Trump Is Writing His Own Articles of Impeachment

By Renato Mariotti

The second public impeachment hearing should have made less of an impact than the blockbuster first hearing. After all, the witness—former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch—had little testimony to offer about the aid-for-dirt scheme at the core of the inquiry.

President Donald Trump changed that with a single tweet.

Trump often blasts his perceived enemies on Twitter, and the result is usually little more than hand-wringing on cable news. Thursday’s blast was altogether different and may end up changing the actual charges the House ultimately files against Trump.

The timing could not have been more dramatic, coming about an hour into the hearing and only moments after Yovanovitch testified about how mortified she had felt reading what Trump had said about her to the Ukrainian president in July. And then he did it again: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he wrote. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff deftly turned the disparaging tweet against Trump by reading it to a stunned Yovanovitch.

Her response to the tweet—“It’s very intimidating”—spoke volumes and drowned out any other narrative that could have come out of her testimony.

Trump has been a master at distraction, and today he tried to do so by releasing the transcript of his first call with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, dutifully read the entirety of the call into the record.

But that move landed with a thud, given how irrelevant the transcript was. His second attempt to distract—the tweet—succeeded only in making Yovanovitch’s testimony far more weighty and relevant than it might have been otherwise.

It’s not hard to see why commentators rushed to call it witness tampering. After all, Yovanovitch called it “very intimidating,” and knowingly using intimidation with the intent to influence testimony is the very definition of witness tampering.

It doesn’t matter that Yovanovitch would not be intimidated by a mere tweet, given how formidable she appeared during her testimony. As Schiff pointed out, the fear of a Trump tweet could influence other witnesses, such as Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who is scheduled to appear next week. Indeed, the picture painted by testimony during the inquiry thus far is of Trump officials working under the specter that a Trump tweet could turn their world upside down.

That doesn’t mean a federal prosecutor would actually charge Trump with witness tampering if he were not in office. It would be hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump intended to intimidate witnesses. Trump’s state of mind is a difficult thing to pin down in any context. In fact, he later denied he was trying to intimidate her, insisting he was exercising his “free speech” right.

But it really doesn’t matter. Impeachment is a political process, and you can expect House Democrats to add another article of impeachment charging Trump with witness tampering, which was also part of the articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon.

More importantly, Trump handed the narrative to Democrats on a day when his supporters could have otherwise argued that Yovanovitch didn’t really provide testimony of truly impeachable acts by Trump.

For her own part, Yovanovitch provided something important to Democrats. Her testimony not only set the stage for the core story to be told by subsequent witnesses, but it provided an emotional heft and a counterpoint to Trump that had power beyond the substance of her words.

Yovanovitch reminded me of a type of witness who often testifies at a criminal trial—a victim of wrongdoing who possesses a quiet strength while detailing how a wrongdoer has affected her life.

One weakness of the Democrats’ otherwise strong case against Trump is that the victim of Trump’s scheme was Ukraine—or our system of government as a whole. There was no tangible American who was the target of Trump’s scheme other than former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, who are too politicized to be portrayed as victims by House Democrats.

Although Yovanovitch was not the intended victim of Trump’s scheme, she paid a price for his wrongdoing. Her strength and dignity in the face of poor treatment by Trump drew a contrast to him and created an emotional weight to Democrats’ case that it did not have before.

Trump might very well escape removal from office, given that Senate Republicans appear to be all but impervious to any evidence that might emerge from the hearings. But he is his own worst enemy. His ham-handed mistreatment of Yovanovitch and impulsive desire to belittle her during her testimony made it even more difficult for House Republicans to distract viewers from his indefensible conduct. If he keeps this up, he might well be the author of his own political end.