A few weeks ago, a tiny news operation down along the Columbia River conducted an interview that revealed how marooned Republicans suddenly are by impeachment.
“What would it take for you to break with the president?” the White Salmon Enterprise, circulation 2,700, asked the local Congress member, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, of Southwest Washington.
(Before I go on, how great is it that the White Salmon Enterprise, 116 years young, is still out there putting politicians on the record? Makes my hardened newspaper heart sing.)
Her answer was, to her credit, specific. Dangerously so, as it turned out.
“I must answer the question: Did the president commit ‘high crimes and misdemeanors?’” she responded via email. “So I’m focused on whether or not it can be proven that the president coerced Ukraine to influence the 2020 election by threatening to withhold aid to that country.”
Since then multiple witnesses from inside the Donald Trump administration have testified that this is exactly what happened. These include the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine last week, and this week the White House’s own internal aide on Ukraine and national security.
But as the impeachment waters have risen like a king tide, Herrera Beutler has scrambled for another ledge — the one where you decry the process. She called for a House vote and public testimony of witnesses. These are both reasonable requests, in my view — but ones that the House now is predictably proceeding to.
I bring up this sequence not to carp on Herrera Beutler. She has shown a lot of independence over the years. But to highlight that there aren’t many ledges left for Republicans to cling to.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, stranded himself in this same fashion last month when he put out a statement that sought to cast impeachment as nothing but a circuslike “media spectacle.”
“I read the transcript President Trump released today of his phone call with President Zelensky,” Newhouse said in late September. “It does not contain a ‘quid-pro-quo’ deal with Ukraine.”
Now that some of Trump’s own Ukraine aides have said that there was a quid pro quo, and you yourself established that as the standard, aren’t you then obligated to at least back further investigation?
Probably not. There’s always more process to decry. In fact if you think a closed-door investigation was a media spectacle, just wait until the open hearings start. They will be bashed as nothing but a “show trial.”
I asked Herrera Beutler whether she would vote for the coming impeachment resolution, as she had previously requested just such a vote. Her aide emailed back that Herrera Beutler hadn’t decided yet “whether it will establish a fair, open and transparent process; or whether it codifies the secretive, one-sided affair that’s happened so far.”
Sounds like she’s staying put on the process ledge, at least for now.
There is another ledge, a final one Republicans may flock to as their defense crumbles. That’s the one where you say: “Yeah, he shook down the Ukrainians to benefit himself. Yes, it was wrong. But it didn’t really work, OK? So it’s not impeachable.”
This isn’t as weak as it sounds. It was exactly this approach that saved the last impeached president, Bill Clinton.
Most people only remember Clinton lying and stonewalling, a la Trump. But the thing that Clinton did that saved his job in the end? He fessed up. This happened right after he was forced to give testimony to a grand jury (in secret, behind closed doors, I might add). Clinton went on television and said something it’s almost impossible to imagine coming from Trump: I was wr …. I was wro … well what he said exactly was this:
“I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”
Not quite “I’m sorry.” But close enough! With a sigh of exasperated relief, both Democrats and the broader public used that flimsy confession as justification to let Clinton off the hook.
Could Trump ever admit wrong and apologize? Right now he’s busy trying to block anyone from testifying while also proclaiming total innocence, so it seems a stretch. If you’re clinging to one of those last ledges — if you’re Herrera Beutler, say — are you going to wait around and hope he does the right thing to keep you from drowning?