This time it’s simple. President Donald J. Trump could have faced impeachment inquiries over hush payments to Stormy Daniels, obstructing the Russia investigation, or violating the emoluments clause. Those cases have been only the tip of the iceberg for a President with dreams of dictatorship, who seems to forget he governs in a representative democracy subject to the rule of law. This time around the facts are more straightforward – Trump enlisted Ukraine to hurt a political rival while holding back aid that Congress had appropriated.
Yet he’s painted himself into corners before. Trump has evaded public outcry following controversial antics from Charlottesville to Helsinki, and even after doctoring a map of Hurricane Dorian to defend his claim it threatened Alabama. But this time is different. It is far easier to connect the dots when they are staring you directly in the face. Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not in the interests of U.S. foreign policy, but his own personal interests, as evidenced by his explicit requests for Mr. Zelensky to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, and his offer to have Rudy Giuliani (Trump’s personal lawyer) and Attorney General William Barr assist with the investigation. With this conversation coming just minutes after Trump highlighted that “we do a lot for Ukraine” and “we spend a lot of effort and a lot of time”, it’s as if mob boss Trump held a figurative gun to Mr. Zelensky’s head, threatening him into helping investigate Biden or face the consequences.
Approximately one week before his conversation with Mr. Zelensky on July 25, Trump ordered the withholding of military aid to Ukraine, which his administration had already notified Congress it intended to release on May 23.
On July 24, Robert Mueller testified before Congress on the Mueller Report and its findings.
The next day, Trump spoke with Mr. Zelensky, and despite recent scrutiny on his administration’s interactions with foreign powers, Trump repeatedly emphasized how good the U.S. government is to Ukraine and how their relationship is not reciprocal. As noted above, he then asked for Ukraine’s help with two investigations, one involving Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The other investigation related to unfounded allegations that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Election originated from Ukraine. Trump specifically asked Mr. Zelensky to locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee.
In the days following Trump’s conversation with Mr. Zelensky, senior White House officials intervened to “lock down” all records of the phone call, especially the verbatim transcript, according to the whistleblower who broke the case. In addition, the whistleblower claimed that White House lawyers instructed officials to move the transcript from the normal documentation archive to “a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of a sensitive nature.”
On August 12, the whistleblower filed a complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community. The inspector general viewed it as credible and as a matter of “urgent concern”, mandating immediate disclosure to the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
In late August, multiple lawmakers raised concerns that Trump was “slow-walking” the military aid to Ukraine, which was primarily intended to protect them against Russian aggression. The aid was not released until September 11.
On September 24, following multiple reports on the whistleblower complaint, Trump confirmed he withheld the Ukrainian aid, but suggested that it was due to other countries needing to contribute to Ukraine’s defense. On that same day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced support for a formal impeachment inquiry.
The Trump administration released a “transcript” of Trump’s July 25 call with Mr. Zelensky on September 25. The whistleblower complaint was publicized shortly thereafter following jostling between House Democrats and the Trump administration, with the former prevailing after making multiple allegations of an administration cover up.
Since then more than 300 U.S. national security and foreign policy officials have signed a statement supporting the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
No credible evidence has been produced that suggests Joe Biden or his son were involved in any corruption scheme. In addition, Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency has said that the allegations against the oil and gas company in question (Burisma) were for a period of time before Biden’s son ever had an affiliation with the company. Despite this lack of evidence, Trump saw the need to press Mr. Zelensky to investigate someone who is arguably his strongest Democratic competitor in the upcoming 2020 U.S. Election.
By holding back congressionally appropriated aid and emphasizing the U.S. support for Ukraine, Trump made it abundantly clear what would happen if Mr. Zelensky did not comply with this “favor.” A quid pro quo does not need to be explicit. The implications of Trump’s exchange were clear – help me dig up dirt on my political opponent or else I’m pulling U.S. support from your country. This solicitation for interference by a foreign government in a U.S. election is an extreme abuse of executive power, even for Trump.
Trump argues that it’s perfectly legitimate to require Ukraine to control corruption as a condition of aid. That would be defensible if true, but in this case, Trump was not concerned about corruption related to Burisma in general, or to other schemes that could be indicative of Ukraine’s general tolerance toward corruption. Instead, Trump honed in on a political opponent and his family, where no credible scintilla of evidence had been found to date. Trump’s subtle threats and requests for favors abuses the powers inherent to the office of the President for his personal, political benefit.
We also should not ignore how Russia stood to benefit. The aid that Congress appropriated for Ukraine was intended to bolster Ukraine’s military defenses. And for good reason. Russia had not exactly exhibited good neighborly qualities toward Ukraine throughout the past decade (see annexation of Crimea). It should not be ignored that once again, Trump’s actions had a notable benefit to the Kremlin.
Similar to previous cases (e.g., paying off Stormy Daniels, meeting Russians at Trump Tower, etc.), Trump did not act alone here. This impeachment inquiry will likely sweep in other members of the administration, along with the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration has made widespread use of a secret national security server, which significantly limits the number of people who can access call records with foreign leaders. Did we not just debate the use of secret servers in the 2016 election? Expect the impeachment inquiry to investigate the Trump administration’s records management practices and how it treats classified information.
What Happens Now
In order to formally initiate the impeachment process, the House will have to vote on Articles of Impeachment, a vote that may come as soon as late October once the impeachment inquiry has completed. Potential grounds for impeachment in this case could be a “corrupt abuse of power” because of Trump’s repeated pressuring of Mr. Zelensky to use Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr in the investigation of a political opponent. It should be a surprise to no one that a U.S. President is prohibited from using U.S. foreign policy to extort foreign leaders for their own political gain. By holding back aid, emphasizing U.S. support for Ukraine, and then asking for this political favor, a compelling case can be made that Trump abused his power. The cover-up that subsequently occurred in an effort to divert the call transcript into a system intended for classified materials, despite it lacking any national security or classified information, further corroborates this point.
The fact Trump even had this type of call with a foreign leader one day after Robert Mueller testified about his findings on Russian collusion and obstruction of justice highlights how emboldened he has become in recent months. The rule of law means nothing to him. The Constitution only holds weight if he stands to benefit.
Trump’s subtle threats and requests for favors abuses the powers inherent to the office of the President for his personal, political benefit.
The framers of the Constitution intended impeachment to operate as the mechanism to remove officials who abuse their powers. In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton explains how impeachment is more than a response to crimes, but also to acts that constituted an “abuse or violation of some public trust.” Accordingly, there is no requirement for an express criminal statute in order to impeach a President for abusing the powers of the office.
As the impeachment inquiry plays itself out over the next month, Trump will undoubtedly seek strength from it. He will use it to rile up his base. He will showcase it as evidence that everyone is conspiring to bring him and his party down. Should the resulting impeachment fail to muster support in the Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats should be prepared for significant ramifications. If Trump was already feeling bold and invincible enough to put personal gain over the public interest in his conversations with foreign leaders, how might he act after a failed impeachment attempt and a potential 2020 election victory? That potential Constitutional crisis could have irreparable implications for the vitality of America’s democracy itself.
What will it take for other Republicans to finally hold Trump accountable? What side of history does the party of Trump want to be on? Now is the time to put the Constitution over partisanship and political ideology. Now is the time to send a message to America’s future Presidents that the office cannot be used to advance personal political interests at the public’s expense.