There came a point when no one took Fred Sanford seriously when he clutched his chest, looked toward the heavens and cried out, “This is the big one! I’m coming Elizabeth!”
But we are now to believe, according Democrats and even some Republicans, that President Donald Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine is the “Big One.”
In fact, one of the most outrageous things I’ve heard a politician utter in recent memory - and the competition is stiff indeed - came from Republican William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts who, for some reason, is wasting his time challenging Trump for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination.
Earlier this week, Weld appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” - a pretty good place to hear outrageous things - and talked about Trump’s phone call during which Democrats claim Trump pressured the president to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son.
“That’s not just undermining democratic institutions. That is treason. It’s treason, pure and simple,” Weld said. “And the penalty for treason under the US Code is death. That’s the only penalty.”
Weld wasn’t finished.
“The penalty under the Constitution is removal from office, and that might look like a pretty good alternative for the president if he could work out a plea deal.”
Weld didn’t misspeak and “Morning Joe” grabbed a pitchfork and joined in, tweeting out Weld’s comments.
You would think Weld would stop himself before invoking terms like “treason” and “death” when referring to a sitting U.S. president. But thinking and gathering information are no longer prerequisites in our current political discourse.
The transcript of the call, over which Weld and Democrats want to impeach Trump, was released Wednesday.
It’s remarkable how two groups of people can look at the same document and have diametrically opposed interpretations of what it actually means. The transcript either exonerates or convicts Trump. There’s no middle ground in an age of extremes.
According to the transcript, there appears to be no direct quid pro quo over military aid, nor does Trump pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden’s family.
We do know that Biden, when he was vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who was investigating the Ukranian gas company where Biden’s son, Hunter, worked until this year. The younger Biden was a member of the board of directors for Burisma, which faced a variety of corruption allegations. In a 2018 speech, Biden talked about how he threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees if the prosecutor wasn’t fired.
The investigation into Burisma was underway in 2014. The prosecutor was fired and the investigation was dropped after Biden’s “request” in 2016.
Early in Trump’s phone call to Zelensky, Trump makes a completely appropriate request for Zelensky’s help in getting to the bottom of Ukranian actors’ interference in the 2016 election. Later, Trump brings up Biden.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” Trump said to Zelensky, “that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.”
This sounds as if Trump is asking Zelensky to look into Biden’s firing of the prosecutor rather than into Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma. I’m not really sure what Trump is asking for. Of course, bringing up a political opponent’s name to a foreign leader in the context of any investigation is, at the very least, questionable.
But is it impeachable? Not unless there’s something else we haven’t seen.
But House Democrats are moving forward anyway. Of course, a week ago, they were ready to impeach Trump over non-existent collusion until they were distracted by a newer, shinier thing.
On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee released a redacted version of the whistleblower complaint that started the controversy. The complaint alleges Trump pressured Zelensky to take actions to help the president’s 2020 election bid” though the whistleblower had no first-hand knowledge of the call, according to the Department of Justice.
What is pretty clear, within this vast, mottled mess, is that most Americans don’t have much of an appetite for any of this. Before news of the phone call broke, polls consistently showed that impeachment is unpopular among voters. After the news of the call, 57 percent of voters surveyed were against impeachment, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, released Wednesday.
So, if this is, in fact, the “Big One,” forgive us if we don’t rush to help. If it isn’t, don’t worry. There will be another.
Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.