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Have the Hearings Built an Effective Case for Impeachment?
As I’ve written in previous columns, I did not support the Democrats’ decision to open impeachment hearings into President Trump. This was primarily because I wasn’t convinced that our president, even in attempting to extort a foreign power into digging up dirt on one of his political opponents, had committed an impeachable offense.
Was such an attempt improper? Absolutely. An abuse of power? Undeniably. Illegal and/or impeachable? I wasn’t sure.
For that reason, I haven’t been invested in any particular outcome in regard to the hearings. In fact, I felt that the Democrats were probably making a political mistake in pursuing the issue this way (and that still may be the case).
But I have been interested in what the hearings (and earlier depositions and testimony) have brought to light, in regard to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, along with how members of his administration and foreign policy officials reacted to them.
Here are some takeaways:
There was absolutely a quid pro quo
I don’t think there’s any reasonable doubt that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, or at least publicly announce an investigation on television. I suspect the optics of a substantiated corruption narrative against Trump’s most threatening re-election challenge (believed to be at the time, anyway) was the primary objective.
This was pretty clear going back all the way to the “perfect” phone call between Trump and Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelensky, which spawned deep concerns among several foreign policy officials and ultimately led to the whistleblower coming forward.
The Dispatch’s David French did a good and fair job of dissecting the call in a piece last month. What was discussed in the call wasn’t part of a lawful Justice Department investigation. As A.G. Barr has clarified, no such investigation existed. Trump was asking Zelensky to coordinate with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to dig up political dirt on the Bidens.
The military aid to Ukraine was held up not only long after it had been approved by congress, but also after its conditioned “corruption” requirements had been met and certified. Not until the whistleblower came forward was it finally released.
Then, of course, there was Rudy Giuliani outright telling multiple media outlets that he was lobbying the Ukrainians to go after the Bidens.
And all of this was before the impeachment proceedings even began! Once they did, we learned in sworn testimony that Ukraine, contrary to earlier media reports, was indeed aware, at the time of the Trump/Zelensky call, that their security aid was being mysteriously held up. We also learned, again in sworn testimony, that high-level officials were working off the common understanding that Trump’s request for a Biden investigation was indeed what was behind the delay.
But Trump specifically said, “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo”
That’s the argument a lot of Trump supporters, including media-conservatives, are now insisting vindicates the president from the quid-pro-quo charge. Only, it’s nonsense.
According to Ambassador Sondland, Trump did say those words on a phone call between the two in September, in regard to his dealings with Zelensky. The problem, of course, is that the alleged call took place after the White House had been informed about the whistleblower complaint, and on the same day the complaint had been sent to members of Congress.
In other words, if Trump really did say that, it was assuredly damage control. To steal an analogy from Mike Nelson on Twitter this morning, this is like Eric Stoltz’s character in Pulp Fiction, yelling “I don’t know you! Prank caller! Prank caller!” into his phone after suddenly realizing that the police may be listening in on his phone conversation about drugs.
The “Deep State” are the good guys in these hearings
Rep. Adam Schiff doesn’t have a lot of credibility, in my view. He’s a political hack who, multiple times throughout the Russia investigation, insisted that there was evidence of Trump colluding with the Russian government — evidence that didn’t actually exist. Likewise, his political grandstanding going into the impeachment hearings tainted the process well before it ever began. And it didn’t help that his political party has been calling for impeachment literally since the day Trump won the election.
I feel similarly about Rep. Devin Nunes, and for that matter Rep. Jim Jordan. These guys will say absolutely anything, including the entertaining of outlandish conspiracy theories, to defend our president from his political detractors. Republican counsel Stephen Castor joined the fray a couple days ago in putting forth the suggestion that witness Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman wasn’t sufficiently loyal to the United States, citing job offers (described by Vindman as comical) for “Ukrainian defense minister” from a Zelensky aid.
This dual-loyalty charge has made its rounds in the conservative media as well, and was even pushed by White House Social Media Director, Dan Scavino. In fact, President Trump and the White House have gone out of their way to smear, in one way or another, just about every impeachment witness, framing their stated concerns in their professional capacity as driven by either ego, bias, or disloyalty. And as I wrote last week, the conservative media has helped tremendously with that effort.
But from what I’ve seen during the hearings, these “Deep state operatives” (as countless Trump fans have deemed them) are honorable, credible, and very capable people. Sondland’s a bit different story — a highly successful businessman who was given an ambassadorship by Trump after donating a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. But the others were very impressive, and in listening to their opening statements, and the telling of their personal history and calls to service, it’s quite clear that they’re also patriots.
They were put into an unfortunate position in which they were challenged by a sense of duty and ethical conscience to express concerns over the unethical government conduct they believed they had witnessed. And those acts of personal and professional bravery are what ultimately dragged them into a political circus, and subpoenaed them into an impeachment process.
What’s particularly discouraging is that a lot of people don’t seem to understand that these witnesses aren’t the ones pursuing impeachment. The Democrats in Congress are. But if you listen to the president and his loyal defenders, you might have trouble deciphering that. The witnesses are being portrayed as co-conspirators in the prosecution of the impeachment, which is asinine.
This is particularly unfortunate, considering that some of these witnesses have had their reputations besmirched and even their lives threatened. In fact, one of the witnesses (Vindman, along with his family) is now under 24-hour security protection due to safety concerns directly related to his testimony.
Should Trump be impeached?
In all honesty, I still don’t know the answer to that question.
In my view, the Democrats’ argument in their case for impeachment has been effectively made (even though they were planning to impeach Trump before the Ukraine stuff was ever an issue). A political quid pro quo was indeed presented, and leveraged with U.S. security funds. I don’t believe any objective person, who has paid attention to the facts and timeline, and who has watched the impeachment testimony (not just the one-sided coverage of it from partisan commentators) would reach a different conclusion.
Whether or not what happened is “impeachable,” is a different question, and is subject to one’s idea of what should be considered an impeachable offense. The stated bar for impeachment is the commission of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” While this term isn’t defined in the U.S. Constitution, the longtime majority view among constitutional scholars and legal precedent is that it doesn’t necessarily refer to literal crimes, but rather any serious abuse of presidential power. Ultimately, the determination is left up to the U.S. Congress.
What I will say is that I’ve been reading some pretty compelling arguments for impeachment, based on what we now know. And I’ll finish this column up with one I read the other day from a lawyer named Bryan Gividen, as he expressed it on Twitter. Gividen not only makes a case for supporting impeachment, but also explains why he believes that those who object to it purely for political reasons should reconsider:
I am a pro-religious liberty, pro-life, would snort Cocaine Mitch’s judicial confirmations if I could, kind of conservative. I will explain exactly once why conservatives should support impeachment based on what is publicly available and undisputed.
At this point, there is no question that President Trump directed U.S. officials to withhold security funding to the Ukraine so Ukraine would investigate the Bidens. That is the kind of abuse of the President’s authority we should not tolerate.
So it is absolutely clear what we are talking about: the President used hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money as a bargaining chip to make a foreign country investigate his rivals. That is a textbook play from dictators who are trying to keep power.
“But the Bidens were corrupt!” No clue if this is true, but I don’t care. Americans don’t outsource their investigations of political rivals to foreign countries, especially ones that are themselves full of corruption and especially not with strings attached.
“But the President has authority over foreign policy!” You’re right, but the President is also accountable for how he uses that authority. And when he begins using it to target Americans to entrench his own power, the Constitution says Congress should act.
“But the President really has authority over foreign policy!” Again, you’re right. But if Donald Trump made the “foreign policy call” to turn over the White House to Vladamir Putin, do you really think we couldn’t stop him?
“Democrats are just trying to overturn the 2016 election.” True that a bunch of Ds would impeach Trump if he had sneezed during the oath of office. But stupidity doesn’t excuse stupidity. We’re asking whether President should be impeached, not whether Democrats are consistent.
“But what about ma’ judges (or abortion or religious liberty or the 2nd Amendment)?” First, realistically, we’re talking about Mike Pence becoming President. He will be as good as Trump was on all of those issues.
“But what about ma’ judges (or abortion or religious liberty or the 2nd Amendment)?” Second, selling out American national security threatens each one of those issues far more than swapping out Trump for Pence.
We Americans often take for granted what our security and freedom mean. In recorded history, few have had it as good as we do for as long as we have. A President willing to sell out Americans for his own power threatens what so many have built & fought & bled & died for.
“But I hate the Democrats.” Even if you do, realize that targeting Americans and selling out national security don’t end with them. Don’t doubt for a second that if Ted Cruz had tried to primary Trump, he’d be next.
Don’t support impeachment because you like the Democrats. Support impeachment because you fear that Donald Trump’s abuse of the presidency threatens your freedom.
Again, I'm not sure. And I think anyone evaluating the worthiness of impeachment shouldn't be taking political considerations into account at all.
But one has to wonder about the ramifications of the GOP just shrugging off what Trump did. If Republicans (especially elected representatives) don't believe there should be accountability for this president when he withholds congressionally-approved aid to pressure a foreign government into helping him with a domestic political operation, under what circumstance would they hold him accountable?
And under what conditions would impeachment be warranted?