Nobody knows how impeachment will play as a political matter in the long run, but something remarkable has happened in the last week. The president’s Republican defenders in Congress have started to look silly. That’s new. Silly is distinct from unserious, unwise, dishonest, or villainous. A politician may not want to be those things, but silly is worse. Often, people who lie or dissemble or feign ignorance do so from a position of strength—they know they can get away with it. But people who look foolish are rarely, if ever, strong.
In the past, it has been rare for any offense committed by the administration to last more than about 48 hours in the public consciousness. Like the diseases in Mr. Burns’ body, there have been so many scandals and outrages that they crowd each other out, preventing any one thing from holding attention for long. Even the revelation that the president paid hush money to a porn star he was cheating on his third wife with is barely remembered today, let alone, say, the time EPA administrator Scott Pruitt sent his bodyguards to drive around to collect Ritz-Carlton body lotions, or the time a rinky-dink company from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown that had two employees got a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.
This amnesia has protected GOP members of Congress. Evade questions about one crisis in the party, and eventually it will go away, soon to be replaced by another. Speaker Paul Ryan used to pretend he never watched the news. Others would literally run away from reporters. But this Ukraine thing isn’t going away, and Republicans are going to be asked about it a lot, into the indefinite future. Over the last week, as they have been repeatedly wrongfooted by the administration, it has become clear they have no idea what to say about it.
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The first time congressional Republicans got spotlighted came last Tuesday, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that her caucus would take another step toward impeachment. Republicans in the Texas delegation leaped to the president’s defense with one particularly strong message: Pelosi had jumped the gun. Why not wait for the release of the transcript, which Trump had called “perfect,” and the complaint, which the White House said contained nothing of consequence?
On CNN, host Chris Cuomo asked freshman congressman Lance Gooden, from Terrell: “Did the president pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden?” Gooden’s answer: “I believe that the question you’re asking will be answered tomorrow,” he said. “All the questions should be answered tomorrow morning.” Gooden clearly thought the answers would be helpful to his party—after all, Trump had said so himself. Suppressing a grin throughout the interview, Gooden predicted that “on election night, Donald Trump gets reelected, and today is a milestone the Democrats will regret.”
Many of his Texan colleagues joined him. Representative Dan Crenshaw tweeted that “opening an impeachment inquiry without having all the information is irresponsible.” He added: “Let’s talk after the transcripts are released.” Representatives Ron Wright, Roger Williams, and John Carter, among others, similarly criticized the Democrats for acting before the White House released its exculpatory information. They seemed very confident. It was hard not to wonder: Maybe they were right?
But the rough transcript was the opposite of exculpatory: It was shocking, and not just because of its contents. How could the White House be so deluded as to think it would be helpful to them? (If you haven’t read it you should.) Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky asks for help for his country. Trump interjects: “I would like you to do us a favor though.” The first favor is help “investigating” a nonsense conspiracy theory related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. “The other thing. There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” Trump says, outlining a corrupt scheme he alleges Biden took part in. (That part also seems to be nonsense.) ”If you can look into it…”
Republicans in Congress scrambled to figure out what to make of the bombshell. Privately, they admitted they were stunned, with one senator telling a reporter the release was a “huge mistake.” Publicly, they struggled with what to say. And their embarrassment was compounded when the White House accidentally sent Democrats their proposed talking points for the day—before trying to “recall” them—revealing that everyone had been ineptly following a script, which they continued to do even after the talking points had leaked.
Over the last week, Texas Republicans of all stripes have continued to say some odd things. But no member of the delegation has been so passionate in defense of the president as Senator John Cornyn, who is up for reelection next year.
Cornyn’s defense has been waged on countless fronts: On the Senate floor, in radio interviews, in discussions with reporters, and in dozens and dozens of tweets. But in a conference call last week with members of the press, Cornyn laid out perhaps his most complete thoughts on the Ukraine scandal, and got pressed on it just a bit. Speaking after the White House had dumped its documents, Cornyn began by saying it was “a strange world we live in” because Nancy Pelosi had opened an impeachment inquiry before she and other Democrats “had any information, including a transcript of the call, and were relying strictly on reports.”
This was a peculiar line to use after the transcript had come out and had wholly justified the “reports” Democrats had apparently heard. “Further, we learn that the complaint was made by somebody who didn’t even have firsthand knowledge of the issue.” Again, a strange defense, given that the primary piece of evidence now in question was a transcript the president had himself released.
There would be consequences, Cornyn said. “Unfortunately as a result of Speaker Pelosi’s announcement and the single-minded determination to impeach the president,” it would be extremely difficult to do anything else. Pelosi had killed “bipartisan legislation to lower drug prices” and measures “to address the rash of mass shootings,” he said, in essence shooting two hostages that the Senate had already beheaded.
“At the same time they know—certainly without any evidence—the Senate will never convict President Trump,” Cornyn said.
Then he pivoted to the Trump-Zelensky call. “You will note, as I did, that President Trump did not even bring up the Biden name first, it was the president of Ukraine that raised the Biden name,” he said. Only after that, Trump responded to Zelensky, clearly “concerned as he was about corruption in Ukraine.”
The idea that Trump is deeply concerned about corruption abroad is a little too cute. In fact, Trump has a history of opining that the problem with corruption overseas is that there isn’t enough of it: He’s repeatedly told people around him that he thinks laws prohibiting American companies from bribing foreign governments should be wiped out because they put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
A reporter on the call challenged Cornyn. The senator was in fact wrong to say Zelensky mentioned Biden first: Trump did. “My memory was to the contrary, but the transcript obviously speaks for itself,” Cornyn said. Because other Republicans got this wrong too, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, it’s hard not to suspect that the fault was not with Cornyn’s “recollection” or “memory” but rather with the circulating talking points.
Another reporter asked a clear question: “You’re okay with the president of the United States pressuring a foreign government to take legal action, use that government’s legal system, to harm a political rival?”
“Well, Todd, I don’t agree with your statement,” Cornyn replied. “The purpose of the investigation was to root out corruption and investigate corruption without regard for personalities. Obviously the Biden name was mentioned, but it’s– you’re interpreting this as a way to target Biden, and I think that’s a too-narrow construction about what’s going on here.”
If President Hillary Clinton were withholding money from Mexico until they came up with dirt on Cornyn’s donors and friends who did business in the country, it seems doubtful Cornyn would be waxing philosophic about the nature of causation and the importance of weeding out wrongdoing abroad.
But hypocrisy is everywhere in politics. What seems more notable is that this rhetoric all seems hapless and desperate. It’s terribly weak stuff. This is the start of a process that may last weeks or months or even longer, and right out of the gate nobody knows quite what to say in defense of the president, because Trump has left them with few choices.
The only option, it seems, is to get much louder and stupider. Among a bewildering array of nonsense and new lies, Trump opined on Monday that the Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee should be “arrest[ed] for treason” and approvingly quoted Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, his own personal sin-eater, who warned that an impeachment and removal from office would “cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation,” a hideously irresponsible thing for a president to say.
Will the president’s increasingly erratic behavior cause congressional Republicans to sober up? Maybe not—the president’s defenders have proven quite resilient. But maybe, just maybe, it gets harder to do the job with a straight face.