Von Drehle: Team Trump's no-holds-barred wrestler

The lightweight

What’s an impeachment drama without a Republican wrestling coach stepping into the spotlight?

Perhaps you recall that crazy day in December 1998 when the GOP majority in Congress found itself in a pickle. House Republicans were deep into the process of impeaching President Bill Clinton for offenses related to his affair with a much younger member of the White House staff. They had also defenestrated their egomaniac House speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who had encouraged the unpopular impeachment while he was secretly carrying on his own affair with a much younger staff member. Their choice to replace Gingrich, Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, had gone to the well of the House to announce that, upon reflection, he was not going to be speaker after all.

Another affair? Bingo!

In this moment of desperation, the Republicans turned to Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, known to his friends as Denny and known to the rest of the world not at all. And from the wreckage of the failed impeachment, the bearlike Hastert, a former wrestling coach, led them through eight more years in the majority. This stretch of success made Hastert the longest-serving speaker in his party’s history and positioned him for a lucrative stretch as a K Street lobbyist. Coach Hastert ended his public life with quite another stretch: a year in federal prison, guilty of offenses related to his sexual abuse of high school boys.

In a welcome sign of progress, the coach in the current round of impeachment is not alleged to have sexually abused anyone. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the designated bulldog of President Donald Trump’s defense, is only accused of covering up serial sexual abuse by someone else. Former members of the Ohio State wrestling team have said Jordan, as an assistant coach, knew that the team doctor was molesting athletes. Jordan denies it and repeats the denial every time another athlete comes forward to say otherwise.

Hastert’s coaching skills were manifest in his ability to keep the GOP team together. Ask Gingrich, John Boehner or Paul Ryan and they’ll tell you that is no easy trick. All three of these Republican speakers were tormented by factional infighting. Jordan’s wrestling past is evident in his approach to questioning witnesses. Wrestling is a sport of aggression, contortion, quickness and leverage. Consistency, not so much. A wrestler tries anything that might pinpoint and exploit the opponent’s weak spots.

There’s no missing Coach Jordan if you tune into the impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee. As Trump might say, he looks the part of a grappler. Jordan does his questioning in shirt sleeves, as if he had just asked his wingman to hold his coat before a bar fight. Or maybe he’s preparing to demonstrate the proper technique for reversing a takedown. Or maybe he’s worried that, given how fast and angrily he talks, his suit jacket might combust.

He’s a newbie on the committee, added by Republican leaders specifically for the purpose of doing battle. Each time his allotted five minutes come around, he darts toward his target with a particular hold in mind. It varies from match to match, witness to witness. With acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, the coatless coach tried what might be called the “no harm, no foul” approach. The president could not have withheld aid from Ukraine as leverage to get an investigation, Jordan argued, because the aid was eventually released. With Taylor’s predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, he went the opposite direction: If the president withheld aid from Ukraine to get an investigation going, who could blame him? Everyone knows, Jordan said, that Trump doesn’t like foreign aid, and besides — of course he’s mad that Ukrainian politicians supported his opponent in 2016.

With Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Jordan tried another move entirely: He demanded the names of everyone with whom Vindman discussed a July 25 phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president — the call in which Trump asked for “a favor” involving political investigations. Republicans believe that Vindman’s interpretation of the call inspired an unnamed whistleblower to distort a friendly exchange between world leaders into an impeachable offense.

That the aid was only released after the whistleblower’s whistle blew; that Ukrainian politicians opposed Trump for the perfectly sound reason that he was in the back pocket of their mortal enemy, Vladimir Putin; that Vindman was just one of many government servants, including then-national security adviser John Bolton, alarmed by Trump’s behavior — none of this deters Coach Jordan as he writhes for any advantage in pursuit of a win.

He probably didn’t come to Washington with dreams of shattering public trust in our institutions: the FBI, CIA, National Security Council and State Department. But a wrestler doesn’t choose his opponent. Jordan just pulls on his Team Trump singlet and goes to war.

— David Von Drehle writes for The Washington Post.

Today's Bible verse

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

— Isaiah 7:14

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