OK, it’s not a verifiably un-doctored recording (apparently, they’re never available) – even though nearly all the Democratic members of the House of Representatives and many of the party’s presidential candidates view it as more than enough to warrant President Trump’s impeachment. (Removal from office? We’ve heard much less on that related but separate matter.)
All the same, the record of President Trump’s July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, sure doesn’t look like a Nixonian smoking gun to me – and yes, in the interests of full disclosure, I strongly support many of Mr. Trump’s policies.
The allegations that led the President to release this document – which was apparently prepared via the same procedures normally used for all such confidential conversations – haven’t always been made with exactly surgical precision. So in this vein, the most useful version may come from an opinion article written for the Washington Post by seven freshman Democratic House Members.
Because of the prior national security experience all of them boast, and their reputations for moderation, the concerns they expressed yesterday reportedly imbued the push for impeachment with enough momentum to spur House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to authorize the launch of an “official impeachment inquiry” – an unusual procedure that seems to have no bearing on the various ways that this body has initiated impeachment proceedings in the past, and that certainly doesn’t guarantee the holding of the kind of full House vote needed to impeach and move to a Senate trial to determine removal.
Here’s what those seven first-term Democrats wrote:
“The president of the United States may have used his position to pressure a foreign country into investigating a political opponent, and he sought to use U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage to do it. He allegedly sought to use the very security assistance dollars appropriated by Congress to create stability in the world, to help root out corruption and to protect our national security interests, for his own personal gain.”
But the way I read it, nothing in this version of the conversation does much to support either charge. Some of the key passages seem to be the following:
“President Zelenskyy: … I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost. ready to buy more Javelins [portable anti-tank missiles] from the United· States for defense purposes.
“The President [Trump]: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There-are a lot. of things that went on, the whole situation . I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I .would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, ·it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
Despite the non-coercive language, President Trump clearly established a quid pro quo involving U.S. military aid and Ukrainian cooperation on an investigation having to do with American politics. For me, the key is his use of the word “though” in his first sentence. (Not that Mr. Trump will win any articulateness awards.)
But where is the evidence that the quid pro quo involves a simple “political opponent,” as the seven House Democrats insist? (Obviously, it’s former Vice President and current Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden.) Everything in this passage, from his mention of “Crowdstrike” to the “nonsense” that “ended with a very poor performance” by Robert Mueller has to do with:
>the accusations (which that former Special Counsel’s investigation’s findings determined were untrue) that Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government to ensure his election at the expense of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton; and
>the counter-accusation that those Russia collusion charges were manufactured by Mr. Trump’s opponents in the FBI, the intelligence community, elsewhere in the so-called Deep State, and the Obama administration. (This possibility is currently being investigated by the Trump Justice Department.)
That counter-accusation is especially important here. If anything like it is true, it’s imperative for the health of American democracy that it be discovered. And in turn, if a foreign government like Ukraine’s can shed light on the facts, why wouldn’t anyone except the guilty and their allies want Washington to use foreign policy leverage to achieve that result – which would unmistakably serve important U.S. national interests.
Of course, Biden’s name did appear in the five-page document – about a page after the above passages – in this statement from Mr. Trump:
“The other thing, There’s a lot talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
These sentences have to do with a Ukrainian probe of the ties between Biden’s son Hunter and a Ukrainian energy company – and Biden’s public boast in 2018 that, as Vice President, in 2016, he secured the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor who had vowed to investigate the company in question by threatening to withhold a billion-dollar American loan package if that official, Viktor Shokin, stayed in office.
His supporters contend that the quid pro quo Biden offered differed fundamentally from the Biden quid pro quo that Mr. Trump seems to have presented in his July phone call because Biden was carrying out firmly established U.S. government policy in order to serve the country’s national interests while President Trump’s interests were purely selfish and political.
All of which could be true. Except the 2016 date of the Biden episode should warn against imputing purely or even mainly non-political motives to his actions. In this vein, revelations during a presidential election year that Biden’s son was involved in shady or even criminal foreign doings certainly wouldn’t help the fortunes of the incumbent administration’s political party – so the former Vice President’s motivations might have been exclusively political.
Some considerations on this score do work in Biden’s favor, though – mainly evidence that Western European governments and the International Monetary Fund, all of which were complaining that Ukrainian corruption was undercutting their own aid programs, also sought Shokin’s firing. But illicit activity in Ukraine has been so pervasive that these non-American actors might have their own embarrassments to hide.
Just as important: If the Vice President of a previous administration, or any of his colleagues, was manipulating American foreign policy to cover up the activities of the Veep’s son, isn’t something that urgently requires examination from a national interest standpoint? Wouldn’t this be the case whether that former Vice President was currently running for office or not? In fact, wouldn’t that especially be the case if that former Vice President was running for office?
To be sure, the seven freshman Democrats also appear to be accusing President Trump of pressuring Ukraine to help dig up dirt on the Bidens (again, for solely political reasons) by freezing the disbursement of a previously approved military assistance package shortly before his phone call with Zelensky.
Mr. Trump has admitted doing so, and as has been pointed out, he’s offered different explanations for this decision (which was overturned earlier this month). I agree that sounds fishy. But the reasons themselves (that other U.S. allies were shirking their obligations to help Ukraine, and that continuing Ukrainian corruption could prevent many of the funds from being spent effectively) are anything but ludicrous.
Also interesting: More than three weeks before the aid freeze was first revealed by the Washington Post – and connected with the Zelensky phone call – ABC News reported that the administration was sitting on the Ukraine military assistance but not as part of any campaign to undermine Biden. Instead, the delay stemmed from a broad debate between Trump administration supporters of foreign aid generally and colleagues who were highly critical. The main reported complaints from Democrats had nothing to do with Biden, either. They centered on the President’s supposedly excessive coziness with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
And most interesting of all: Mr. Trump never brought up the frozen aid in his phone conversation with Zelensky. If the seven freshman Democrats are right and the President had blocked spending the funds “for his own personal gain,” why didn’t he even signal this blackmail attempt to its target?
Ongoing and broadening investigations of all these controversies by Congressional committees and by the Justice Department could well provide definitive answers to all the above questions, and even produce more and/or worse bombshells. Indeed, maybe the phone call document itself has been doctored. But when it comes to impeachment, or even besmirching the Trump record, that’s exactly what should be the main point now. There haven’t been such answers or bombshells yet. And until some start appearing, talking up impeachment will continue looking like a thoroughly reckless course of action – and one with plenty of boomerang potential.