In Neal Stephenson’s otherwise unimpressive new novel, he posits one very interesting idea – a world so divided by social media feeds that Americans cannot even agree on whether Moab, Utah has been nuked. Judging by my various feeds, we are in much the same position regarding President Trump, his actions vis a vis Ukraine, and the latest push for impeachment.
In what is likely a forlorn hope that we can have a civil discussion across this divide, let me throw out a few random thoughts. Much of this is my interpretation of the facts, but hopefully we can at least all agree on the facts themselves.
First, recognize that two unrelated things can be true at the same time. Thus A) President Trump’s accusers can be partisan, hypocritical, and generally sleazy, and B) President Trump could be guilty of those accusations. Likewise, A) Donald Trump could be dishonest, reactionary, and a bigot, but B) not guilty of specific accusations. Debate the merits of the charges, not the merits of the messengers on either side.
Let’s look at those charges:
The CloudStrike, Hillary’s-emails-are-hidden-in-the-Ukraine, Russians-didn’t-really-hack-the-DNC stuff is pure tinfoil hat fodder that originated with Russia, spread to 4Chan, and then to various corners of the conspiracysphere. Still there is an ongoing investigation of the Russia investigation’s origins being conducted by the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut. It might be silly and a waste of time and money, but it is entirely appropriate for the president to ask Ukraine to cooperate with that probe.
This is very different from the president’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens. Let us grant that it is obvious that Burisma was hiring Hunter Biden to gain influence and access with the U.S. government. This is both sleazy and common. It is also most likely perfectly legal. Indeed, the Ukrainian investigation of Burisma (more on this below) was targeting the oligarch who owned the company, and had nothing to do with Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden’s involvement in China is equally sleazy and equally legal. Perhaps we should ban the relatives of U.S. politicians from being involved in foreign business ventures, but we haven’t so far (see, Trump, Ivanka and Trump, Donald, Jr).
Hunter’s sleaziness does reflect badly on his father, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask Joe Biden why he didn’t advise his son to steer clear of such foreign entanglements.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that Joe Biden personally did anything illegal. Yes, he helped force out a Ukrainian prosecutor, who had, at one time, been involved in investigating the owner of Burisma. But Biden was hardly freelancing or directing U.S. policy toward Ukraine, despite the self-inflation shown in that video of his talking about his role. Removal of that prosecutor was official U.S, policy, as well as the policy of all our major allies, the EU, the IMF, Ukrainian anti-corruption campaigners, and more. It was a priority of the U.S. State Department. Biden was simply the messenger. And the prosecutor was forced out because he was corrupt, and was refusing to pursue efforts against the oligarchs. In fact, the Burisma investigation had already been shut down, one of many that the prosecutor deep-sixed to protect his powerful friends. Forcing him out was a good thing.
If, however, President Trump actually believed there was illegality involved in Biden’s actions (either Biden), the correct response would have been for the Justice Department to open a U.S. investigation. It was not to urge Ukraine to investigate a political opponent. And, under no conceivable circumstances, was it to proper to threaten to withhold vital U.S. assistance (or a diplomatically important meeting with the president) in order to pressure the Ukrainians to do so.
And that is clearly what Trump did. The whistle-blower or blowers are irrelevant at this point. Simply read the transcription of the call (it is not actually a full transcript) and the emails. True, Trump never says “Here is my quid, now about your quo.” But anyone who ever watched an episode of the Sopranos knows that’s not how it’s done. “Mighty fine country you have here, be a shame if something happened to it. Oh, by the way…”
Nor should we buy the excuse that this was just about “fighting corruption.” President Trump has been more than happy to deal with some of the most corrupt regimes on earth: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Egypt. Can anyone think of any other time that Trump was concerned about corruption to this degree?
I can see no plausible argument that President Trump’s actions were not an abuse of power.
Which brings us to the question of impeachment. I’m torn. I believe that Trump’s actions clearly rise to the level of an impeachable offense. In fact, this sort of abuse of power seems like exactly the sort of offense that the Founders intended impeachment to rectify. And, in the end, impeachment is a political action, not a judicial one. An argument can be made that we don’t use impeachment as a tool of accountability often enough. https://www.cato.org/publications/white-paper/indispensable-remedy-broad-scope-constitutions-impeachment-power
If Congress doesn’t act in this case, are we simply normalizing this kind of behavior. Is there anything, short of oral sex, that Donald Trump — or any president — can do that would be worthy of impeachment? (Yes, I know that the actual charges against Bill Clinton involved perjury and obstruction, but still…)
On the other hand, because the House has sufficient reason to impeach does not mean that it should impeach. Given the almost certainty that the impeachment vote will fall almost exclusively along partisan lines, and that the Senate is almost certain to acquit along equally partisan lines, there is an enormous risk of further dividing and polarizing the country. Moreover, Trump supporters are correct to point out that some Democrats have sought impeachment since the day Trump was elected, and pursued one rationale after another, with greater and lesser validity. That whiff of vindictiveness can taint this case.
Most importantly, there is an election just one year away. The American people will go to the polls. Is that a more appropriate time to hold President Trump, and all the other players in this drama, accountable?
Feel free to debate the merits of my arguments, but please do so civilly. Name-calling will get your comments removed. And (he said without any real hope for success), let’s try to stick to the facts.
UPDATE 1/31/20: I wrote the above back in October, before all the House hearings and the Senate “trial.” Fine details aside, I think it still holds up extraordinarily well. If anything, the various witnesses, official and unofficial (That’s you John Bolton!) have made it absolutely clear that Trump did it. I don’t see how anyone can argue with a straight face that President Trump did not use a variety of pressure points – aid, meetings, etc – to try to force Ukraine to announce politically useful investigations of the CloudStrike conspiracy theory and Hunter Biden. My thoughts on those investigations are encapsulated above.
That case is made even without additional witnesses. I think the Senate should call witnesses like Bolton, but those witnesses are not necessary to determine what happened. He did it.
Whether or not the president should be removed from office and, as Republicans pointed out, removed from this fall’s ballot just 9 months before an election is a much tougher call. In general, I would say there should be a high bar to remove a president so close to an election. Senators who say that Trump is guilty but that the offense doesn’t rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and, therefore, this should be left to voters, are making a reasonable case.
On the other hand, I worry that an acquitted Trump will take the verdict as vindication and assume there are no constraints on him now. After all, we can’t easily go back to the impeachment well a second time. Beyond, Trump there are important concerns about the precedents being set for future presidents. The Dershowitz argument is particularly frightening.
For me, it’s a close call.
Let me add one last thought. Given the deep divisions in this country today, this was always going to be a partisan impeachment. One side was calling for Trump’s impeachment before he took the oath of office. The other side wouldn’t impeach him if he shot someone during the State of the Union Address. However, Democrats have unnecessarily highlighted the partisanship. Rushing the impeachment vote then holding the resolution for weeks, choosing highly partisan managers rather than someone like Justin Amash, handing out souvenir pins, and inflammatory language, may have roused the Democratic base, but likely didn’t play well with the Senate (or public). It probably didn’t change a single vote, but it was an illustration of how the Democrats can still lose this November.