The best defense of President Donald Trump on the first day of the House's public impeachment hearings came from Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican. She cited "the two most important facts" for Americans trying to understand the inquiry into the president withholding military assistance to Ukraine unless it investigated former Vice President Joe Biden: "No. 1, Ukraine received the aid," she said. "No. 2, there was in fact no investigation into Biden."
Stefanik's defense is shrewd because it sidesteps Trump's hand-waving and gaslighting. It is also dangerous because it reveals Trump's weakness as a leader.
It is not tenable to argue, as the Trump campaign did Wednesday, that the scandal is really a disagreement over whether the president gets to overrule the State Department bureaucracy. This is not about who makes foreign policy. It's about whether Trump used the power of his office to coerce a foreign leader to investigate a domestic rival. For about seven weeks -- between July 25 and Sept. 11 -- that appeared to be the policy. But following pressure from Congress and protests inside his own government, the aid was released without Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, announcing an investigation into Biden or his son.
Stefanik's defense is true not only in this narrow case, but in a larger sense as well. Donald Trump has been saved from himself time and again by the insubordination of his own government.
Just look at the second part of Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, where he documents how Trump ordered subordinates to fire him, only to have his orders ignored. Or see Bob Woodward's 2018 book, where he reports how Gary Cohn, then Trump's economic adviser, literally snatched papers off the president's desk to prevent him from pulling out of trade deals.
Former Chief of Staff John Kelly says he was open with the president about his need for advisers to thwart his worst instincts. When Kelly and Trump were discussing who would replace him at the White House, Kelly says he told the president: "Whatever you do, don't hire a 'yes man,' someone who won't tell you the truth -- don't do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached."
There are times when the insubordination inside the government is intended not to save Trump but to expose him. That explains the leaked transcripts of Trump's phone calls with foreign leaders in his first month in office. The number of former and current senior officials willing to testify against the president in the impeachment hearings -- over objections from the White House -- fits this mold as well.
Even when Trump gets his way on policies opposed by his advisers, they often find a way to mitigate his initial decisions. A few weeks after Trump made the sudden decision in October to remove remaining U.S. forces from northern Syria, he ordered many of them back to secure oil fields once controlled by Islamic State.
All of this is important because a big part of the Democrats' case against the president is that it doesn't matter if the aid was delivered and the investigation was never opened. In his opening statement on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff did not ask whether Trump committed a quid pro quo with Ukraine, but only if he "sought" to do so.
Schiff would have a point if an impeachment inquiry were a criminal trial. But impeachment is a political process. And for now there are no Republicans in the House willing to impeach the president for a plan that never came to fruition.
Republicans should be wary, however. Stefanik's defense is an effective rebuttal in the context of impeachment. In the context of a re-election campaign, it's damning. The fact that his corrupt schemes were stymied will likely save Trump from being removed from office. The fact that he had them in the first place is a good argument for voting him out.
About The Writer
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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