President Donald Trump “betrayed the nation by abusing his high office,” the House Judiciary Committee declared in a 658-page impeachment report released yesterday.
As Democrats tell it, “President Trump solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 presidential election.” He did so by asking Ukraine to announce investigations “that would benefit his reelection, harm the election prospects of a political opponent, and influence the 2020 presidential election to his advantage.” Trump also sought to pressure Ukraine by conditioning U.S. aid on a public announcement of the investigations. He did all this “for corrupt purposes in pursuit of personal political benefit.”
The gravity of the charge is straightforward: American democracy would suffer if presidents routinely pressured foreigners into undercutting their political rivals in the United States. House Republicans see things differently, but their arguments are weak and fundamentally unpersuasive.
They contend, in their dissent, that at least four signifiant facts contradict the Democratic account. “First, the President has publicly released the transcript of the July 25 call, which shows no conditionality for any official act,” the Republicans on the Judiciary committee insist. “Second, President [Volodymyr] Zelensky and his advisors did not know the aid was on hold until it was reported publicly at the end of August. Third, both President Trump and President Zelensky have said repeatedly there was no pressure, no quid pro quo, and no linkage between the aid and investigations. Fourth, the foreign security assistance funds were released without Ukraine announcing or undertaking any investigation.”
But, first, the summary of the July 25 call released by the White House corroborates rather than undercuts the allegation that Trump was pressuring Ukraine’s leader. Second, Zelensky, who still must curry favor with the White House out of geopolitical necessity, has a powerful motive to obfuscate in accordance with Trump’s wishes. Third, Trump is a serial liar even when not facing impeachment. Fourth, the decision to release the funds to Ukraine when faced with a whistle-blower complaint and public revelation hardly suggests that there was never any pressure campaign. Indeed, Trump has no credible alternative account of why the funds were ever delayed.
“On December 10,” the Republicans point out, “a close aide to President Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, denied discussing a quid pro quo with Gordon Sondland … It is difficult to conceive that a months-long pressure campaign existed when the alleged victims are not aware of it and deny being pressured.” The Republicans pit Yermak, a Ukrainian official with every incentive to lie for Trump, against Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, was appointed European Union ambassador by Trump, and thereafter found himself working on Trump’s Ukraine agenda.
Republicans purport to find the million-dollar Trump donor giving sworn testimony––seemingly against personal interest––less credible than the Ukrainian. Why? And if there were no “months-long pressure campaign,” what was Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, doing talking to Ukrainians and interfacing with U.S. officials on Ukraine policy before publicly stating that he urged the country to probe the Bidens?
“Simply stated, the Majority is advancing an impeachment based on policy differences with the President,” the Republicans allege, “a dangerous and slippery slope that our Founders cautioned against.”
While the impeachment inquiry has at times strayed into policy and procedural critiques, the core case against Trump is not about either. There is no partisan divide about whether Ukraine should pursue anti-corruption, as the Obama administration encouraged, or whether it ought to receive U.S. military aid that Congress had already approved. Crucially, Democrats insist that Trump acted with a corrupt motive to benefit himself. The Republican position is not that it’s fine for presidents to pressure foreign governments to help their chances in U.S. elections, but that Trump didn’t do that.
What’s more, the Republicans question whether a request to investigate the Bidens is tied to the 2020 election. “Asking the president of Ukraine to ‘look into’ potential corruption involving Hunter Biden’s employment at a notoriously corrupt company in Ukraine is not ‘corrupting democratic elections,’” they insist. “Any request, however remote, that might benefit a politician politically is not an invitation to corrupt an election. To portray the President’s request as corrupting the 2020 election is disingenuous, at best.”
But that’s ridiculous. Trump’s request is not “remote” from the 2020 election. What incumbent wouldn’t love it if his best-polling opponent were subject to headlines about a foreign corruption investigation? As Mitt Romney observed, when the only American citizen Trump singles out for a proposed corruption investigation is a main political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, “it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.”
Do Republicans really expect Americans to believe that Trump and his personal attorney, Giuliani, are motivated by principled opposition to political corruption, and that it is only by pure coincidence that they are focusing exclusively on the Bidens? The Swamp will never be drained if its denizens get the benefit of doubts that glaring.
There’s a lot more to the 658 pages of Democratic impeachment allegations and Republican dissents. You can read the entire document. The Republicans fail to offer a good reason to oppose impeachment, and their conclusion is weakened, not strengthened, by the claim that Trump not only didn’t commit an impeachable offense, but didn’t even abuse his power.
That said, the Republicans are on somewhat better ground in arguing against the Democratic contention that Trump obstructed justice by failing to comply with the impeachment inquiry. They say that “Congress has not pursued any of its many remedies to resolve inter-branch disputes.”
At Just Security, Philip Bobbitt of Columbia Law School has urged the House to pause impeachment, and “to immediately vote for subpoenas for testimony, and subpoenas duces tecum for documents, from the Cabinet level officials and former officials who are likeliest to possess first-hand knowledge of the president’s actions and state of mind.”
He reasons that public attention will be substantial if “Secretaries Pompeo and Perry, chiefs of staff Mulvaney and Kelly, national security adviser Bolton, White House Counsel McGahn and the president’s lawyer Giuliani are compelled to testify under oath,” because they have had direct conversations about matters related to Ukraine. “Pausing now may afford other pieces of the story to fall into place,” he concludes. And if these characters don’t testify, parts of this story may never become public.
The Republicans may be trying to score points, and nothing more, by noting that Congress has not pursued other remedies. But there is indeed a public interest in ferreting out more details and seeing how they square with the Republican narrative of events, which has now been advanced by two different House committees. Democrats might as well give them what they wished for.
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