Members Only | November 18, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

America Was Witness to Trump’s Attempt to Intimidate a Witness

He might have a chance if he stayed silent. He won't.

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The Wall Street Journal reviewed White House emails to reveal Monday morning that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, had kept senior officials abreast of efforts to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating the Bidens before Donald Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with the young Ukrainian president.

So: A plan was underway, a plan predating the whistleblower complaint.

This is important to note, because a key pillar of the Republican Party’s defense has been pushing to reveal the identity of the CIA analyst whose report to the Congress started the current House investigation into impeachable offenses by the president.

Trump told on himself.

The Republicans persist though witness after witness has given credence to, or verified details of, the complaint. (For instance, Bill Taylor, the current ambassador to Ukraine, said last week his aide overheard a phone call in which Sondland told Trump that Ukraine was ready to move on “the investigations.”) They persist in spite of that fact because intimidation is what these Republicans do. The whistleblower’s anonymity neuters their kill-or-be-killed instinct, but it doesn’t stop them from trying. And the more they try, the more they prove critics right: today’s GOP is unfit to govern.

To critics, the problem isn’t a lack of evidence. The problem is getting the American people to understand that intimidation, and outright thuggery, is what the president’s core supporters like about him. And the problem, for his critics, is that the American people don’t fully understand that intimidation is an abuse of power at odds with democracy. We can’t govern ourselves when one side aims to humiliate the other.

This is why Friday was an important day for democracy. Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, described in open testimony to the House Intelligence Committee “her role advancing U.S. interests in some of the most dangerous countries in the world until a smear campaign led by Rudy Giuliani and other Republicans led to her being recalled,” according to Bloomberg News. As if confirming that Yovanovitch is not imagining things, Trump posted an intimidating tweet at the moment she said she felt intimidated by him and his Republican allies.

Not only was it important for the American people to see these events collide in real time; it was important that Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, drew our attention to Trump’s tweet and to Yovanovitch’s reaction to it. “It’s very intimidating,” she said.

Intimidation works in a closed space where only power matters, not norms of human behavior. But by bullying a female career diplomat out in the open, where rules of conduct are as varied as the American people, Trump told on himself, as they say. Once he did that, he couldn’t take it back. No president has that kind of power.

In a closed space, Trump can act with impunity, but in public, his impudence can be damning. He ends up underscoring the claims against him. Yovanovitch said she felt intimidated. Trump intimidates her for saying she felt intimidated. Case closed. Yes, some Republicans, hangers-on like Ari Fleischer, want us to wonder how a tweet could possibly intimidate anyone. Others rationalize it, saying Trump has a right to free speech. I’d guess any woman who’s ever felt bulldozed has something to say, and I’d guess quick attempts to excuse actual presidential harassment are going to backfire.

Because the president’s present misconduct is evidence of past misconduct, House investigators are right to use it. Think of it this way: Anything you say can and will be used against you. Trump is ignoring, actually vaporizing, his best defense, which is silence. If he didn’t say anything, he might have a chance. But he’s using the world’s biggest and loudest megaphone to declare his guilt. Schiff seems ready to see Friday’s attempt to intimidate a witness (Yovanovitch) as yet another impeachable offense.

Present misconduct is evidence of past misconduct.

(Trump intimidated another witness on Sunday. Jennifer Williams is Mike Pence’s foreign policy advisor. In testimony this weekend, she said she took notes on the July 25 phone call and thought it was “inappropriate.” She also implicated the vice president in Trump’s attempt at bribery. Trump in essence called her a nobody.)

The thing about the Yovanovitch case is that Trump, Giuliani and their Republican allies (especially former Republican Congressman Pete Sessions who took Russian cash in exchange for lobbying for Yovanovitch’s ouster) did not have to smear her to get rid of her. There was no need for that. Any president can call back any ambassador at any time for any reason. That’s any president’s legal and constitutional prerogative. But there’s a good reason to mount a campaign to smear a career diplomat. You don’t want anyone to believe what she says. Why? Because what she says is a threat to you.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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