The Three Main Questions About Ukraine and ImpeachmentOctober 24, 2019
Democrats are ecstatic over the latest closed-door testimony by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor. They say it damns the president.
We’ll have to take their word for it -- or not. For us poor folks not on the guest list of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, it’s impossible to know what’s happening behind closed doors. The testimony has not been released, even though no classified materials are involved. It’s not even clear why Schiff’s panel, rather than the House Judiciary Committee, is leading the investigation. Like so much about this process, it is unprecedented, with ad hoc rules made up along the way. All we know about the testimony is what trickles out in fragments, leaked by each side to advance its case. This kind of secrecy is shameful in a democracy. So is the refusal to let the accused call his own witnesses or even send his attorney to the proceedings.
Given this “fog of secret impeachment,” it helps to step back and ask what the debate is really about. I see three main questions so far. All are related to President Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the delay in providing U.S. aid to Kiev.
(1) Did President Trump demand a quid pro quo? That is, did he require Ukraine to do something specific before the U.S. would release aid money? Or did he simply request it?
(2) Did Ukraine’s leaders believe that aid would be withheld unless they complied with Trump’s dictum? Apparently not, at least until several weeks after the phone call. “How can there be a genuine quid pro quo,” Trump supporters ask, “if the people allegedly being coerced don’t know about it?”
(3) Did the U.S. ask for anything improper? No one doubts that corruption is pervasive in Ukraine, that the U.S. has good reasons to reduce fraud, bribery, and insider deals in its aid recipients, or that the Burisma energy company was considered a “corruption problem” deserving investigation. The question is whether it was proper for Trump and his surrogates to seek a Ukrainian investigation of this alleged corruption or, alternatively, whether it was illicit because it directly involved the Biden family and Trump highlighted their role?
Democrats say such a request is clearly improper, whether or not it involved U.S. aid or a quid pro quo. Why? Because Trump used his official power, they say, to seek an investigation involving one of his main rivals in the 2020 election. That assertion could gain more traction as Schiff’s investigation (and that of U.S. attorneys in Manhattan) look into the actions by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Republicans respond that Burisma was corrupt and needed to be investigated, that it hired Hunter Biden simply to provide political cover at home and abroad (he had no other qualifications for the highly paid job), and that Vice President Joe Biden, who oversaw Ukrainian policy in the Obama administration, stopped a much-needed inquiry as it was closing in on his son.
Biden’s defenders say his actions were justified because the local investigator was himself corrupt and that other Western entities with interest in Ukraine, including the IMF, were calling for his ouster. Biden’s adversaries say he employed strong-arm tactics to protect his own interests. That charge, ironically, is the same one Democrats are now making against Trump.
It’s easy to see how personal and national interests were intertwined for both Biden and Trump, and it’s easy to see what their defenses are. Each says his only interest was in protecting U.S. national security. Their critics don’t believe it.
If Joe and Hunter Biden were not in the picture, it would be perfectly fine for Trump to demand Ukraine reopen its investigation of earlier corruption and possible interference in the 2016 U.S. election. With the Bidens in the picture, however, Trump’s actions raise troubling questions.
Rep. Schiff’s investigation is not designed to answer them. It is designed to build a case against the president, and to do it speedily and secretly. When he has assembled whatever he thinks is enough evidence, he will release a partisan report and hope it gains public support. Republicans will rebut the substance and claim the whole process was a kangaroo court.
Democrats seem confident they can win an impeachment vote in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a large enough majority to do it, even if it imperils some new members from swing districts Trump carried in 2016. As of now, it’s unlikely House Democrats will garner – or even seek -- any Republican votes. That means the Democrats’ main hurdle is public relations: explaining to nonpartisan Americans, who will be crucial in the 2020 election, the urgency of removing a duly elected president only months ahead of their chance to vote on him. Without more evidence or a general collapse in Trump’s poll numbers, Democrats and Never-Trump Republicans will fall short of the two-thirds needed in the Senate to remove the president. They know it, and they fear it.
So, what’s the point? Democrats hope to accumulate more hard evidence, enough to convince some GOP senators and more independent voters. They hope to rattle Trump, generate more chaos in the White House (never in short supply), and prompt damaging, unforced errors from a furious, frustrated, and thin-skinned president. Most of all, they hope to mire Trump in enough dirt and scandal to weaken him badly in 2020.
Democrats are betting voters will tire of the endless drama, blame it on Trump, and vote him out. That’s the aim of their strategy: win the vote in the Electoral College, not the Senate. To do it, they are counting on widespread distaste for Trump personally, especially among educated voters and suburban women, and the perception that he’s only out for himself. Among younger voters, they are counting on “social justice,” inequality, and racial issues.
Trump is counting on a strong economy, significantly higher incomes for average Americans, success in curbing illegal immigration, and revulsion at the Democrats’ unending “resistance.” He may be blessed with a Democratic opponent on the far left, proposing unaffordable programs and fundamental changes that would eviscerate America’s market economy.
This nasty election battle comes, oddly, at a time of peace and prosperity. What truly divides the country are not traditional pocketbook issues or foreign policy quagmires, but sharply divergent visions about how a constitutional democracy should be governed, how powerful its central government and bureaucracy should be, and, ultimately, what path forward America should take. Impeachment is part of that deep-seated struggle, just as the venomous battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination was.
Impeachment will be resolved in a few months, the 2020 election in a year. But these larger issues will not be settled nearly so fast, not definitively. The divisions are too deep, the stakes too high. The best advice, to paraphrase Bette Davis, is to buckle your seat belts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.