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Jonathan Bernstein

At The Washington Post, Dan Drezner asks an excellent question: “Why is this the scandal that will lead Trump to be impeached rather than all of his previous scandals?”

He’s referring to President Donald Trump’s overtures to his Ukrainian counterpart, seeking dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden. I like some of Drezner’s answers. I agree that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has played her hand well so far, for instance, and that Trump hasn’t. But I think there are three more important reasons why we are where we are now – with impeachment very likely, and Republicans less enthusiastic in their defense of the president than they have been.

One reason is what several people have pointed out: The Ukraine story indicates that Trump’s malfeasance is ongoing and forward-looking. That’s very different than a backward-facing scandal, like the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, where the key actions took place before Trump was in office. It also suggests that, as Matthew Green reminds us, the facts may actually matter.

Another reason is simply that impeachment, politically, is never about a single scandal. It’s always cumulative. That was certainly true during Watergate: Democrats didn’t begin the process based solely on President Richard Nixon’s original misconduct – which was more than enough to justify his ouster – or his initial cover-up, but only after he threatened to shut down investigations during the Saturday Night Massacre. One might say it was also true in 1998. For Republicans, President Bill Clinton’s affair and his denials of it were only the latest in a long series of alleged crimes. In Trump’s case, too, whatever conduct Democrats decide to include in articles of impeachment, his presidency is on the line because of a series of violations and transgressions. And that’s appropriate.

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But perhaps the most important reason this time is different is that Trump’s conduct with Ukraine seems to directly undercut what he’s been asking Republicans in Congress to say on his behalf. For more than two years, Trump has been claiming “no collusion” with Russia. Whether true or not (the special counsel’s report detailed lots of contacts between Trump’s campaign and various Russians, but didn’t establish evidence of a criminal conspiracy), the story Trump and his allies have been telling is premised on the assumption that collusion with a foreign power to interfere in U.S. elections would be bad. And now Trump seems to have been doing exactly that in advance of 2020.

That’s dangerous for the White House. Politicians who are perfectly willing to spin even improbable stories for a same-party president still don’t like to be exposed as obvious liars, and they don’t like having to double back on what they’ve already said. Pundits sometimes talk about how easily this administration slides from “the president didn’t do it” to “the president did it and we’re proud of it.” But many politicians do retain the ability to be shamed – and most fear supplying easy material for attack ads. Obvious lies are high up on the list of such material.

I know I’ve made this point several times, but it’s important: The final blow to Nixon was the revelation that he had directly lied to congressional Republicans and had them lie for him about something so straightforward and obvious that it made them look like fools – and convinced them that they couldn't trust him ever again. Trump isn’t there yet. But again, all of this is cumulative. Which means he’s constantly getting closer.

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Contact Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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