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How Bad Is This Ukraine Situation For Trump?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Wednesday morning we got the latest big development in the still-developing Ukraine story. First there was news of a whistleblower complaint alleging that President Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to open an official impeachment inquiry of the president. And today, the White House released a summary of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky.

At this stage, there’s still a lot we don’t know. We don’t have the full whistleblower complaint (although it is expected to be released this week and the whistleblower may even testify before Congress). And testimony is also expected from acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire tomorrow on the whistleblower’s report. So, again, there are still a lot of moving parts. But let’s take stock of where things stand now that we have the White House’s summary of the phone call:

  1. How bad is this for Trump?
  2. Does the impeachment inquiry announced by Pelosi on Tuesday continue to build?
  3. How have elected Republicans reacted, particularly in the U.S. Senate?

No. 1 first: How bad was the summary for Trump?

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Bad?

Actually, I think the real answer is … “Very, very bad?” And the verys are important there, but so is the question mark.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): It’s bad — especially because we haven’t yet seen the whistleblower complaint, which apparently has multiple incidents, not just this call. That is — it’s especially bad if this is the least-bad thing that could have come out.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): This definitely has a lot of momentum — it’s a big deal, even if it doesn’t change a lot of the mechanics of what’s already being done in the House to investigate the president.

And yes, it doesn’t look great for Trump whatsoever.

ameliatd: And the whistleblower is apparently willing to testify, so we’re presumably going to get more information about the circumstances around the call.

The Trump talking point is that there was no explicit quid pro quo, but the call is extremely suggestive. In the summary, Trump starts by talking about aid to Ukraine, then pivots to asking for a “favor.”

And if this was part of a larger pattern where the aid is more explicitly connected to Trump’s requests, that would be really, really bad. That’s what remains to be seen — what made the whistleblower file the report? It wasn’t just this call.

clare.malone: Right, as people have pointed out, this call summary is just one component of a larger report.

So, if this is the part that the White House was comfortable making public, it does lead one to wonder what the part they wanted to suppress has in it.

sarahf: Yeah, and this was something Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen made clear in his testimony before Congress — this is part of how Trump operates. He doesn’t ask for people to outright commit a crime or lie, but he does make it clear what he wants “in his way.”

I guess I’m just unconvinced that this will shift opinions among those who already support the president (or independents).

clare.malone: Well, Sarah, I guess I would agree with you that it probably won’t change the views of his most dyed-in-the-wool supporters, but it could definitely shake the confidence of voters on the fence about him.

Which is the reason why Democrats from moderate districts apparently seem to feel so comfortable coming out in support of impeachment. I think this case (Ukraine) is much more clearly understood by people to be … shady … than the Mueller situation was.

ameliatd: I agree with you on that, Clare. As someone who spent a lot of time explaining the ins and outs of everything Mueller was investigating (and what he found), Ukraine appears to be a much clearer story — even without evidence of explicit quid pro quo.

micah: Well, this sorta gets at what I think is a central question now … politically, at least. We already know that voters have a high bar for impeachment. Will asking a foreign leader to investigate his most likely 2020 opponent clear that bar? Or will voters want evidence of an explicit quid pro quo?

The White House is very clearly trying to draw the conversation around a clear quid pro quo.

Which makes sense — as the call summary already proves Trump asked for the investigation, I’m not sure what other options they have.

clare.malone: Right, and one thing I think we should mention is that the call summary potentially leaves a lot out:

Per this tweet, the conversation was 30 minutes and the words in the summary don’t necessarily compute with a normally-paced 30 minute call.

ameliatd: Some people are also pointing out the ellipses in the summary, Clare, which are concentrated in the sections where Trump’s talking about what he wants Zelensky to investigate.

micah: Does the fact that the White House is trying to draw the line at quid pro quo make you think there won’t be evidence of that? Or is it just that that’s kinda their only avenue left on this story?

I guess … who knows!?!?!

🤷‍♂️

ameliatd: I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no explicit quid pro quo, just because as Sarah says, that doesn’t seem to be how Trump operates. At least, explicit quid pro quo in the sense of Trump saying, “Kiss your aid from us goodbye unless you investigate the Bidens.”

sarahf: But given that conversations aren’t recorded in the Oval office anymore (thanks, Nixon!) … won’t there always be a question of what was said (or wasn’t said) hanging over the conversation?

micah: Unless … Ukraine made a recording!!!

IDK, even in that call summary there wasn’t a lot of dancing or insinuating!

That’s kinda where I shake out on all this for now in terms of Trump’s political risk: If the call summary represents the lower bound, there’s a LOT of risk to the president.

sarahf: I still think though that there’s a possibility that some dismiss this as, “It sounded like the president,” à la Sen. Shelley Moore Capito here.

ameliatd: Also, Zelensky actually seemed pretty willing on the call to investigate — he talked about his new prosecutor and then told Trump, “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.” Not sure if/how that changes things, or if he was just saying what he thought Trump wanted to hear, but I wonder if that’s another place where additional context will help clarify.

clare.malone: Though, to that point, Amelia, we have this report:

sarahf: But OK, let’s talk about the *risk* for the president that this all poses. According to the New York Times, 208 Democrats (as of midday Wednesday) support opening an impeachment inquiry. That represents a dramatic uptick in members supporting this move — Democrats need only 218 to actually open a motion.

Do we think that comes next?

Or what are Democrats’ next move?

micah: Just to start, it seems like Democrats will be pretty unified around the impeachment inquiry. I’ve seen some agita around keeping the inquiry focused on Ukraine — rather than folding in other potential transgressions — but I think we can expect the vast majority of Democrats to stay in line. As you said, Sarah, that was the big shift over the last week.

In terms of what comes next …

clare.malone: Testimony from the whistleblower could be really powerful.

ameliatd: Yeah, Democrats will want the whistleblower to testify. And they’ll probably also subpoena Rudy Giuliani, given that he’s all over this call.

The benefit of formally opening an impeachment proceeding is that it gives the House a much stronger legal position in getting documents and testimony.

clare.malone: Yeah, this is a real battle of governmental branches right here!

I bet high school civics teachers are losing their shit this week with the real life examples.

micah: Lots of juicy Constitutional questions!

Anyway, I do think it’ll be crucial to watch how focused Democrats can keep things on this Ukraine story.

If the public thinks Democrats are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, public opinion probably won’t move much. And Democrats need public opinion to move.

clare.malone: I wonder how much they will be chased by the ghosts of that letter from Attorney General William Barr, the Mueller testimony, etc. Perhaps they’ve learned lessons about how to keep the public focused on the aspects of the narrative that are most beneficial to their impeachment case.

Because as we’ve said before, impeachment is a political act, above all. It’s not frippery to say that the Democrats need to maintain a strong narrative for the public to glom onto. It’s not a lofty thing to say, but a lot of this is PR.

micah: Yeah, to stay on public opinion for a sec …

This is from Nate’s piece yesterday:

Heretofore, quite a lot of voters have both disapproved of Trump’s conduct and disapproved of impeaching him.

Why this gap has persisted isn’t entirely clear. Pelosi’s reluctance on impeachment undoubtedly dissuaded some Democratic voters from getting on board; the most recent Quinnipiac poll found only 61 percent of Democrats in favor of impeachment and 29 percent opposed. Those numbers may increase now that House leadership is coming around to impeachment.

The same poll, however, found independent voters mostly against impeachment — 62 percent opposed it to 28 percent in favor. That’s despite Trump having only a 35 percent approval rating among independents in the poll. So impeachment has given Democrats problems among swing voters as well.

So that, to me, is something to watch:

  1. Do Democrats now rally behind impeachment? (Probably?)
  2. Do Independents move towards impeachment? (🤷‍♂️)

sarahf: And on the subject of public opinion, this poll dropped after we published Nate’s piece yesterday, but a new Quinnipiac poll that was in the field from Sept 19-23, captured a 5 percentage point shift in favor of impeachment since it last asked the question in July.

micah: Yeah, there’s some Democratic movement towards impeachment — support among Democrats jumped 12 points, from 61 percent in the Quinnipiac poll Nate referenced (which was the most recent when he wrote that article) to 73 percent now.

And I think that’s where most of the overall shift comes from right now. Support for impeachment among independents crept up 6 points, from 28 percent to 34 percent.

ameliatd: That’s why I think the hearings and testimony that unfold over the next few days/weeks are so, so key. I generally think the comparisons to Watergate wear kind of thin, but public hearings and testimony were crucially important in building the case against Nixon. And the Democrats have basically gotten none of that so far because the Trump administration has so successfully stonewalled them.

sarahf: Which brings me to our third point — for some of the public opinion shift we’re talking about to happen — you need more than just Democrats and independents to say they support impeaching Trump, right?

Because ultimately, we’ve got a divided Congress, which means even if the House votes to open an impeachment inquiry and even passes articles of impeachment, it would still likely die in the Republican-controlled Senate, hurting Democrats’ ability to control some of this narrative, no?

clare.malone: I suppose you need the on-the-bubble Republican voter to find this whole thing distasteful.

Ye olde Reluctant Trump Voter.

sarahf: So far on the GOP side, only Sen. Mitt Romney has spoken out against Trump on the Ukraine story.

No GOP member of the House currently supports an impeachment inquiry. (Although on Tuesday, the Senate did unanimously pass a nonbinding resolution calling on the Trump administration to release the whistleblower complaint — so there’s still the possibility more Republicans come forward.)

micah: But I don’t think it’s particularly telling that elected Republicans are sticking with Trump in the wake of this.

Wherever the goal posts are on this story — asking a foreign leader to interfere in a U.S. election, quid pro quo, etc. — you’d expect Republicans to use the most pro-Trump ones …

Especially in the early days.

clare.malone: Yep. It’s very hard to imagine this Republican Senate, in particular, turning against Trump.

Though, here’s what Sen. Susan Collins has said, FWIW

micah: I mean, that’s pretty weak sauce from Collins.

clare.malone: She, of course, is in her own predicament as an endangered more-moderate member.

micah: Yeah, she’ll be interesting to watch as she’s in a tough re-election fight.

But on the question of if and how Republicans start to move against Trump, I thought this was really smart from FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman:

If you’ve ever been at a dinner party, you’ll understand the following dynamic: It’s late. The conversation is deadly dull. Dessert still hasn’t been served. You’re bored and exhausted and want nothing more than to go home and go to bed. But you don’t want to be the first person to leave.Eventually, somebody decides it’s grown late enough. She makes an excuse to leave. Now there’s safety in numbers. You can leave because other people are leaving. And the dinner party ends. Suddenly.

ameliatd: I do wonder what it would take to get more than your standard “this-is-troubling-I-have-questions” response from congressional Republicans. Does someone like Romney have to go out on a limb to give other people cover?

micah: Amelia, I think Lee’s article speaks to that:

The insight here borrows from political scientist Timur Kuran’s classic work Private Truth, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. The logic is straightforward: In social and political situations, people often have private preferences that are costly to express. So they keep quiet to maintain social status or sometimes personal safety. They say and do what they think they are supposed to say and do to get along. Hence, the “Public Lies” part of the title.

But sometimes the calculus changes. Sometimes a critical mass expresses a dangerous opinion. This empowers others to speak up. Then even more folks feel empowered. And then even more. And then there is a social revolution.

So, in theory, if Republicans reach a critical mass of members who want to defect — and I have no idea if we will reach that mass or how big that mass has to be — GOP defections could sorta happen all at once.

clare.malone: Under that rubric, was Sen. John McCain’s surprise healthcare vote an Irish goodbye?

(I digress)

micah: LOL

Well-played.

On the podcast, our stand-in for the mainstream of the Republican Party has always been Pat Toomey … has he said anything?

Ah, here ya go … the “Full Toomey”!

That was from Sunday — so before the call summary was released, but Toomey said:”It is not appropriate for any candidate for federal office — certainly including the sitting president — to ask for assistance from a foreign country. That’s not appropriate. But I don’t know that that’s what happened here.”

So if Toomey follows through on that line of thinking, maybe there is some room for GOP defection short of quid pro quo.

sarahf: I don’t know. My thought is the more this plays out in the public eye (the whistleblower report, multiple congressional hearings, etc.), the more the issue that Micah and Clare raised of “did Trump fail to uphold his constitutional duties” gets lost in the conversation, and the question of impeachment remains politicized along party lines.

clare.malone: So that goes back to the point about how Democrats will control the narrative. Democrats have to continue to be clear about what the impeachment charges would likely be about — essentially, dereliction of constitutional duty.

ameliatd: I mean, I do wonder if impeachment has become so closely tied in the public eye to criminal activity that it becomes harder for Democrats to make a clear case. That was one of the things I found most interesting about the Mueller investigation — everyone was so focused on whether there was a crime, which then made it harder to pivot to impeachment. So does it help here that there’s no special prosecutor to start dropping indictments? Or does it make it more complicated to build a narrative?

clare.malone: I think it probably makes it easier, Amelia?

sarahf: Ha, I’d say more complicated? Because now you just have partisan actors, whereas Mueller was at least thought of as impartial.

ameliatd: That does actually feel like an important difference here — with the Russia investigation, House Democrats kept leaning on Mueller to dig up some smoking gun. Here they’re clearly on their own, so maybe they’ll actually be more focused and effective in building their case.

clare.malone: Mueller wasn’t in on the PR game, either. He didn’t leak, he didn’t do interviews, etc. So this time around, it might be easier for Democrats to coordinate a strategy and message, especially now that this is all likely to unfold on more of a political battle field.

micah: Yeah, great points. So maybe it is better for Democrats.

But IDK, I feel like Democrats will have a hard time fighting the impression that Amelia mentioned — that there has to be criminal conduct to justify impeachment.

ameliatd: Right, Mueller wasn’t focused on any of these constitutional questions — he was just trying to figure out if crimes had been committed. Whereas a Democratic investigation will be much broader, and it will be public, which means it’s (potentially) easier to build momentum and make a case for unethical or unconstitutional conduct by Trump, rather than illegal conduct.

clare.malone: On-the-fly transparency rather than months of behind the scenes information and fact-gathering!

The thing that was interesting about the Mueller investigation was that so much was built upon reading between the lines on statements from Mueller’s office. I presume it will be much easier this time to build a public narrative, and sustain said narrative while you’re dropping breadcrumbs of stories week by week, day by day.

ameliatd: I do think there are plenty of ways for this to go south for the Democrats, though. If you’re building that narrative in public, it means you actually have to have effective and dramatic testimony. And if they don’t — that’s fodder for Trump and his allies.

sarahf: OK, to wrap …

There’s a lot of moving pieces still and a lot we just don’t know. What are you going to be paying attention to moving forward?

ameliatd: What’s in the whistleblower complaint??

micah: THIS ^^^

sarahf: You think that’s the key piece here, Amelia?

ameliatd: I do, and I am also so curious to know who the whistleblower is.

clare.malone: That!

What Amelia said!

ameliatd: Like, if this is a senior intelligence official — that testimony is going to be bananas.

clare.malone: That’s what I’m most interested in, too.

They’re like the unnamed star of a highly anticipated movie.

ameliatd: Especially since that person allegedly wants to testify. We saw with Mueller what happens when your witness really doesn’t want to be there, but those hearings can actually be pretty 🔥 if you’ve got someone who wants to talk.

(I guess 🔥 by the standards of congressional hearings — which I will admit is a low bar.)

micah: More generally what I’m looking for …

  1. To what extent does evidence of quid pro quo become the red line in terms of the narrative, especially for the public and elected Republicans. You’re already seeing the White House and congressional Republicans pushing that as the criteria. But will the media buy into that and will the public? Of course, that could also bite Republicans in the end if that evidence does emerge!
  2. Sorta redundant with No. 1, but … POLLS! What do Americans think of all this?

This is all crazy, though!!! There are huge, huge risks for Trump, Republicans and Democrats!

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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