As a public service, herewith a handy-dandy guide to those widely touted Trump impeachment charges or insinuated charges that hold water so far, and those that don’t. Spoiler alert: The single alleged presidential transgression that I believe would warrant impeachment – and removal from office – comes at the end of this post. And not just because I want to create a teaser. It’s mainly because this specific transgression has received almost no attention as such. Revealingly, moreover, many of the President’s defenders have been just as seemingly inept as his assailants at focusing on what would legitimately satisfy the Constitution’s impeachment and removal requirements and what wouldn’t.
Canard Number One: Mr. Trump’s focus on investigations of the Biden family reveals a simple determination to smear a political rival. Two problems should consign this allegation to the dumpster. First, as I’ve previously noted, it can only be based on the assumption that Americans (and especially sitting or previously serving politicians) should be immune from corruption investigations simply because they decided to seek office – or seek it again. Unless you want to illuminate brightly a formula for green-lighting massive corruption, you’ll recognize the dangers of this proposed standard.
Second, this claim ignores (a) the distinct possibility that, given the Obama administration point-man role played by Vice President Joe Biden, the Ukrainian energy entity Burisma was seeking to influence peddle when it handed his son, Hunter, a highly lucrative position, and (b) the troubling questions raised both by Biden senior’s knowledge of this development and by the former Vice President’s failure to act to end a situation that at the very least created the appearance of conflict of interest.
Canard Number Two: Mr. Trump’s strong interest in investigating the Biden situation – and his statements to the effect that he cared more about these probes than about Ukraine – shows that he cares more about his own political fortunes than about U.S. national security. Anyone holding this belief apparently considers the fate of a country whose security or independence was never a prime American concern even during the Cold War is (ipso facto?) more important than possible foreign influence peddling at the highest levels of a previous administration. I’m glad I don’t have to make this argument.
Canard Number Three (Similar to Canard Number Three): The President’s assertion that Ukraine interfered against his campaign for the White House in 2016 reveals that he selfishly cares more about his own political fortunes, or about further discrediting the Russia collusion charges that have dominated his presidency so far, than about U.S. national security. As contended above, Ukraine was never regarded as a significant national security interest even when completely controlled by a Soviet regime that for decades was classified officially as a paramount threat to both U.S. and global security. Why it should be regarded as more important today is anything but clear. Moreover, Americans have spent most of the first half of the Trump presidency hearing that the greatest threat to not only their security but their democracy itself is foreign government interference in elections. Therefore, it’s at best odd to start hearing that Ukraine interference doesn’t matter at all.
Canard Number Four: There was no Ukraine 2016 election interference. As I’ve previously pointed out, anti-Trump statements from Ukraine’s then ambassador to the United States and its powerful Interior Minister are on the record. Just as important: Nor does it withstand serious scrutiny to counter that these statement were isolated and therefore trivial – a claim made by fired U.S. Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch during her open impeachment testimony last Friday. Would senior officials like these felt free to speak out so blatantly if their views weren’t widespread Ukraine governing circles? And does it stand to reason that no one reporting to them played any such roles?
Canard Number Five: President Trump was trying to “bully” Ukraine. Unfortunately, international relations still remains a realm where the law of the jungle is much more common than the rule of law as Americans know it. So tough tactics are both nothing new and often needed.
Canard Number Six: President Trump sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine. An alternative description of this charge: “President Trump wanted Ukraine to do something for the United States in return for the United States doing something for Ukraine.” It’s actually true that many of Mr. Trump’s critics strongly oppose such an approach to U.S. foreign policy, denigrating it as “transactional” and presumably not worthy of a truly great nation. But this position – a hallmark of the globalism that the President ran strongly against, and continues to oppose strongly in word and often in deed – stems from a belief that the highest priority of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve the alliances, institutions, and other relationships whose creation defined so much of post-World War II foreign policy.
That’s an entirely legitimate point of view. But it’s just as legitimate – and, as I’ve written, far more realistic – to seek to ensure above all that these arrangements continue promoting American interests on net, to monitor them on an ongoing basis, to press for change when they fail this test, and to abandon them when their potential to do so is judged to be exhausted. So not only is there nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking quid pros quo in foreign policy. The world as it is makes them unavoidable.
Canard Number Seven: Mr. Trump was bullying Ukraine and/or seeking a quid pro quo by threatening to withhold military aid approved by Congress and signed into law. Here we get closer to impeachment charges that do deserve scrutiny. But this allegation still qualifies as a canard – to date, anyway – because it leaves unanswered the central questions of whether the “bullying” or any type of improper pressure took place or the “quid pro quo” was pressed for reasons that “rise to the level of impeachment” or not – or that even come close. And most of the President’s opponents and supporters have done an equally poor job of keeping their eyes on these balls.
Revealingly, even the answers presented that seem to sink the President deep into hot water don’t support a serious impeachment case. Here, for the reasons stated above, I’m deliberately leaving out the allegations that Mr. Trump was illegitimately trying to find some dirt on Biden, and/or reinforcing the legitimacy of his own 2016 victory.
Nevertheless, what gave Mr. Trump the authority to establish even substantively legitimate conditions – however explicitly or implicitly – on the Ukraine aid package? To which the first response is, “What’s meant by ‘established conditions’?” Let’s say that the President’s accusers are entirely correct and that the disbursement of the aid was delayed. So what?
In the first place, there’s nothing in the law stipulating any specific date for releasing the funds other than the end of the fiscal year, which fell on September 30. And as all agree, they were released by then. In other words, from all appearances, there was no Ukraine aid suspension in the first place.
Moreover, all the evidence available so far also demonstrates that the Trump administration’s aid delay decision itself followed the law – although somewhat belatedly. According to Defense Department career official Laura Cooper – in remarks that have not yet been challenged – in her closed door testimony to House investigators, a suspension of Ukraine aid would not be illegal either if the administration had formally notified Congress of a “rescission” of the funds or of a decision to redirect (“reprogram”) them for other purposes. She added that she made these points to Trump administration officials at a July 31 meeting. By late August, though, the Associated Press reported, House Appropriations Committee staff members received this notification from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
In the second place, what’s intrinsically illegal or even improper about Mr. Trump either asking for an add-on, or even threatening to deny the aid if the Ukrainians didn’t agree to conduct the investigation?
One explanation I found compelling was offered by Yovanovitch’s replacement as chief U.S. envoy to Kiev, William Taylor, in his closed door October 22 testimony to House of Representatives investigators. Taylor stated that he was told by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland – an Oregon businessman and major Trump campaign donor – that the Trump decision owed to a practice from the President’s business career:
“When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check. Ambassador [Kurt] Volker [another long-time diplomat, who had served as a special Ukraine envoy in the Trump administration] used the same terms several days later while we were together at the Yalta European Strategy Conference.”
Not that Taylor himself found the reasoning compelling. But although he claimed that the “the explanation made no sense” because “the Ukrainians did not ‘owe’ President Trump anything,” and certainly has a right to this opinion, it sounds like more a reflection of what might be his own overly precious view of the proper way to conduct American diplomacy than like an objectively devastating critique of Mr. Trump. Someone with a less gentlemanly perspective might well have concluded that the President was simply trying to press an advantage to secure an objective he believed furthered U.S. interests that were at least as important as helping Ukraine resist Russian designs.
Which is where one widely cited problem with the anti-Trump narrative comes in. To begin with, it’s been difficult to figure out when the Ukraine aid hold was actually put into effect, but the reference in this article in Politico (an early account of the decision to “last summer” (the summer of 2019) seems about right. (The New York Times subsequently pegged the date as “early July,” but neither claim has been confirmed.) While questioning Yovanovitch during her public appearance at the House of Representative impeachment hearings, House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes identified July 18 as the start of the hold). The Times also contends that the Ukrainians found out about the freeze “by the first week of August.”
Even if this finding is correct, however, it’s clear that one of the strangest episodes in the history of blackmail and quids pro quo in general must have taken place. For the President evidently had decided to hold Ukraine’s military future for ransom but never told Kiev it was being extorted. Indeed, the Ukrainians didn’t even learn at that time – roughly a month after the suspension had gone into effect – that they were being placed over a barrel through any official administration channels. They seem to have found out via leaks, at least according to The Times story linked above. It was not until September 1 that the policy was communicated officially to its supposedly intended target– by Sondland in a meeting with a top aide to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. And even Sondland’s language was strangely vague.
Now it’s true that starting in early August, the Ukrainians could have begun taking these leaks, put them together with whatever they knew about Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s activities in their country and Mr. Trump’s unmistakable interest in a Biden probe, and detected a message about a gun being held to their head. But the surreptitious nature of these efforts could have also indicated that the administration’s resolve on this matter was anything but firm, and that some modest gestures would have gotten them off the hook. In fact, in his closed door testimony, Taylor himself indicated at his closed door House appearance that he would have been satisfied with Ukraine making the public investigations announcement sought by Mr. Trump through its Prosecutor General, rather than its President. So despite his later headline-making characterization of the link as “crazy,” he was obviously prepared to let it slide for a pittance.
Which is where a second widely cited problem with the pro-impeachment narrative needs to be considered: The aid went through on time, and no one in the Ukraine government made any investigations-related announcement at all.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff from California, who’s leading the impeachment efforts, has a ready retort: As he stated at the open impeachment hearing he chaired last Friday, the Trump administration had no choice, because it was being pressured by members of both the House and Senate to release the hold, and because it had received the whistleblower’s report and realized that the (impeachment?) boom was about to be lowered. And Schiff’s Texas Democratic colleague, Joaquin Castro, argued at the October 22 public hearing that “attempted freeze” (my phrase) should be considered a crime because attempted murder is a crime.
But again, the legislation appropriating the aid mentioned no deadline other than the September 30 deadline for all appropriations measures. That deadline was met – by September 11, meaning that the delay lasted at most a little over two months. What the President’s critics are calling blackmail might have been nothing more than a case of trying to take advantage of leverage over a foreign country to achieve a goal (investigating high level corruption by a previous administration) understandably viewed as legitimate by the President – a practice prohibited by exactly no U.S. law. Schiff’s charge is also easily rebutted with the distinct possibility that the Trump administration saw the September 30 deadline coming and decided that securing a public Ukraine commitment to investigate the Bidens simply wasn’t worth the candle.
But however flawed these widely used anti-Trump arguments, based on what’s known so far, the President’s critics do have one potentially stronger impeachment arguments to make. The first would involve a charge that the President was knowingly persuaded by Giuliani to fire Yovanovitch as ambassador to Kiev in May because she was in the process of finding out about Giuliani’s own efforts to make money in Ukraine for his other clients (or even for the President?) in illegal ways.
A big problem with this charge is that, although Yovanovitch did impute these motives to Giuliani in her opening statement at last Friday’s public hearing, she offered no evidence to support her allegation. Indeed, she agreed with a Republican staffer’s question that she was replaced by a Trump administration appointee who was a “man of high integrity” who would not “facilitate” Giuliani’s supposed objectives – none other than William Taylor. She also testified that she had never met the Giuliani associates whose motives she denigrated, and didn’t know whether their ostensibly crooked ambitions were being “frustrated” by whatever anti-corruption policies she says she was pushing.
In addition, it must be noted that this personal corruption charge has received almost no attention from impeachment supporters in Congress or elsewhere in American politics and society.
All of which appears to mean that pro-impeachment and/or removal arguments depend on proving a proposition from Schiff that itself is convoluted and confusing enough to verge on incoherence and even flim-flammery – whether we’re talking purely legal/criminal standards or not.
Specifically, even though the hold was lifted in time to meet the statutory requirement, the President reversed course only involuntarily (either for fear of being exposed by the whistleblower’s complaint or of dangerously antagonizing influential House and Senate members who supported the aid). Therefore, for either some of the two months, or most of the two months, or all of the two months during which the aid suspension lasted, Mr. Trump demonstrated that his intent was uninfluenced by any legitimate concerns (like ferreting out non-Russian 2016 foreign election interference or Biden family corruption) and as a result was solely corrupt – and met impeachment and/or removal standards.
Of course, no one can rule out further discoveries of significantly worse Trump deeds. But unless they’re made, a House vote to impeach would amount to nothing more than an affirmation of former President Gerald R. Ford’s 1970 contention (when he was House Minority Leader) that “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
And the all too likely result? A normalization and weaponization of this process that even the Trump-ly Deranged shouldn’t want to see.