By MARK SCHOEFF JR. 
and BRIAN A. HOWEY


WASHINGTON – In late September, most Republican senators were dodging reporters asking about the whistleblower report alleging that President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son.

But the Wall Street Journal  briefly caught up with Sen. Todd Young in a Capitol hallway.

Young told the WSJ  reporter he hadn’t read the report but would later in the day. “It’s not because it’s unserious or I’m an unserious legislator,” Young said in a Sept. 27 article.

Over the course of his tenure in the House and his first two-plus years in the Senate, Young has established himself as someone who takes policy seriously. That’s why Trump’s potential impeachment represents such a big risk – and opportunity – for him.

Like most senators who could become the jury for a trial that would determine whether Trump is removed from office, Young has been circumspect about Trump’s actions that have catalyzed the House impeachment inquiry.

A rough transcript of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky conversation put out by the White House shows that Trump asked Zelensky for “a favor,” which was to probe the Bidens in relation to corruption in Ukraine. In remarks to reporters after the transcript was released, Trump confirmed he would like Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and said China should as well.

HPI has been seeking comment from Young and his Hoosier GOP Senate colleague Mike Braun. Leaving aside impeachment, we’ve asked them whether it’s appropriate for a president to encourage foreign leaders to get involved in a U.S. election.

Young’s office finally responded with a statement on Monday.

“One thing is clear, the far-left has been desperate to get rid of President Trump since Day One,” Young said. “That much has not changed. I take all of my responsibilities very seriously and will continue to evaluate the facts as we get them, but my primary focus will remain on the work Hoosiers elected me to do, including passing USMCA [the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Agreement], reining in health care costs, taking care of veterans, keeping Americans safe and secure and continuing to grow our economy.”

Feel the squish. What happened to the Marine senator?

It was a comfort-food statement. Young put himself in a bland safe zone, keeping impeachment at arm’s length and not answering the yes/no question of whether Trump’s request of Ukraine – and now China – is right or wrong.  Braun’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The impeachment stakes are much higher for Young than Braun, who owes his seat in large part to last-minute campaigning Trump did for him in the last few days of the 2018 campaign. He asserts he shares with Trump a political outsider aura.

Between political favors and political kinship, there’s little chance Braun will break from Trump and vote to convict him. Besides, Braun isn’t up again until 2024, when impeachment will be far in the past, regardless of its outcome.

For Young, the political calculations are much more intricate, and the stakes are much higher.

First, Young is the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2020 cycle. The GOP has 23 seats up for re-election, compared to 13 for Democrats. Although the GOP policy positions will largely be set by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., where Young comes down on impeachment may also resonate with GOP candidates, especially the vulnerable ones.

As NRSC leader, Young is primarily a fundraiser – and has been doing well with that portfolio. The NRSC under Young has raised $42.7 million and has $11.7 million on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has raised $37.7 million and has $16.2 million on hand.

Standing should-to-shoulder with Trump against impeachment could boost NRSC fundraising.

But supporting Trump presents reputational risks for Young.

He once described himself in an HPI interview as a “policy entrepreneur.” He very much wants to live up to the standards of a serious legislator.

Young, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has staked out positions independent of Trump on foreign policy. He has advocated holding Saudi Arabia Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. He also has led the effort to end U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia’s participation in the civil war in Yemen.

Can Young now look the other way on a question that is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy like Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from Syria without consulting the Pentagon? Does the president have the latitude to involve foreign countries in the U.S. election? Is it right for him to withhold military aid, as he reportedly did with Ukraine, unless they meet his demands for investigations into political opponents?

Like many Republicans who are members of a party that has been taken over by Trump, Young has had to acquiesce to a president who levies tariffs to the point of slowing global economic growth and running up the federal deficit to historic highs. 

But Young, who is up for reelection in 2022, might be able to put himself into a position to rebuild the party after Trump leaves, depending on how he handles impeachment. Perhaps he’ll do fine with the politically expedient vote on conviction. Maybe he will take a more thoughtful approach.

Profile in courage?

Chris Sautter, a Hoosier Democratic political consultant who occasionally writes for HPI, said that Trump’s popularity in Indiana takes the pressure off Young.

“He’s hardly a profile in courage, as few of them are,” Sautter said. “I don’t see what he has to gain by separating himself from Trump. Unless you’re in a swing state, a swing district or a Democratic district, there’s no advantage to taking on Trump. That’s all the more reason for Todd Young. It’s his job to protect Republican seats.”

Pete Seat, an Indiana GOP consultant, insists politics will not dominate Young’s thinking on impeachment. “Todd Young is a thoughtful, analytical guy,” Seat said. “He has demonstrated a proclivity for doing what he believes is right. His perspective is that it would be inappropriate to rush to judgment without having all the evidence and all the facts about [Trump’s] calls in question.”

Waiting to pass judgment also protects Young from going out on a limb for Trump that Trump then cuts off. No GOP senator can know what consequences Trump’s next Tweet will bring.

Different for Young & Braun

The impeachment situation is different for Young and Braun than it is for the other 53 GOP senators. If Trump is evicted from office through a Senate conviction, the outcome is a Hoosier president with the elevation of Vice President Mike Pence. Of course, that assumes Pence is not implicated in the scandal – an assumption that is becoming less certain.

As Young mentions whenever he can, he is a former Marine. He now faces the biggest political challenge of his career in deciding how to respond to the latest behavior by Trump that would surely violate the Marine code.

The Trump behavior
 
The subpoenas are flying in Washington. President Trump has issued the triple dog impeachment dare, after publicly goading Ukraine and China – China! – to supply dirt on his American political opponents in what appears to be a violation of FEC rules and laws.

There are more Trump administration whistleblowers about to emerge at DNI and the IRS, flagging his behavior, and, perhaps, that of Vice President Pence. Trump is being called out by Fox News’ Shep Smith, Chris Wallace and Judge Napolitano over what they describe as “impeachable” offenses.

Last Thursday, Trump said at the White House, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens.”  Trump said he hadn’t directly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter but said it’s “certainly something we could start thinking about. I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous, tremendous power.” 

His standing on impeachment in the polls, once a liberal fantasy, is now in historically shaky territory. At the start of his impeachment inquiry in October 1998, President Bill Clinton found 45% approved of  impeachment and 53% disapproved. When impeachment against President Richard Nixon began in October 1973, just 38% approved. With Trump, there’s an inversion, with a Washington Post-Schar School poll today revealing a surprising 58% support the impeachment inquiry and 38% oppose, while 49% back impeachment.

Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar who formerly taught at Notre Dame, wrote, “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” that traces the roots of this constitutional act, and observes of the current predicament, “The constitutional background also helps explain the game-changing impact of President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The facts are still emerging, but it is reasonable to worry that the president may have abused his authority in two different ways. First, he appears to have pressed the leader of a foreign country to investigate a political rival – and thus to interfere with the democratic process in the United States.

“Second,” Sunstein writes, “he appears to have pressed that leader to commence a criminal investigation of two American citizens, and thus to intrude on civil liberty (assuming, as it appears, that the investigation would have been baseless). In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives will have to get clear on exactly what happened here, and also on whether other potential grounds for impeachment warrant serious consideration under the legal standard.”

Judge Napolitano observed in a Fox News column, “The criminal behavior to which Trump has admitted is much more grave than anything alleged or unearthed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and much of what Mueller revealed was impeachable.” Napolitano said that Trump’s request for a “favor” after Zelensky spoke of his need for anti-tank missiles was a “clear unmistakable inference” that approved military aid “would be held up until the favor was delivered. The favor he sought was dirt on Biden. Now he has attempted in one phone call to bring the Ukrainian government into the 2020 election!  Does he understand the laws he has sworn to uphold? It was to remedy just such reckless, constitutionally destructive behavior that impeachment was intended.”

This past weekend, congressional Republicans like Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. Ron Johnson played off Trump’s request for China to investigate the Bidens as a “joke,” with great irony that Joaquin Phoenix’s “The Joker” became a box office smash in the very seen sequence Young and Braun evaded questions.

Braun told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star Monday, “I look at the context of anything. President Trump got elected in November 2016 because he was a different kind of individual. We all knew with that package, you are going to have somebody that isn’t going to tiptoe around like a typical politician, and thank goodness, because I don’t think things were working in a way that would work in the long run. Part of his style, and we have seen it since he has been there, is he will push the envelope. I think the key thing, in my opinion, is since November 2016, when you look at the subtext, there has been a calculated effort to disrupt the disruptor.” 

Why Trump acts blatantly

Two national commentators seem to capture why President Trump is acting so brazenly. Andrew Sullivan writes in New York Magazine: “Why would a president say such things? And in public? Trump’s pathological narcissism overrides reality on a minute-by-minute basis, and that because of this, the very idea of the rule of law, which makes no distinction between the really stable geniuses and everybody else, is impossible for Trump to understand. It’s designed as a neutral check on any individual’s desire to do whatever he wants, and a ‘neutral check’ is, quite simply, beyond Trump’s comprehension.

“Looking at his long and abysmal business career, the rule of law was always, always an object of scorn, something only suckers cared about and lawyers were paid to circumvent,” Sullivan explained. “For Trump, the law is something to break, avoid or pay off. And as president, he clearly believes he is above it.”

Paul Brandus, writing for MarketWatch, adds: “Trump spent most of his life as the CEO of a privately held company. For the bulk of his career, Trump has preferred to run things in private. This means no public accountability, no quarterly 10-Qs or annual 10-Ks to file with the feds. Immersed in this transparency-free zone for half a century, he has always believed that he wasn’t required to answer to anybody. And until announcing his candidacy in 2015, he was right.”

Brandus continues: “And yet Trump still has not learned  – much less respected – the essential fact that he has been, for three years now, a public servant. Be it city councilman, or mayor, or all the way up to the Oval Office, public servants are answerable to the public. But 50 years of doing whatever you want and not having to explain any of it is apparently hard to shake.”

So the Rule of Law is a scornful topic for Trump, but once a cultural pillar for Republicans like Young, Braun and Pence. They are now all in for a tortuous ride as cultural and philosophical principle is flanked by this really bizarre political cult of personality they’ve jumped in bed with.

The Republican base — at least part of it, with many Hoosier Republicans we know expressing vivid fear and disgust off the record — appears to be loyal to Trump, even if it means a 1974-style electoral disaster. 

Pence has fully bought in to Trump, even as the Bossman repeatedly ponders his veep’s loyalty. Speaking in Scottsdale, AZ, on Thursday, Pence said, “The American people have the right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from his position as vice president during the last administration. That’s about looking backwards and understanding what really happened.”

This week, Pence has lunch with Trump today, then barnstorms the congressional districts of Democrats in Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, making his case against Trump’s impeachment.

As for the Trump and Pence conversations with President Zelensky, Pence said that the topic broached was on “corruption,” explaining, “Those were the topics that we discussed. And that was all we discussed. The simple truth is, that those are the same issues that the president raised with President Zelensky during that call.”

Braun told the Tribune-Star that if the House votes on impeachment and it moves to the Senate, “it will be heard quickly in the Senate and I think if there is nothing further to what we have seen, especially with some details” involving whistleblowers “to maybe set the stage for this … this backfires on the people who are so eager to run this through the gauntlet.”

Epilogue

As author Kurt Vonnegut might sum it up, so it goes in the Trump era. Anything can happen. Anything.