Ukraine-gate, the one in which Donald Trump pressured or even tried to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on his rival Joe Biden, seems like an open and shut case for impeachment. The misuse of the office of the presidency is blatant, evidence of breach of trust overwhelming and Trump’s gall, chutzpah and disregard for norms and conventions nothing less than mind-boggling, though far from surprising.
The scandal is so much worse if, as almost everyone assumes, Trump upheld the transfer of $391 million in Congressionally-approved U.S. aid in order to compel Zelensky to comply. Given that Trump’s goals had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy – never mind his ridiculous claim of caring about corruption in the Ukraine – and everything to do with his personal political agenda, it seems that the President of the U.S. is resorting to mafia-style tactics, using his august position to extort concessions from foreign leaders.
The outrage is further compounded by the recidivist nature of Trump’s behavior. It seems that unlike most observers, Trump failed to appreciate that he had narrowly escaped indictment by Robert Mueller, by virtue of the former FBI director’s reverence for the office of the President.
On the contrary, Trump apparently interpreted Mueller’s conclusions as a carte blanche to repeat and expand his nefarious injection of foreign interventions in the American political process: His now infamous phone call with Zelensky – redacted portions of which were released by the White House on Wednesday - took place less than 24 hours after Mueller’s testimony in Congress, which everyone but Trump interpreted as a damning indictment, moral if not criminal, of his collaboration with the Russians during the 2016 election campaign.
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Small wonder, then, that Speaker Nancy Pelosi felt she had no choice but to buckle under the wave of revulsion and indignation that swept Democratic lawmakers in the wake of the Ukraine revelations. On Tuesday, Pelosi dropped her long-standing opposition to impeachment proceedings, setting the Democratic Party on a path she has long thought could end in disaster.
Nonetheless, Pelosi’s apprehensions and misgivings were well justified before the Ukraine controversy and are still pertinent after she formally announced the launch of impeachment proceedings. The scenarios she fears have been playing out in Israel over the past few years, in situations radically different in content but disturbingly similar in portent. What seems like a slam-dunk case of impeachment against Trump could emerge as his ace in the hole in the upcoming election campaign, as Benjamin Netanyahu has shown time and time again.
Based on the experience of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment in 1974, the high drama of formal impeachment proceedings is bound to turn into a media spectacle that will garner top ratings. This would be good news for Democrats if Trump were at the start of his term; in an election year, however, the blessing could turn out to be a curse in disguise.
Focus on the reality show in the House of Representatives would narrow the public’s attention to the issue at hand and take its mind off the thrust of the Democrats' overall campaign: Trump’s policy failures and intolerable conduct in office. Much of the media exposure vital to bolstering the image of Trump’s eventual Democratic rival will be siphoned off to proceedings in the House of Representatives.
Placing Trump in the defendant’s dock, symbolically though not physically, unbalances the election race, moving Trump to center stage and his Democratic rival to the sidelines. Instead of a contest between two equal rivals, it casts Trump as fighting with more enemies than one and with one hand tied behind his back. If, like Netanyahu, the U.S. President willingly positions his battle as Trump vs. The World, he will have an easier time rallying up his base as he did in his 2016 victory.
Netanyahu expertly exploited his legal predicament to fire up his own base, which is no less devoted or ardent than Trump’s. The prime minister cynically manipulated his supporters’ inherent distrust of so-called “elites,” including the legal system. He dismissed his own misdeeds as mere trifles and painted his opponents’ inflation of his actions as proof of their sinister designs.
Trump’s immediate reaction to Pelosi’s declaration of impending impeachment proceedings was textbook Bibi, including his use of the term “witch hunt” and his assertion that Democrats were trying to get rid of him by legal means because of their failure to defeat him in the polls. To Israeli ears, it sounded as if the President was plagiarizing Netanyahu’s greatest hits.
Firing up the base is crucial not only for driving up voter participation in the elections but also for quelling any thoughts of rebellion among other elected representatives. Just like their Likud colleagues, many Republican lawmakers, perhaps even most, are well aware that Trump crossed numerous red lines in his phone call with Zelensky, just as he had in his dealings with Russian representatives during the 2016 campaign. But rather than face the terrifying rage of Trump’s die hard supporters, Republicans, like Netanyahu’s cabinet and Knesset faction, prefer to support the President and lambast his critics.
If Trump loses in 2020 these feckless elected officials will come out of the woodworks, just as Israeli lawmakers will on the day that Netanyahu is finally removed from the scene: They will all try to prove how they bravely resisted their leaders behind the scenes, where no one else could see.
The spinelessness of today’s GOP also makes the ultimate failure of impeachment proceedings inevitable: Unless overwhelming but currently unknown evidence of presidential crimes emerges over the course of the investigations and deliberations of the Judicial Committee and other House forums, hell has more chance of freezing over than of Democrats finding the 20 Republican defectors needed to reach the two-thirds Senate majority required for Trump’s “conviction.”
But as Netanyahu has shown so often in the past, anything but a final and unequivocal conviction can be transformed into a total exoneration in the eyes of devoted fans. Just as Trump spun Mueller’s damning findings to transform them into a verdict of innocence, Netanyahu has repeatedly sidelined damning findings about his conduct.
More than two decades ago, Netanyahu successfully portrayed a damning report by the attorney general on the so-called Baron-Hebron affair, which should have led to Netanyahu’s ouster from office, into a victory that proved his righteousness. I am an innocent victim of a sinister leftist conspiracy, he repeatedly asserts, in language and tone strikingly similar to Trump’s.
One can argue, of course, that Netanyahu’s success in conning the Israeli electorate is overrated. After all, the strategy failed him in both election campaigns he fought this year, in April and September, leaving him short of the majority needed to form a government. Netanyahu, however, is trying to get reelected for the fifth straight time; after ten straight years in office, his shrewd shtick was growing stale.
Trump, on the other hand, is vying for reelection for the first and last time. All he needs is a one-trick pony. Democrats enthused by the prospect of publicly castigating the President for months on end should remember that their glee only fuels hate and resentment among their political rivals.
They should also heed Pelosi’s reluctance and learn from the experience of their eternal ally Israel. In the days of Trump and Netanyahu, the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. often makes them look like carbon copies of each other.