A couple of months ago, Ambassador Bill Taylor, Donald Trump’s top diplomat to Ukraine, delivered brutal testimony to Congress. In a 15-page statement delivered to Congress, supported by extensive contemporaneous notes, Taylor described the president’s involvement in an explicit scheme to leverage both military aid and a White House meeting as part of a plan to coerce Ukraine into participating in a domestic political scheme.
Soon after – seven weeks ago yesterday – NBC News highlighted a quote that remains memorable.
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, reacted on Wednesday to the closed-door testimony of top diplomat Bill Taylor, who said Ukraine aid from the U.S. was linked Trump demands for probes of the Bidens:
“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we’ve seen is, yeah, I would say is not a good one….”
Thune, the #2 Republican in the Senate leadership, added at the time that he believed Taylor should be prepared to testify publicly, which the ambassador did, confirming – and even adding to – the testimony he delivered to the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors.
But it was the senator’s understated assessment that’s worth appreciating nearly two months later. Thune was confronted with evidence that the president orchestrated this extortion scheme and he felt compelled to concede that the emerging picture was “not a good one” for the president.
In other words, the available information in late October was so incriminating that some in Trump’s party found it difficult to ignore – and that was before Americans saw many hours of public testimony from a variety of witnesses, officials, and experts, who went on to tell a devastating story that was “not a good one” for the man in the Oval Office.
Thune was hardly alone. In the early weeks of the scandal, other White House allies, hoping that the controversy wouldn’t advance much further, staked out specific standards. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, said, “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.” Even on one of the president’s favorite Fox News programs, one of the co-hosts told viewers, “If the president said, ‘I’ll give you the money, but you’ve got to investigate Joe Biden’, that’d be off-the-rails wrong.”
That was before they knew how guilty the evidence would make Trump appear.
Jon Chait argued persuasively this week that Democrats pursued Trump’s impeachment “in large part because Republicans invited them to do just that.”
When the Ukraine scandal burst into the news, a widespread consensus agreed that the allegations were deeply improper, and quite likely impeachable. “I think it would be wildly inappropriate for an American president to invite a foreign country’s leader to get engaged in an American presidential election. That strikes me as entirely inappropriate,” pronounced Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“If there is evidence of a quid pro quo, many think the dam will start to break on our side,” one Republican told the Washington Examiner in September. “Maybe if he withheld aid and there was a direct quid pro quo,” add another.
There’s been plenty of discussion about Republicans radically changing their standards for impeachment since Bill Clinton’s presidency. There’s even been some focus on GOP officials changing their standards since Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. (Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, for example, suggested on Nov. 2, 2016, that Hillary Clinton’s email protocols met the “high crime or misdemeanor” standard.)
And while it’d be encouraging to see Republicans maintain some consistency over the course of several years, I’d settle for GOP officials remaining consistent over the course of a few months.
Alas, as Republicans line up to denounce the impeachment effort, and ignore the mountain of incriminating evidence against Trump, that’s clearly not happening.