Timothy Egan: If Donald Trump does it, it’s not a crime

(Evan Vucci | AP file photo) President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York.

Most people, perhaps even most sociopaths, have an internal alarm that goes off when they do something wrong. They may not feel an ounce of guilt, remorse or sorrow, but their instinct for survival is strong enough to send a red alert.

Not so with President Donald Trump. The first question I had after reading the White House reconstruction of the July 25 phone call, in which he prods Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to interfere with an American election, was: How could they release this?

“It turned out to be a nothing call,” Trump said. He also described it as “beautiful” and “perfect” and asked for an apology from his critics.

This was a “nothing call” only to a man with nothing for a moral foundation. This was exculpatory only to someone who thinks that the crime he has just outlined for all the world to see does not matter. This was “beautiful” and “perfect” only to someone who has crossed so many lines in his life that he has no idea where the boundaries are.

The whistleblower’s complaint, released on Thursday, at least shows that some people in the White House knew what a violation of the oath of office looked like — and were frantic to cover it up. The whistleblower described an attempt to “lock down” evidence of Trump’s betrayal of his country.

But the politically perilous road to impeachment will start and end with the words of a morally bankrupt man who has spent his entire adult life skirting, mocking, ignoring or breaking the law.

The case against him is in plain sight. Trump himself is the smoking gun, as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, said. In his own best-case version, the White House memo of the phone call, he asks a foreign leader to investigate one of his chief political rivals while Trump is holding up nearly $400 million in aid to that leader’s beleaguered country.

Trump sees this as no big deal because he’s always gotten away with his many transgressions, floating above the law in a padded world of privilege and prevarication. From trying to prevent black tenants from renting the apartments owned by his family, to his stiffing of contractors, cabinetmakers, drivers and others who worked for him, to defrauding students at a phony university, Trump’s life is a biography of scam and scofflaw.

His view is not unlike that of Richard Nixon, who famously said, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Except in Trump’s case, it refers to himself, not just the high office he holds. For him, it’s a life motto.

And one more thing about Nixon: The Trickster at least knew enough about violating his oath to fight the release of his own smoking gun, the tapes that implicated him in a cover-up and doomed his presidency.

Trump did not develop a late-life conscience, once he became leader of the free world. Neo-Nazis are very fine people, he said. The Nobel Peace Prize is rigged. The weather is what he says it is.

As soon as he felt he could get away with his attempt to obstruct an investigation into Russian meddling — the day after Robert Mueller testified to Congress — Trump urged Ukraine to meddle in an American election. This is not disputed, not by the words released from Trump’s own White House.

The Democrats were left with no choice. Even if it costs them the presidency, they can no longer be blind to their constitutional responsibility. This could be one of those cases where the right thing to do by the country is not the best thing to do politically.

The call to duty was made most powerfully in an op-ed in The Washington Post by seven Democrats from swing districts. All of them had military or national security experience and had previously been against impeachment. All are freshman, and vulnerable to losing their seats.

“These allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect,” they wrote. Let them be the face of the Democratic Party during impeachment. And let the Republican-run Senate, a graveyard of principle, be stuck with defending a lawless president.

“Where are you?” Such was the plaintive cry of John Kasich, a Republican who found a spine and lost his party. “Are you hiding under a rock?” Actually, they are in plain sight, just like the evidence of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors.

People should stop waiting for the Big Reveal to jolt Republicans out of their co-conspiracy with a corrupt president. The Big Reveal has happened. Republicans are all in with Trump. It’s trickle-up politics: the based is debased, backed by right-wing media.

“To impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. In years to come Graham will be remembered, if at all, as an invertebrate politician who cowered before someone he once called a “kook” and “unfit for office.”

But those who are “moved by the spirit or history to take action to protect and preserve the integrity of our nation,” as Rep. John Lewis said, will not be forgotten. They realize that the Constitution can’t save itself.

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