiona Hill, the National Security Council senior director on Europe and Russia, in her testimony before the House impeachment committee, called Trump's story "an alternative narrative" that undermined U.S. interests and aided Russia. "These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes," she said. This "alternative narrative" is a Trump conspiracy theory that could be quashed by facts, yet became an impetus behind Johnson's investigation, one of his Holy Grails.

Even before Johnson's mission to Moscow, Trump had for months been piecing together the operation that would attempt to force an investigation into Joe Biden's alleged promotion of his son Hunter Biden's business interests in Ukraine—a charge that was entirely false and has been repeatedly refuted—and would eventually seek to force an exchange for the manufacture of that political smear for U.S. military aid to Ukraine—the proposed transaction that was the grounds for Trump's impeachment. Johnson would soon plunge right into the middle of the Trump team's machinations in Ukraine.

(To be continued.)


Author's note and full disclosure: When Sen. Johnson disclosed his list of people he intends to subpoena in his "Obamagate" probe, my name appeared on it. Apparently, this involves the most obscure conspiracy theory within the larger conspiracy theory, a "second dossier" to Christopher Steele's Dossier originating with the Clinton campaign. There is, in fact, no such "second dossier," which is not a "dossier" at all but two emails consisting of raw notes of an inquiring journalist that he collected from conversations about Trump's Russian relationships, sent to some friends, including me, which I shared with another longtime friend, who unbeknownst to me happened to share it with his longtime friend, Christopher Steele, who unbeknownst to that friend sent a paragraph he found interesting in one of the emails to the FBI. None of this had anything to do with the Clinton campaign; no one in this chain knew who the next person would share it with; and none of it had any relevance to anything significant that subsequently occurred. I debunked this conspiracy theory in testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 16, 2019. It seems that Johnson and his crack staff have failed to properly acquaint themselves with the work of that Republican-led but bipartisan committee.


Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, the third volume in his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, published in September 2019 by Simon and Schuster. the first two volumes are A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angel. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post and Washington editor and writer for The New Yorker. His books include the The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and The Permanent Campaign. He has been a senior fellow of the NYU Center on Law and Security and is a fellow of the Society of American Historians.

Nine Questions For The White House Physician On The President’s Use Of Hydroxychloroquine

Reprinted with permission from JustSecurity

President Donald Trump's announcement on May 18 that he had secretly begun taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine 10 days before coincides with the revelation that two senior White House aides tested positive for COVID-19 and the sudden initiation of a White House policy for staffers to wear masks. When press secretary Kayleigh McEnany explained the new White House Policy back then, she did not disclose, perhaps because she did not know, that the president was taking hydroxychloroquine. "I think it's good," Trump said on Monday. "I've heard a lot of good stories. And if it's not good, I'll tell you right. I'm not going to get hurt by it."

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Open Memo 2: The Impeachment Roadmap From 1974 To 2020

Reprinted with permission from Just Security.

 

ESTRAGON
Let’s go!
VLADIMIR
We can’t.
ESTRAGON
Why not?
VLADIMIR
We’re waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON
(despairingly) Ah!

–Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

The Watergate Analogy and the “Smoking Gun”

The first hearing of the House Judiciary Committee into the crimes of Donald Trump explored the analogy between Richard Nixon’s obstructions of justice in the Watergate affair and Trump’s obstructions in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election that was intended to assist his candidacy. The first witness, John Dean, who had been Nixon’s White House legal counsel and exposed his “cancer on the presidency,” testified that Trump’s crimes were comparable to Nixon’s. “It’s quite striking and startling to me that history is repeating itself—and with a vengeance,” he said. He pointed the committee to the Mueller Report as “a road map.”

But one major dissimilarity between the Nixon and Trump cases is as revealing and central as the “striking” parallel between their abuse of power—and makes the case against Trump all the more secure. The contrasting sequences in the disclosure of damaging information shows that the progress in establishing Trump’s crimes is more concrete, unambiguous and undeniable than Nixon’s were until the climax of his scandal. That difference is not a merely intriguing footnote, but fundamental to understanding how the current investigation of Trump would most probably unfold. In Nixon’s case, the incriminating piece of evidence, which became known as the “Smoking Gun” tape, was not exposed until the very end; in Trump’s case, however, the incriminating evidence in the form of many smoking guns lie in plain sight on the table like Poe’s supposedly hidden purloined letter.

The Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings on May 17, 1973. In his testimony that June, John Dean raised his suspicion that Nixon was taping his conversations. A month later, in July, Alexander Butterfield, the deputy chief of staff, who had installed the taping system, testified to its existence. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox promptly filed subpoenas for the tapes. Nixon invoked executive privilege. District Court Judge John Sirica ruled that Nixon must turn over the tapes. Nixon stonewalled. Negotiations went nowhere. On October 20, in the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Nixon fired Cox, and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who refused to do his bidding. The court appointed Leon Jaworski as Special Prosecutor, and he drew up a confidential “roadmap” for his investigation that was not made public until 2018. Despite the firestorm over Cox’s dismissal, it took until February 6, 1974 for the House to authorize the Judiciary Committee to initiate an impeachment inquiry, which hired a staff to begin the formal process of gathering evidence. On April 11, the Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon handed over a batch of edited transcripts. The committee opened public hearings on May 9. On July 24, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in United States v. Nixon, a case filed by Jaworski, that Nixon must turn over the tapes. Three days later, over the course of three days, the Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment. On August 5, the “Smoking Gun” tape proving Nixon’s obstruction of justice was revealed. He resigned on August 9.

Thus, in the Nixon case the conclusive incriminating piece of evidence of his obstruction, the “Smoking Gun” tape, was disclosed after the Judiciary Committee had already voted articles of impeachment. By contrast, in the Trump case, the evidence of his obstructions of justice, already carefully detailed in the Mueller Report, was released on April 18—before any hearings into his crimes. In Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee voted on impeachment before the final evidence of the crime was exposed. With Trump, a crime has already been established, but there is no impeachment inquiry. The sequence is the reverse of Watergate, and in ways far more damaging to Trump.

Yet the House leadership is conveying a misimpression that a “Smoking Gun” still needs to be discovered and that an inquiry to establish what is already known from the Mueller Report as well as other of Trump’s crimes would only politically enhance him-–a misimpression deliberately fostered by the Trump White House, and above all by Attorney General William Barr, who is a master of misrepresentation. As if transfixed by a conventional wisdom manufactured by Trump’s lawyers and other allies, or an apprehension based on snapshots of transitory polls that the public is sold on that conventional wisdom, and gripped with angst about swing districts, the House leadership has forsworn the only available constitutional means for halting what they know to be this administration’s brazen deceptions, stonewalling, and threats to the foundations of our constitutional system. Rather than accepting the obligation to prove to the public the severity of Trump’s high crimes and to begin the work of restoring democratic norms to government and society, the House leadership has instead limited the action to ongoing investigations and litigation as a kind of half-measure and suture to stanch an impeachment. Yet if this plodding approach manages to force forward fact witnesses and damaging documents they would inevitably provide compelling cause for impeachment, but in the middle of the campaign. The leadership’s logic is not so much circular as ironically self-refuting if it bears fruit.

It was a political axiom of the Nixon case that the more information that the public knew the more the support for impeachment rose. The evidence that this is also an axiom in the Trump case has now begun to appear. After Mueller’s press conference, a CNN poll showed support for impeachment climbed from 37 percent to 41 percent. By the gauge of the CNN poll, the public today is roughly in support of impeachment for Trump where it was for Nixon on the eve of the Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings. The Quinnipiac Poll of June 12 showed that 48 percent were in favor of the Congress investigating to determine whether to impeach Trump—in effect a near majority favoring an inquiry. By an even larger margin, 55 percent to 35 percent, voters said Mueller did not clear Trump of wrongdoing. Forty-five percent said Trump has committed crimes in office, the definition of an impeachable offense. With 95 percent of Republicans unsurprisingly in unison against the idea that Trump deserves to be impeached, 44 percent of the total of the public say he does deserve to be impeached, including 45 percent of independents. That number suggests room for growth if Trump’s misdeeds were to be confirmed.

In the Nixon case, his support dropped and the percentage in favor of impeachment rose gradually as his crimes were disclosed. In Trump’s, support for impeachment is farther advanced. Most of the public is already convinced that he has a criminal character. By 57 percent to 29 percent, voters believe Trump committed crimes before assuming office. And yet only 33 percent favor starting the process to impeach in the Quinnipiac poll, 11 points below the number of those who think Trump deserves to be impeached. One might call that the Pelosi effect. The Republicans are fairly static, but surely many of the Democrats would shift their view if Pelosi and the party unified in favor of an impeachment inquiry.

The principal task of the House Judiciary in holding Trump constitutionally accountable would begin most obviously in corroborating what has already been documented through the same witnesses that established the facts for Mueller. But since the Mueller Report has been made public the only fact witness that the committee has managed to hear is John Dean—the facts being about Watergate—and whose history lesson is just the beginning of instruction.

The Roadmap from 1974 to 2020

The Democratic leaders behave as though they view events through a glass darkly. But the history of the Nixon impeachment and its aftermath, the only pertinent model, removes the opacity occluding the politics of impeachment, and a “roadmap” appears: a televised inquiry building public support; witnesses before the cameras offer persuasive testimonials about the evidence about which much of the public had been unaware but is scandalized to learn; the publicized evidence eats away at the credibility of the president’s defenders. There are, moreover, deeper historical parallels to the Nixon impeachment than have been discussed that shed light on the Democrats’ quandary over opening an inquiry and the prospect of a Republican managed Senate trial.

While Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and others have suggested the futility of an impeachment because a Republican dominated Senate would almost certainly acquit Trump, it is also at least equally certain that impeachment would tighten a political vise around the most vulnerable Republican members seeking reelection in 2020. It is also possible that a failure to impeach will strengthen those vulnerable Republicans as well as Trump, who by default will boast an aura of vindication. In fact, backing off of impeachment now, after so much consternation, will be used by Trump to bludgeon Democrats. By contrast, an impeachment holds out the possibility that a Republican Senate acquittal of Trump in a trial superintended by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (the most unpopular Senator in the country) would be the equivalent in the 2020 election to what the Ford pardon of Nixon was to the elections of 1974 and 1976. And, then, there would be the possibility of a Democratic president who takes office in 2021 governing with a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate.

The Ford Pardon of Nixon and the McConnell “Pardon” of Trump

The House Judiciary Committee’s inquiry into Nixon invested with full powers was not off-hand or abrupt but deliberate and prolonged, lasting three months. By the time the inquiry began, there was already abundant evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing, albeit less abundant than in the case of Trump. The committee took the time, first, to establish that the evidence already known was ironclad and, second, to discover any additional evidence. Committee Chairman Peter Rodino understood that, short of using the committee’s full powers, the Nixon administration’s strategy of stonewalling, evasion, and deceit would continue to succeed. There was nothing rushed about establishing Nixon’s crimes. For the Republicans, the political price of defending Nixon was devastating. The costs increased after Nixon resigned. The Democrats of today may have forgotten that three months after Nixon resigned, the Democrats of 1974 gained 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate. Congressional defenders of Nixon were especially singled out by the voters for punishment. That signal victory was driven not only by the impeachment inquiry but also by another cataclysmic event—the Ford pardon.

In the end, Nixon was not impeached. He resigned before there was ever an impeachment vote on the floor by the full House. Nixon never had a trial in the Senate. Out of office, he was now a private citizen. Federal and state authorities could still pursue him. But President Gerald Ford intervened with his pardon. Whatever the scholarly debates since about its prudence, the political consequence at the time was shattering. The public overwhelmingly believed that Nixon should be prosecuted for his crimes and that Ford had protected him from justice. Ford never recovered. “Yet as hard as Ford tried to exorcise the ghost of Watergate, it would continue to linger for the rest of his presidency,” recalled Donald Rumsfeld, his chief of staff. And, so, Ford lost badly in 1976.

If there is a Trump impeachment, Mitch McConnell would be in the role of Gerald Ford. The Senate Republican Majority Leader would hold the power over whether Trump would be held accountable for crimes indisputably established by the House, first after lengthy hearings by the Judiciary Committee and then after a debate by the entire House over impeachment. McConnell would zealously assume serving as the final arbiter. But in his rush to judgment he would not understand that going down that path he will have cast himself as Ford. McConnell’s kangaroo court acquittal would appear to the public like Ford’s pardon. It would be all the more so following a trial in which the Democratic House managers would once again, in the highest-profile setting imaginable – present the case against Trump yet again. Any Republican senator who toed McConnell’s line would be held culpable for the cover-up. Just as the Republican Party paid a devastating political price for the pardon in 1974—and Ford in 1976—the Republicans would similarly pay for McConnell’s perversion of justice in 2020, if Democrats in the House are willing to let him the iniquitous part he was born to play.

History’s lessons, 1974-76

The resignation of Richard Nixon was not the political culmination of his impeachment drama. On August 9, 1974, Nixon delivered his Farewell Address in the East Room of the White House to his cabinet and staff. “Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” he said. Boarding a helicopter on the South Lawn, he stood on the top step, flashed a frozen smile and waved the V sign with both hands, by then taken to be his inimitable gesture but really his insecure mimicry of Dwight Eisenhower for whom he had served uneasily as vice president.

Gerald Ford was now president. When Vice President Spiro Agnew pled no contest to bribery and resigned in October 1973, Nixon appointed Ford, the House minority leader, to replace him. Nixon had no premonition that he was choosing his successor. He thought of Ford as a stalwart partisan who would reflexively defend him. Ford had not sought the position. Shortly after Nixon flew away, the new president addressed the country. “Our long national nightmare is over,” he said. His approval rating in the first Gallup Poll measuring him as president was 71 percent, higher than any subsequent president upon assuming the office. It lasted one month.

On September 8, 1974, Ford announced a “full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” Ford’s approval rating plunged 21 points to 50 percent. By January 1975, it fell to 40 percent. By March, it went down to 37 percent. His ratings fluctuated, but edged above 50 percent only briefly in early 1976 and settled at 48 percent in June of his election year. He lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter, who famously promised, “I will never lie to you.” Ford reflected later, in 1984, that “the political fallout was far more serious than I contemplated.”

The week that Ford issued his pardon the Gallup Poll recorded that 58 percent wanted Nixon “tried for possible criminal charges arising from Watergate.” Only 36 percent were against. Those who believed that Nixon should not be prosecuted were mostly Republicans. A majority of Republicans—56 percent—did not want Nixon to face any trial. Yet a sizable minority—38 percent—thought he should be charged. Only 38 percent of all those polled favored a pardon. Again, most supporting leniency for Nixon were Republicans—51 percent. Democrats overwhelmingly favored prosecution—68 percent—and opposed a pardon—56 percent. Independents were mainly in line with Democrats, at 60 percent for bringing Nixon to justice, but even more adamantly opposed to a pardon at 59 percent.

The midterm elections of 1974 were the first since the Watergate scandal and the Ford pardon. It was the public’s chance at last to issue its verdict. Before the elections the only ones to have voted on Nixon’s crimes were the 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee. The House as a whole had not voted; the Senate held no trial; and Ford thwarted justice in the courts. If the pardon prevented judgment, the elections were the available remedy.

The result was the greatest Democratic sweep since the landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and against a divided Republican Party led by Barry Goldwater. The election of the so-called “Watergate babies,” a new generation of liberal Democrats, marked the beginning of the real end of the conservative Southern Democratic control of the congressional party and its de facto alliance with the Republicans that had effectively ended the New Deal after the 1938 midterm elections, and the launching of new progressive agendas from environmentalism to consumer protection to women’s rights.

Conservative Republicans in the north fared particularly poorly. Moderate Republicans who had voiced criticism of Nixon still hung on. A long realignment of the parties was underway in the north, too. Four of the outspoken Republican defenders of Nixon on the House Judiciary Committee were soundly defeated. One particularly strident Nixon supporter, who was not on the committee, Rep. Earl Landgrebe, of Indiana, from a safe Republican district, was defeated after he stated, “Don’t confuse me with the facts… I’m sticking by my president even if he and I have to be carried out of this building and be shot.”

The Ford pardon was the capstone of the scandal. Letting Nixon off infuriated most of the voters. Yet two years earlier, only a bare majority, 52 percent, had even heard about Watergate, despite the grand jury indictments of the burglars. By June 1973, however, during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, 98 percent were aware of the scandal. Throughout that year those who regarded it as a serious issue increased from 26 to 49 percent. By April 1974, when the House impeachment inquiry began, a slight majority, 52 percent, believed there was evidence to bring Nixon to trial before the Senate, according to the Gallup Poll. By August, that number had jumped to 65 percent. Only the inquiry had brought about the change in public opinion. After the public had been persuaded of Nixon’s guilt Ford’s pardon supercharged their opinion, which they made known in the 1974 elections.

Applying the Watergate lessons to now

Imagine the course of events. The House impeaches Trump after a protracted public exercise televised for weeks, if not months, with credible witnesses having testified to Trump’s extensive violations of his constitutional duties and acts of outright criminality, already documented in the Mueller Report and in the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York’s filing in the Michael Cohen case, and public opinion follows the pattern of the Nixon impeachment. The case would then move to the Senate for a trial, which Nixon never had.

In the chamber of the Senate the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, would preside as the judge. But the Republican Majority Leader has already telegraphed through his surrogates that he would set the rules, determining who would be allowed to be called as witnesses, who would speak and who would not, what evidence would be introduced and what excluded, and the length of the trial itself. “I think it would be disposed of very quickly,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, who, since the death of his mentor Senator John McCain, and facing reelection in 2020 in South Carolina, has become an unabashed Trump apologist. “If it’s based on the Mueller Report, or anything like that, it would be quickly disposed of,” he told The Hill.

Senator John Cornyn, of Texas, a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said “nothing” would happen in the Senate when it received articles of impeachment from the House. “It would be defeated. That’s why all they want to do is talk about it,” he said. “They know what the outcome would be.”

“Why on earth would we give a platform to something that I judge as a purely political exercise?” said Senator Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, another Judiciary Committee member and one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection.

Thus, McConnell has made clear that his preordained prejudiced trial of Donald J. Trump would lack even the credibility and legitimacy of the Ford pardon. McConnell’s fixing of the outcome to protect Trump from being judged on what would be well-established charges would be acted out in plain sight for all to see. After the House passed articles of impeachment, conducting a trial would undoubtedly draw the support of a sizable majority of the public as it did in the Nixon case. McConnell could not treat a trial as he did President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, killing it by refusing to acknowledge it. The House Managers would have to speak and they would make the case against Trump. McConnell’s maneuvering to disregard evidence, blackball witnesses, and narrow time limits would starkly dramatize the Republican contempt for the constitutional process and complicity in aiding and abetting Trump’s criminality, a Republican cover-up of their own. They would be seen to be rejecting the facts not because the evidence is wrong but because it’s right. Thrown into this cauldron, Chief Justice Roberts, already worried about the reputation of the Supreme Court, would do his best to avoid McConnell’s blatant partisanship and might find himself clashing with it. In a Trump impeachment, Roberts might prove the most surprising figure of all.

Ford’s pardon destroyed his popularity and cost him his presidency. But he was a man operating in good faith, and honestly thought that with Nixon already removed from power his prosecution would be gratuitous and vindictive. His pardon, however disliked, was constitutional in its basis. Nobody, however, believes that Mitch McConnell operates in good faith. While Ford began from a peak of approval, McConnell stands at the trough of despond. The most recent survey of his favorability nationally by the Harvard CAP/Harris Poll shows him as the lowest ranked among congressional leaders at 25 percent. He also has one of the lowest rankings of all senators in their states, at 36 percent, according to the Morning Consult Poll. In Washington, no matter party affiliation, everybody personally liked the genial Gerald Ford. In Washington today, nobody, neither Democrats nor Republicans, likes Mitch McConnell. Some are intimidated by him, some fall in line in partisan lockstep, some seek to benefit from his favor. He’s no Gerald Ford.

Nobody believes that McConnell operates on a fair, sincere or moral basis, though he is predictable. As time has passed he has become ever more brazen in his zealotry. When Barack Obama became president, McConnell’s agenda was to destroy him. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he stated. When McConnell prevented the Senate from holding hearings on Merrick Garland, an eminently qualified nominee for the Supreme Court, he suppressed the Senate’s constitutional duty to advise and consent. “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy,’” he crowed. And there’s his threat to President Obama not to make a public statement in 2016 about the Russian interference in the presidential election to help Trump. And so on.

McConnell’s political strategy for retaining the Senate in the 2020 election is straightforward. He is packing the federal courts with reactionary clones from the approved list of the Federalist Society to arm Republicans with its donor class concerned about deregulation, the evangelical right, and the Trump base. At the same time, he is blocking normal senatorial process or regular order to take up any bills that the House has passed. He has refused committee hearings, conferences, and votes. There are no compromises because there is no legislation. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Pelosi, adding about Trump, “I hope he can, too.” But McConnell simply walks away. More than 150 bills that the House has passed languish in limbo. Through strangulation of the Senate body, McConnell seeks to rescue the political lives of his endangered Republican members. He is saving them from the temptation of voting for any version of any bill that might remotely offend “the base.” For all intents and purposes the Senate has ceased to function except to rubber-stamp right-wing judicial nominees. “Think of me as the Grim Reaper,” McConnell boasts.

The mutual contempt of Trump and McConnell is notorious. Trump could care less for the Senate or any institutional stumbling block to his will. He scorns those who represent such institutions. In private Trump has derided McConnell as “boring,” the least offensive of his insults. When McConnell failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, Trump fired off a storm of tweets against him. “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done.” And: “The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed! That should NEVER have happened!” The two men ceased speaking for weeks. They since claimed to have restored a working relationship, but Trump has little interest in accommodating McConnell and the Republican Senate on tariffs, national emergencies, and a host of other issues. Virtually reducing the Senate agenda to judicial nominations, moreover, has not particularly tempered Trump’s impulse to create chaos. But McConnell needs him because his members must have “the base” for their reelections and his continuing control of the Senate. Like Vladimir Putin, McConnell views Trump as a useful idiot, except when he’s an out of control idiot. With a potential impeachment looming, Trump would desperately need McConnell, whom he has tended to regard as a vestigial part of a government that gets in his way. (See: U.S. Constitution.) They have become each other’s hostages.

As McConnell defends Trump from his crimes committed with impunity, McConnell’s own impunity would not protect him. It would become an aspect of a larger political problem. The closer a Senate trial would approach, McConnell would become the face of the Republican Party alongside Trump. He has hitherto flourished only in the shadows. In a trial the puppet master would be pulling the strings exposed before the curtain. But he would find himself in the glare of the klieg lights. Suddenly, there would be an unrelenting focus not only on his underhanded manipulations but also on the unsavory influence of lobbyists within his office, his wife’s family’s money, their backing of his career, her efforts for special treatment to benefit their financial interests, and her actions as Secretary of Transportation to deliver favored projects to bolster his reelection in Kentucky.

Quite simply, McConnell cannot bear scrutiny, and he would not bear it well. Daylight would not be kind to him. He is not ready for his close-up. Thrust onto the center stage as the chief orchestrator of Trump’s defense, he would increasingly become a negative factor for the more vulnerable Republican senators running for reelection. They would no more be able to escape their subservience to him than their partisan captivity to Trump. McConnell would set the Republican candidates on fire in the 2020 election.

How a Senate Trial of Trump Would Threaten the Republican Senate

The election that installed Mitch McConnell as the Majority Leader of the Senate was a high watermark of the Republican Party. In the 2014 midterms, Republicans captured nine Senate seats and 13 in the House. Their majority in the House reached their greatest number since 1928. Republicans also gained two governorships to give them control of 31 and their largest majority of state legislatures since before Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected. That moment of extraordinary conquest in which McConnell was elevated, suggesting that the Republican Party was the natural party of power and a party on the rise, imbues his arrogance and impunity.

Nearly all of the Republican senators up for reelection in 2020 were members of the triumphalist class of 2014. They escaped the terrors of 2018 when the Republicans lost 40 House seats. But now they confront a radically transformed electorate with moderates and suburbanites still in flight from the Republicans and Trump. The vast majority of a new generation entering the voting booths finds the Republican Party abhorrent. Each cycle the percentage of Latinos voting edges up in obvious states such as Texas and Arizona and less obvious ones such as Georgia and Iowa. Democrats won women’s votes by a 19-point margin in 2018, an increase of six points over that for the Democratic presidential candidates in both 2016 and 2012. Counties that shifted by 10 points to the Republicans in 2016 flipped 9 points back in 2018, according to Edison Research. Catalist, a Democratic voter targeting firm, calculated that three-quarters of the switchers were Trump voters. Across the country, Republican politics has turned into a frantic search for ever more elaborate schemes of voter suppression.

One of the most influential Republican research companies, Public Opinion Strategies, advised this month in a power point presentation that Republicans face a wipeout in 2020 among young voters, women and the college educated. To counter these trends, the Republican consultants recommend that some voters might speculatively be persuaded to back Trump on “some of policies he is supporting” even though they “don’t approve of the job Trump is doing as President.” If that ploy doesn’t work, POS urges another tack. “Our firm has spent the past few months focusing on this topic of socialism and the 2020 election,” the power-point presentation stated. “We can win this fight, but it will not be as easy as you think.” The document mentions nothing about public attitudes toward Trump’s abuse of power, corruption and crimes, any investigation, or impeachment. The avoidance of all of these subjects in the polished product of a premier Republican consulting firm is a revealing symptom of denial.

The more noxious that Trump is to voters, the more he poses a menace to the Republicans. Four Republican senators and maybe more face existential peril in 2020. If only those four were to lose and the Democrats do not suffer losses, McConnell’s majority of 53 would be erased. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Martha McSally of Arizona are already in political trouble. Trump sinks all, just as he drags down other Republicans. Trump is the Republican cement shoes.

Cory Gardner has a favorability rating of 35 percent, according to the Morning Consult Poll. In 2018 midterm elections in Colorado, for the first time, unaffiliated voter turnout was higher than that of either the Democratic, which was second, or the Republican parties. In 2014, Republican turnout had been first. According to a surveyconducted by Magellan Strategies, a Republican political consulting firm, “There is no question that Donald Trump had a negative impact on Republican candidates, with 34% of unaffiliated voters saying they were less likely to vote for a Republican candidate because of his influence. In addition, President Trump’s job approval among all unaffiliated voters is toxic, with only 31% approving of the job he is doing, 62% disapproving, and 48% strongly disapproving of the job he is doing.” In Colorado, Magellan Strategies found, “A 2020 Presidential ballot test finds 55% of unaffiliated voters supporting the ‘generic’ Democratic candidate, 23% supporting Donald Trump, 4% supporting an ‘other’ candidate and 17% were undecided.”

Susan Collins thought she had dodged a bullet with her affirmative vote for Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court when the nonpartisan Critical Insights on Maine Poll found her approval rating afterward to be 51 percent. But its latest poll shows a sharp fall to 41 percent. Voter sentiments about the state of the economy—67 percent believe it will be about the same or better over the next year—has not boosted her. Only 31 percent of Mainers approve of Trump, a decline of ten points, equal to the number that Collins has lost. Her faltering has now attracted a strong Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. Collins responded by voting against one of Trump’s far right anti-gay judicial nominees. But an impeachment would wildly shake her highwire.

Martha McSally, appointed to the Senate by a Republican governor to replace the deceased John McCain in 2019 after losing the race for an open Senate seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, has an approval rating of 35 percent, according to the Morning Consult Poll. Trump’s approval rating is 45 percent compared to a disapproval of 51 percent. An Arizona Republic poll in October 2018 showed that independents view him unfavorably by a margin of 56 percent to 34 percent. In 2020, McSally will face as her Democratic opponent the folk hero Mark Kelly, the astronaut and husband of Gabby Giffords.

Thom Tillis has a favorability rating of 34 percent, according to the Morning Consult Poll. Trump’s disapproval rating in North Carolina tops 52 percent while his approval is 41 percent, according to an Emerson Poll, and Tillis trails his likely opponent, state senator Erica Smith, 46 percent to 39 percent. The North Carolina Republican Party is deeply fractured. Tillis faces a primary challenge from Garland Tucker III, the retired chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, an ideological right-winger who insists the very conservative Tillis  holds certain moderate heresies, and whose campaign is being run by revanchist operatives from the team around the late far right Senator Jesse Helms.

An impeachment trial in the Senate would trap the most vulnerable Republicans and others who would find themselves exposed in an impossible predicament. There would be no middle ground between acquittal or conviction of Trump—between alienating swing suburban, young, women, and independent voters or angering the Trump base. Regardless of where the Republican candidates turned they would supercharge their unfavorable ratings.

The Constitutional is the Political

Several arguments have been offered in favor of an impeachment inquiry. Special Counsel Robert Mueller stated that because the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president and principles of fairness precluded him from making a criminal accusation about the president’s actions, the responsibility rightly falls to Congress. The Mueller Report, filled with incontrovertible evidence, was delivered to the House in April, but there has been no impeachment inquiry.

There is also the argument that apart from the Mueller Report there are other sufficient causes for opening an inquiry. After all, Trump was essentially named as an unindicted co-conspirator, “Individual 1,” in the case of a campaign finance felony for which his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Trump’s brazen violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution in order to engage in self-enrichment suggests that he may meet a standard of bribery (an offense specifically included in the Impeachment Clause). He continues to profit personally from foreign nationals staying at his Trump International Hotel in Washington who are beneficiaries of his direct policy decisions.

All these arguments and several more have been advanced on the merits of various charges that might be presented. More than one thousand former federal prosecutors, for example, have signed a statement saying that if Trump were not a sitting president he would be indicted for multiple felonies involving obstruction of justice based on the facts presented in the Mueller Report. But, then, there are political arguments.

For Pelosi, a few arguments have been crucial in her forestalling an inquiry. Her statements have not exactly evolved so much as wandered in a stream of deflection, frustration, and indecision. The standards she has suggested for an inquiry have shifted without ever firmly settling in any one place. Consequently, she has been driven by events she has sought to avoid.

She has said about impeachment, “I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.” She also said, “You’re wasting your time, unless the evidence is so conclusive that the Republicans will understand. Otherwise, it’s a gift to the president.” But the true “gift” would be to give up the power to launch an impeachment inquiry.

She said before the release of the Mueller Report, “And we shouldn’t impeach a president because of a political reason, but we shouldn’t not impeach a president if the evidence is there for impeachment.” Weighing the absence of evidence, she resorted to a double negative to reach an abstract positive.

She said after the report’s release, “We can investigate Trump without drafting articles… the facts regarding holding the president accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings.” Exactly what that process of accountability might be is vague. Relinquishing the judgment that impeachment provides would render hearings weightless. Only impeachment offers the constitutionally prescribed means of accountability.

Then, she said that opening an impeachment inquiry would shut down the five committees carrying on various investigations into Trump’s misconduct. “You want to tell Elijah Cummings to go home?” she reportedly said, referring to the chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee. But the Judiciary Committee is the only proper committee mandated to determine the basic constitutional question of Trump’s abuses of power. The other committees do not have authority over judging a president’s high crimes and misdemeanors. This is not a question of turf, but a designation assigned by the Constitution. Only an impeachment inquiry with constitutionally augmented powers, moreover, would assuredly secure the information that Trump is holding. There’s nothing then stopping other committees from assessing that information for their purposes.

And the Speaker said, “He wants to be impeached, so he can be exonerated by the Senate.” It may be, though nobody knows, that Trump believes he would emerge from an impeachment popular at last. But he is the most consistently unpopular president since polls have been taken of presidents. It is fanciful to project that a public fully informed of his high crimes and misdemeanors would reverse its entrenched low opinion of him.

Then, Pelosi stated that Trump is guilty of the offenses that were charged against Nixon. “Let me be very clear: the president’s behavior, as far as his obstruction of justice, the things that he is doing, it’s in plain sight, it cannot be denied — ignoring subpoenas, obstruction of justice.” The investigations underway might lead to impeachment, but “we’re not there yet,” she added. “Get the facts to the American people in our investigation … it may take us to a place that is unavoidable in terms of impeachment, but we’re not at that place.”

And she stated that the case for impeachment is being made. “We will build an ironclad case to act.” But it’s unclear how the cases in the courts to unlock Trump’s information will be resolved, nor how long they will be drawn out as Trump attempts to push the entire matter into the campaign year.

Then, Pelosi said that the Senate must be ready to accept a trial before there could be an impeachment. “We have a defiance of the Constitution of the United States, and so when we go down this path, we have to be ready, and it has to be clear to the American people, and we have to hope that it’ll be clear to the Republicans in the United States Senate.” But insisting on a receptive Republican Senate as a condition for an impeachment would end it before it would start. It would concede the authority of the House to the Senate. It’s a constitutional short-circuit.

Then, after Attorney General Barr distorted the conclusions of the Mueller Report and the House Judiciary Committee threatened to hold him in contempt for refusing to give the committee an unredacted text and underlying evidence, Pelosi remarked about Trump, “He’s becoming self-impeachable.” But impeachment, like romance, can’t be achieved alone. Suggesting that Trump could impeach himself attributes magical power to his narcissism. And even though Trump baits Pelosi and the Democrats, in a rare moment of honesty he stated that he does not want to be impeached. “It’s a dirty, filthy, disgusting word,” he said about impeachment. He understands that impeachment would be a very bad thing for him, even if the House leadership actually thinks or just pretends it would not be.

Then Pelosi said, “I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison.” But impeaching Trump would not shield him from being prosecuted once he leaves office. One act does not preempt the other. Wishful thinking about Trump in an orange jumpsuit as a means to abdicate an impeachment inquiry is a retreat into fantasy. Pelosi’s spokesperson explained that her statement was “consistent with her position that he needs to be removed electorally in 2020.” In other words, the campaign would substitute for an inquiry.

Then, Pelosi said, “I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.” But whether Trump would be amenable or susceptible to counseling is more than a little whimsical. Analyze that? In any case, the framers did not presciently write therapy into the Constitution; impeachment is the only remedy stipulated for “intervention” for abuse of office.

Pelosi’s true chief anxiety, outweighing all other stated considerations so far, is of the fate of the 43 Democratic members elected in 2018 from Republican districts. She is worried that potentially offending Trump voters through an impeachment might threaten those seats and therefore her majority of 18. She lacks faith in those swing voters, largely suburbanites, who in 2018 voted for Democrats. Having made a personal decision to scrap Trump, they would have to repudiate their own hard-won thinking to be able to return to him. For those who have discarded Trump, he remains the same man they have rejected. Yet Pelosi’s ambiguous strategy comes down to the notion of the supposed fickleness of voters reversing themselves to embrace a figure they have already decided is repellent.

So, the various committees beat on against the current, waging their struggles for witnesses and documents while Trump resists their subpoenas. They pin their hopes on the uncertain outcomes of slowly winding court cases and by calling occasional hearings with experts who are placeholders for the key witnesses.

Rather than holding a formal inquiry with full powers that systematically presents the first-hand evidence of Trump’s offenses and which rivets and educates the public on a daily basis through saturation televised coverage, Pelosi trades insults with Trump. She has accused Trump of a “temper tantrum,” saying, “I pray for the president of the United States,” called for a family “intervention,” said “Maybe he wants to take a leave of absence,” and, “When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues,” and called him “villainous.” He called her “a mess,” “a disaster,” and “a nasty, vindictive, horrible person.” On it goes.

Pelosi has an uncanny ability to locate the sensitive nerve to belittle Trump and incite his rote undignified response. Vileness is Trump’s stock in trade. Pelosi’s talent at fencing with the bully may evoke admiration from the media and the Democratic faithful, but it is at odds with her very strategy that underlies why she is really fending off an impeachment inquiry. If she is apprehensive about alienating Trump voters in swing districts held by Democrats then nothing could be more guaranteed to arouse their ire than a woman constantly hurling insults to demean their manly hero. But without the rigor and gravity of an inquiry brandishing the evidence of his high crimes, she is thrown back to play in the smoky den of the comedy club with Trump. For his part, Trump rouses his base against the ersatz impeachment without facing the real thing.

Meanwhile, waving away an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi backhandedly refers to the potential of some breakthrough in some courtroom about some subpoena. Of course, even if there is a favorable ruling in one case it would not provide the basis for a consistent demonstration of all the facts that only an inquiry could provide. If a contempt ruling forces a witness whose account already appears in the Mueller Report to repeat their testimony in public it is a foregone conclusion that it would confirm Trump’s criminality. The pressure for an impeachment inquiry would inevitably build—all roads lead to Rome. Then the preliminary scattershot phase would be the prelude to accountability—well, maybe. But time passes.

And perhaps nothing happens.

Pelosi’s worst-case scenario would be of events flying out of control through studied passivity. That scenario would stem from a failure to impeach, which Trump would seize upon as vindication. The worst case would be when the Democrats find themselves at the end of the day at a place where there would have been no inquiry, no methodical presentation of a case, no eyewitnesses (at least not in any timely fashion), no organized education of the public. Public opinion on Trump’s crimes would not have cohered, but instead been allowed to diffuse and dissipate. The Democratic House caucus would descend into a cacophony, some self-justifying the absence of an inquiry as the heart of prudence and others decrying it as cowardice. Without an inquiry the opening for the Democratic electorate to be galvanized would have been lost. With Trump scot free, the Democratic base, which overwhelmingly supports impeachment, would likely feel deflated, more than a bit demoralized, even feeling betrayed, some thinking aloud that their leaders had been frightened off, yet still certain the Mueller Report got it right but wondering that it was pointless, sensing that democratic norms are being conceded on all sides, and their enthusiasm gap widening.

Emboldened Republicans, for their part, would proclaim Trump’s innocence. Conspiracy theories would gain traction about the whole story as a Deep State plot, Mueller as a fraud and Democratic tool, and the true crime to be “Russiagate” itself, which Attorney General Barr champions to give political cover. Neither Republican members of the House nor the Senate would ever have had to put themselves on record on Trump’s crimes. They, too, would have escaped judgment. The media would stand convicted as “the enemy of the people.” Its factual reporting would be dismissed as “fake news.” If it were not “fake,” why didn’t it lead to a real inquiry? But all of the above would not complete the worst case.

And, then, Trump would be reelected. The Senate would remain under the thumb of Mitch McConnell. And, then, in 2021, would the House impeach? Absolutely not. Trump would say the voters have just decided, knowing the full record, that he should stay in office.

There remains another argument that has been offered about impeachment. It is that the constitutional is the political, that the obligation to defend the Constitution from abuse of public trust is a challenging but necessary politics, and that crimes committed against the Constitution are by their nature crimes against the political order. Investigating and judging Trump for his particular offenses against representative government, the rule of law, and democracy, the letter and the spirit, would fit this argument. It is the argument of Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist Papers, No. 65:

“A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” 

[Editor’s note: The National Memo previously reprinted Sidney Blumenthal’s An Open Memo: Comparison of Clinton Impeachment, Nixon Impeachment and Trump Pre-Impeachment,” from Just Security, which also published a series in conversation with Blumenthal’s Open Memo that included John DeanRyan GoodmanHon. Elizabeth HoltzmanKevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer (co-authored)Walter Pincus, and Jill Wine-Banks.]

Sidney Blumenthal, the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, is the author of All the Powers of Earth, the third volume of his five volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, to be published by Simon & Schuster in September.

An Open Memo On Impeachment: Nixon, Clinton, and Trump

Some commentators and politicians have suggested that any movement that leads to President Donald Trump’s impeachment will necessarily follow the straight and narrow political path of the Clinton impeachment in which the president’s popularity inexorably rose. President Bill Clinton’s case is widely assumed to set the terms for understanding Trump’s. But the facts and history instead indicate that the Clinton case bears little if any relevance to the Trump one, while the Nixon case shows similarity to Trump’s, including how President Richard Nixon, a far more popular president than the abysmally rated Trump, collapsed in public opinion as the drive to his impeachment unfolded.

In 1973 and 1974, the Democrats attacked a once-mighty but now badly weakened president with a strong case for impeachment. Nixon resigned.

In 1998 and 1999, the Republicans attacked a mightily popular president on a political upswing in his second term with a politically contrived and feeble case for impeachment. Republicans lost.

In 2019, the Democrats confront the weakest president in modern history with a stronger case for impeachment than the one against Nixon.

Since the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report, support for impeachment of Trump has already risen to a near majority, 45 percent, with 42 percent opposed, according to the latest Ipsos-Reuters poll. That phenomenon never occurred during the Clinton impeachment, not once. On the contrary, in the Clinton case there was never any increase at any point in support for impeachment, which remained opposed by a large and solid majority of about two-thirds or more. Clinton began the impeachment process at 66 percent approval and ended the impeachment process at 66 percent approval.

By contrast, Nixon began 1973 as a president reelected with an overwhelming majority and winning 49 states. He stood at 68 percent approval. Two weeks before his second inauguration, Watergate burglars pled guilty to conspiracy and other crimes, which soon triggered congressional inquiries into Watergate. By May, when the Senate Watergate hearings began, Nixon’s standing in public opinion began to erode, a decline accelerated at each stage by his stonewalling of Congress and the courts. Public support for impeachment of Nixon, however, did not reach the level at which it already stands for Trump until near May 1974, a full year after the Senate Watergate hearings. In short, Trump now stands in public opinion where Nixon did after Senate hearings, after John Dean and others testified, after the Nixon tapes were exposed.

Trump’s popularity is the worst and weakest of any president ever recorded since the beginning of polls charting presidential approval ratings. He is the most consistently unpopular president in modern recorded history. Trump is the only president never to hit 50 percent approval. Recent events involving Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s stonewalling of Congress’ constitutional mandate for executive oversight, paralleling the Nixon dynamic, are damaging the president further, driving his numbers deeper into his base, like Nixon under siege. There is, however, no meaningful comparison whatsoever to the Clinton case.

In Nixon’s case the charges of impeachment described the most serious to that point in American history ever brought against a president: subversion of democracy, bribery, and obstruction of justice. Forty administration officials, campaign advisers and close associates of Nixon involved in Watergate were indicted or convicted.

In Clinton’s case the charges of impeachment were transparently partisan in origin, twisted and insubstantial, and consistently rejected by the vast majority of the public. Not a single White House official or close associate involved in these events was indicted—not one.

In Trump’s case over 800 former federal prosecutors stated that if he were not a sitting president he would be indicted for obstruction of justice on multiple felony charges. Already seven Trump White House officials, campaign advisers and close associates have been indicted or convicted. His personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has been leading the public defense of the president, is directly implicated by name in the Mueller Report for potential involvement in witness tampering.

Timeline: Clinton Impeachment

October 30, 1998: Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich launches a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz less than a week before the midterm elections targeting President Clinton.

November 3, 1998: Democrats win five House seats in the midterm elections, the first time the incumbent presidential party in its president’s second term midterm made gains since 1934.

December 8, 1998: Opening of House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings.

December 19, 1998: House votes to impeach President Clinton.

February 12, 1999: Senate acquits President Clinton.


Clinton’s approval numbers throughout impeachment, according to the Gallup Poll:

At the time of the Gingrich negative advertising attack, Clinton was at 66 approval, 30 disapproval.

Just after the House Judiciary Committee opened its hearings, Clinton was at 64 approval, 34 disapproval.

When the House impeached Clinton, his approval rose to 73 and disapproval fell to 25.

When the Senate acquitted Clinton, his approval was 68, disapproval 30.

One week after the impeachment acquittal, Clinton stood at 66 approval, 30 disapproval, exactly where he was at the beginning of the process.  His numbers ranged within the margin of error except for the jump to 73 when he was impeached.

Number of White House officials and Clinton associates indicted by Special Counsel Kenneth W. Starr for misconduct or wrongdoing in office: 0

Timeline: Nixon, Watergate, and Impeachment

January 8, 1972: Watergate burglars plead guilty.

January 20, 1973: Nixon inaugurated for a second term.

April 6, 1973: White House counsel John Dean begins cooperating with Watergate prosecutors.

April 30, 1973: Senior White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resign; Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigns.

May 17, 1973: Televised Senate Watergate hearings begin.

October 20, 1973: Saturday Night Massacre; Nixon orders firing of special prosecutor, Attorney General Eliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus resign.

November 1, 1973: Leon Jaworski appointed new special prosecutor.

January 28, 1974: Nixon campaign aide Herbert Porter pleads guilty to perjury.

February 25, 1974: Nixon personal counsel Herbert Kalmbach pleads guilty to two charges of illegal campaign activities.

March 1, 1974: In an indictment against seven former presidential aides, delivered to Judge Sirica together with a sealed briefcase intended for the House Committee on the Judiciary, Nixon is named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

March 4, 1974: The “Watergate Seven” (Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Gordon C. StrachanRobert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson) are formally indicted.

March 18, 1974: Judge Sirica orders the grand jury’s sealed report to be sent to the House Committee on the Judiciary.

April 5, 1974: Dwight Chapin convicted of lying to a grand jury.

April 7, 1974: Ed Reinecke, Republican lieutenant governor of California, indicted on three charges of perjury before the Senate committee.

April 16, 1974: Special Prosecutor Jaworski issues a subpoena for 64 White House tapes.

April 30, 1974: White House releases edited transcripts of the Nixon tapes, but the House Judiciary Committee insists the actual tapes must be turned over.

May 9, 1974: Impeachment hearings begin before the House Judiciary Committee.

July 24, 1974: United States v. Nixon decided: Nixon is ordered to give up tapes to investigators.

Congress moves to impeach Nixon.

● July 27 to July 30, 1974: House Judiciary Committee passes Articles of Impeachment.
● Early August 1974: A previously unknown tape from June 23, 1972 (recorded a few days after the break-in) documenting Nixon and Haldeman’s formulating a plan to block investigations is released. This recording later became known as the “Smoking Gun.”
● Key Republican Senators tell Nixon that enough votes exist to convict him.

August 9, 1974: Nixon resigns from office.

Number of Nixon administration officials indicted or imprisoned in Watergate related crimes: 40

Nixon’s Poll Ratings Through Watergate

The Pew Research Center states:

“Nixon had won reelection in 1972 by a landslide and began his second term with a lofty 68% Gallup Poll approval rating in January 1973. But the Watergate scandal — which started with an effort to bug the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel and subsequent efforts to cover it up — quickly took a heavy toll on those ratings, especially when coupled with a ramp-up in public concerns about inflation. By April, a resounding 83% of the American public had heard or read about Watergate, as the president accepted the resignations of his top aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. And in turn, Nixon’s approval ratings fell to 48%.”


Timeline: Trump, Indictments, Convictions, Barr, and Mueller Report

October 5, 2017: Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian agent Joseph Mifsud.

December 1, 2017: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

February 16, 2018: Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian organizations, including the Internet Research Agency, a de facto organ of Russian military intelligence, indicted for conspiracy to steal American citizens’ identities, create and promote false social media and subvert the 2016 federal election to benefit Trump.

February 16, 2018: Lawyer Alex van der Zwaan pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and other crimes.

February 22, 2018: Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort indicted on 32 counts of money laundering and bank fraud.

February 23, 2018: Former Trump deputy campaign manager and Manafort partner, Rick Gates, pleads guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators. Manafort indicted for secretly retaining a team of foreign agents to lobby in the U.S.

June 8, 2018: Alleged Russian military intelligence agent and Paul Manafort business partner Konstantin Kilimnik indicted, along with Manafort, for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

July 13, 2018: Twelve Russian intelligence officers indicted for the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign to benefit Trump.

August 21, 2018: Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen pleads guilty to tax fraud, bank fraud and campaign finance violations in making illegal payments to silence two women for their affairs with Trump. Trump, named as “Individual 1,” is an unindicted co-conspirator in the crimes for which Cohen will serve a prison term.

August 31, 2018: Lawyer Samuel Patten, a Manafort associate, who funneled foreign money into Trump’s inaugural, pleads guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

January 25, 2019: Longtime Trump adviser and dirty trickster Roger Stone indicted for lying about his relationship with Wikileaks, which served as the agent for Russian military intelligence in transmitting stolen DNC and Clinton campaign emails to benefit Trump, and for perjury, witness tampering and obstruction.

March 13, 2019: Manafort sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for financial crimes.

March 22, 2019: Attorney General William Barr in a four-page letter to Congress distorts the content and conclusions of the Mueller Report, claiming that Trump is exonerated.

April 18, 2019: Mueller Report in redacted form delivered to the Congress; Barr holds a press conference reiterating his false summary.

April 30, 2018: House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) sends a criminal referral to the Justice Department for informal Trump campaign adviser Erik Prince, who “willfully misled” the committee during 2017 testimony.

May 1, 2019: Barr reiterates his false characterization of the Mueller Report before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

May 8, 2019: The House Judiciary Committee cites Barr for contempt of Congress for refusing to release the redacted portions of the report and underlying documents to the committee.

Number of Trump White House officials and associates indicted or convicted so far (excluding citation of “Individual 1” as an unindicted co-conspirator): 7

Trump’s approval ratings since the first Barr appearance:

March 26-April 1: Trump’s approval was 42, disapproval 53, in the Ipso/Reuters poll.

April 17-23: Trump approval 40, disapproval 53, Ipsos-Reuters.

May 6-7: Trump approval 39, disapproval 55, Ipsos-Reuters.

May 6-7: Approval for impeachment jumps five points since mid-April to 45, with 42 opposed, Ipsos-Reuters.

Conclusions

First, the Trump numbers simply do not parallel the pattern of the Clinton numbers. They bear no resemblance. Comparing the two is a fruitless exercise that inevitably leads to faulty conclusions. At no point during the Clinton impeachment did public approval of impeachment ever climb out of the 30s, while disapproval remained unwaveringly constant at about two-thirds opposition, more or less the same level as Clinton’s approval. Clinton remained the most consistently popular president in his second term since President Eisenhower.

Second, the Nixon experience reveals that the combination of concerted congressional inquiry, public hearings, the release of information, and Nixon’s stonewalling steadily drove his numbers down. The more the public knew of Nixon’s crimes through public televised hearings, the more rapidly Nixon’s poll numbers crumbled.

In light of Trump’s historically low standing in the polls and the history of past impeachments, Trump’s putative strengths are greatly overestimated. Trump is the most unpopular president since the Gallup Poll began recording presidential approval levels with Franklin D. Roosevelt. While in some polls during the period since Barr’s first presentation he briefly climbed to the mid-40s, he has descended again. The Ipsos-Reuters poll showing 45 percent support for impeachment, when there is no impeachment committee, and before any congressional hearings of witnesses, shows the start of a trend of declining approval as the Trump crisis deepens, the opposite of the Clinton dynamic. The role of Attorney General Barr, a markedly unattractive figure, emerging as the leader of coverup, and Trump’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the House, are unique factors for which there are no parallels with the Clinton experience, though there are obvious analogies to Nixon.

In conclusion, the Clinton impeachment and the Trump response to the Mueller Report appear to have little if no correlation. The Clinton example as a predictor should be dispensed with in considering Trump.

The Nixon case, however, offers apt political comparison. Nixon’s collapse was driven by the unwavering insistence of the Congress for information through public hearings and the calling of witnesses before initiating an impeachment; Nixon’s stonewalling strategies and legal resistance; and the disclosure of facts that Nixon was attempting to coverup to the public.

Trump is no less paranoid and vindictive than Nixon. Unlike Nixon, he gains pleasure from his provocations. But his outrageousness should not be mistaken for strength. If he seems to be taunting the Democrats to impeach him it is a desperate act of miscalculation. He has adopted his stonewalling out of sheer necessity in order to maintain his survival. Throughout his career, following the advice of his early attorney Roy Cohn, he has adopted the strategy of resisting court orders and suing everyone to put them on the defensive. He has been playing for time since he first hired Roy Cohn. Now perhaps he imagines an impeachment will suit his tale of himself as the victim and his antagonists as unfair. But that was also the psychology underlying Nixon’s political strategy in Watergate. Trump proceeds from a much weaker position than Nixon. He depends entirely on his stonewalling. He hangs by a thread.