We have reached the phase during the goalpost moving process where Republican defenders of President Trump are not yet insisting that what he did with regard to Ukraine was “bad, but not impeachable.”
Instead, they’re actually saying, out loud, that they absolutely don’t know what he did. But if he did anything it’s not impeachable. Here’s Trump’s #1 defender making exactly that point:
False stories are being reported that a few Republican Senators are saying that President Trump may have done a quid pro quo, but it doesn’t matter, there is nothing wrong with that, it is not an impeachable event. Perhaps so, but read the transcript, there is no quid pro quo!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 4, 2019
It’s not often that you get to watch people actually disassemble the goalposts, move them 10 yards downfield, and then put them back up in real time.
This is a half-way house. The next step is that Trump defenders will be forced to admit that, yes, there was a quid pro quo whereby Trump insisted that Ukraine publicly commit to investigating the Bidens before aid was released. But that there’s nothing wrong with using quid pro quos in foreign policy. Therefore, you can’t impeach.
The step after that will be admitting that quid pro quos of this nature are, in fact, bad. But that they cannot be classified as either a high-crime or a misdemeanor. Therefore, you can’t impeach.
And the step after that will be admitting that a quid pro quo of this nature might have been really, really bad—impeachable, even—had the aid to Ukraine never been released. But in the end Ukraine got its money. So the quid pro quo which was initiated by Trump never reached its conclusion. Therefore it didn’t really exist. Therefore, you can’t impeach.
Most Republicans will gamely set up tactical defenses at each stop along the way. But the truth is that even admitting that Trump’s actions were bad (but not impeachable!) is a tactical mistake. Anything is impeachable if the House of Representatives deems it so. In August of 2014, House Republicans could have impeached Barack Obama over his tan suit.
The entire analytical structure around impeachment isn’t convincing the public whether or not a given action is “impeachable.” It’s convincing the public that what the president did was bad.
When Republicans hit the line where they’re willing to concede that what Trump did was bad, then they’ll be ceding a very important, very valuable, piece of ground.