A smoking gun is not a crime. It is evidence of a crime. It is not the murder but the trace of fingerprints, the trail of blood, the vial emptied of poison, the dog that didn’t bark. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back if the straw bore traces of the murderer’s saliva. It is not the crime; it is proof.
And, once again, talk of the smoking gun has filled the news with the leaking of a telephone transcript and news of a whistleblower’s memo detailing President Donald Trump’s Ukrainian meddling. The smoking metaphor has been suddenly uttered again and again, published, tweeted.
Let us unpack its significance and implication. For, once again, it suggests more than simple proof. The smoking gun bespeaks not just any story but a backstory of proof long-searched for, suggesting a long hunt, a trail of hunches and hypotheses. The smoking gun, finally, after a tortured investigation, is the final marker after a frustrated investigation of dried-up leads and dead ends, unreliable witnesses and unconvincing performances on the witness stand. And just so, after a long frustrated investigation into the president’s misdeeds political and otherwise, the memo and the transcript, Trump’s strong-arming of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr
Zelensky for political gain, have been brandished as final proof of the president’s ignominy, the coup de grace for impeachment. The key for the Victorian well-made mysteries of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, those rife with such smoking talisman, was that the investigation ticked along, clad in trench coats and clutched pearls and unnecessary canes, from twist to turn, all tightly plotted, coiling in suspension until Bang! the smoking gun was revealed to readers.
After a complicated road of dizzying investigation where no lead quite clicked, this crucial bit of evidence was simple, bore an irrefutable elegance, an easy logic—gun smokes, gun must have shot bullet, case closed. The gardener is innocent. The all-too flirty nurse maid can be set free.
With the discovery of the piece of final proof, the mystery and complexity saturating the detective stories dissipate. With the elegant revelation, finally, the reader can see the bald and beautiful inner workings of the crime. With clarity the mystery becomes legible.
And just so, with just such simplicity and easy logic, Democrats have brandished the smoking gun of Ukrainian indiscretion. They hope for such elegant revelation. What is key is the expediency and clarity, the irrefutable elegance of the case. Trump’s quid pro quo for Ukrainian favor to damage his prospective opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, may bear such simplicity. The Ukrainian case may be, as has been repeated, “easily digestible” for the American public. That is, the level of this political wrongdoing with the Ukrainians may be no greater than Mueller’s “terribly serious” obstruction of justice investigation or the all-too refutable emoluments charges of foreign dignitaries. But the Ukrainian case may offer greater comprehensibility. The case, like the smoking gun, may be all too apparent, suddenly legible.
Moreover, in the long, traditional search for the smoking gun, there is a suggestion, even assumption, that the offense at hand is not a singular misdeed but a spree. That is, that the smoking gun, the transcript of the Ukrainian call and the whistleblower’s memo, propound final, irrefutable, long-searched-for proof not simply of a crime but of criminality long hunted. The rakes of Victorian noir were career criminals, slippery thieves. The smoking gun was not just evidence of a lone bullet fired. It was a metonym, a part standing in for the whole, final evidence standing in for a whole career of malfeasance. The gun smokes from not just one fired bullet.
The smoking gun is a simple crime standing in for a slew of complicated ones. And so the transcript and the memo allege to be evidence not just of a corrupt act but of the corruption of the American presidency. The Democratic candidates running to replace Trump in office have been clear on this front. Sen. Bernie Sanders demands impeachment not for Trump’s political bullying of the Ukrainian president but for the Trump’s being “the most corrupt president in the modern history of this country.” Biden threatens impeachment not for his being targeted in the Ukrainian gambit but for the president’s “turn[ing] his back on America’s families.” Beto O’Rourke has proclaimed that the newest accusation of the president simply “confirms what we already knew.” Let us not soon forget the calls for impeachment for months. Let us not forget that a majority of House Democrats and nearly all of the Democrats running for president called for Trump’s impeachment before the revelation of his strong-arming Zelensky for dirt on Biden.
And just so, the smoking gun, the transcript and the memo are evidence for an article of impeachment and, at the same time, symbols of a greater malfeasance. Trump will be impeached, as another Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker attested, for “corrupting the office since the beginning.” He will be impeached not for his political malpractice in a phone call with a world leader whose name few can pronounce, who even fewer Americans had heard of. For the smoking gun purports to offer justice in one case in order to vindicate the unpunished many cases.
Impeachment looms over Trump’s head for his greater misdeed, for his obstruction of the investigation into the Mueller investigation, his profiting from his office in the sudden filling of his hotels by those wishing political favor, his joining the United States into the league of extraordinary authoritarians, his crassness, his bigotry, his nativist nostalgia, his demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, his placing children into cages, his normalizing of Nazis, his discreditation of a free and independent news media.
For, in a simple and stark manner, the Ukrainian smoking gun stands in not for a crime but a spree. Trump will be impeached not a for lone blotch but for a stain sullying the American presidency.