I know it has become almost a cliché by now, but can you imagine how Republicans would have reacted if President Barack Obama had behaved like President Donald Trump is behaving now?
Yes, it's time to update my WIODT – What If Obama Did This – list, which is unrelated although remarkably like HBO host Bill Maher's "If Obama Did It" lists.
What if Obama, while running for re-election, had asked a foreign government's president to find damaging information on Mitt Romney or another of his rising Republican challengers?
What if Obama had backed up that big ask by putting a hold on nearly $400 million in American taxpayers' money that Congress had appropriated to help that country fend off its mighty neighbor Russia, with which it has been engaged in military actions?
What if Obama deflected questions about his actions by raising questions about a rising Republican opponent who already had been investigated and cleared?
And what if Obama said he was trying to "find out about" the unnamed whistleblower, reportedly an intelligence officer whose revelations ignited the impeachment push, whom the president compared to "a spy" – and then fondly reminisced about past days in which our government put spies before firing squads?
Yes, we can guess from past experience that congressional Republicans would not greet such words and actions by a Democratic president with the passive ho-hum, "Nothing to see here" attitude that most have awarded to President Trump.
In today's polarized political landscape, the WIODT test offers a clarifying X-ray lens to see through clouds of partisan spin.
The point: We should judge our presidents by the highest standards, not by what they sometimes get away with. Trump has had remarkable success at normalizing policies that used to seem unacceptable: cagelike family detention camps, neglect of Puerto Ricans and some other Americans displaced by natural disasters, hush money shoveled out to the president's former mistresses, presidential profiting from hotel and resort businesses while serving as president? That's just for starters.
But this scandal is different. Democrats were dispirited after special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation found improprieties but kicked the ball back to Congress. A longstanding Justice Department policy exempts sitting presidents from prosecution.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a time held off calls for an impeachment, wisely citing a lack of votes even within her own House Democratic caucus.
But even moderate Democrats who had unseated Republicans last year seemed to be galvanized in early September by a whistleblower's accusations centered on a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The whistleblower's statement, later backed up by a rough transcript of the call provided by the White House, accused Trump of using his authority to hold up military aid to Ukraine while putting pressure on Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
The president predictably denounced the accusation as fake news but, unlike countless other media blowups he has experienced, he quickly seemed to lose control of this narrative. Why?
For one, unlike the Mueller report, which is about the past, the Ukraine revelations are about the future. Mueller investigated whether Trump's 2016 campaign colluded with Russians to help him beat his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. The Ukraine conversation exposes Trump's apparent appeal to another government's head of state to help him undermine the rising potential challenge of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Trump also asked Zelenskiy to work with Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.
So how much did Trump twist Zelenskiy's arm, with weapons that Ukraine needs to defend itself against its aggressive neighbor Russia hanging in the balance? We don't know, and that's a big reason why, unlike Trump's earlier controversies, polls suddenly have shown a surge of interest in an impeachment investigation to dig out the truth.
A CBS News poll released Sunday, for example, showed 55% of Americans – and 87% of Democrats – saying they approve of the inquiry, which Pelosi launched formally Sept. 24. Back in July, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found only about 4 in 10 Democratic voters favored such hearings.
Trump has responded with a typical move from his playbook: distract and deflect by calling for an investigation of Biden and his son, who held a lucrative seat on a Ukrainian oil company's board of directors even as his dad was involved in formulating Ukraine policy.
There's no question that Hunter Biden's board position, which he left in March, created the appearance of a conflict of interest, which in politics can be as damaging as the real thing. Evidence of a real conflict has been lacking, but that absence can't stop a tantalizing conspiracy theory, especially in an election year. That's why the Bidens have been fending off questions about Ukraine for years. The whistleblower's complaint changes the game, though. And now it is Trump's turn.