Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 26, 2019
Stepping back at the end of a wild Washington week, it remains stunning that Democrats finally moved to formally target Donald Trump for impeachment — launching formal impeachment “inquiry” that seems to have more questions to answer each day in a widening probe.
But there is a train rumbling now, and the momentum of impeachment inquiry will not be stopped easily — until it runs into Senate Republicans.
It was a week of surprisingly open or would-be open disclosures, likely forced behind the scenes by leading Republicans, about what on its face seems information that would disqualify Donald Trump from continuing as president. It was a week in which Trump said he was disclosing documents because they clear his name, when a plain language look says the opposite, and increasingly loud and disjointed rants against Democrats as all but treasonous.
Yesterday, Trump went so far as to say that anyone who provided the whistleblower with information should be treated as a spy, implying that they should be put to death — a somewhat different take on protecting whistleblowers.
We finally got a look at the anonymous whistleblower complaint, seven pages long and now declassified. According to the whistleblower, the White House turned itself inside out to keep the transcript of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky under special, secret wrap, and that the months-long or longer campaign to persuade Ukrainian leadership to open or re-open an investigation of undue influence by former Vice President Joe Biden, a current Democratic presidential candidate, on behalf of his son, Hunter.
The whistleblower also put Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer and television defender, and Atty. Gen. William P. Barr into the scandal for roles that are yet to unspool. And it said this was not the only such Trump call transcript to be put under special classification.
By the end of the week, we learned that Giuliani said he was acting either for the president as lawyer, or for the State Department as a special envoy to determine whether Ukrainian leaders would dirty up Biden before 2020, and investigate leftover parts and pieces of the Russia probe involving the 2016 elections. And we learned that Barr’s Justice Department had acted to say that there was no need to forward the whistleblower complaint to Congress, and that there had been no crime committed.
Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, who was called to testify before congressional committees, acknowledged that the whistleblower complaint that he reviewed was credible and “unprecedented,” prompting him to ask White House lawyers whether it should be forwarded to Congress as normal. Needless to say, the White House said no.
Along the way, we had a number of small surprises. Senate Republicans voted unanimously, for example, to demand that the White House turn over the anonymous whistleblower complaint, one little crack before returning to form to denounce the impeachment effort altogether.
As things stand, it is difficult to think that sufficient numbers of Senate Republicans will finally vote to oust Trump once any impeachment moves to the Senate for trial.
It was only mildly surprising, then, that the White House agreed to declassify and release to Congress a summary of the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian PresidentZelensky, which Trump took pains to note included no quid-pro-quoextortion demand to reopen investigation involving Biden family business interests in Ukraine in return for release of military aid money ordered by Congress.
All in all, it has been a wondrous roller-coaster of a week in Urkraine-gate — and for the speed with which a nearly moribund Congress on all-things-Russia, on the parade of ethics violations from this president, on obstruction of justice through ignored Congressional subpoenas, on the out-of-control wars on China trade, immigration excess, Muslims and the encouragement of hate-speak have marked this presidency, almost all without effective oversight.
For those of us trying to keep it in perspective without a new gasp every 10 minutes, what we have experienced is a near-rush by Democrats to call out bad behavior — which does qualify as presidential abuse of power if not out-and-out criminal behavior — topped by the serious outreach to the public by Speaker Nancy Pelosi before flags and the defense of Constitutionality.
There is a bunch here that is predictable behavior on all sides, and so we should expect a lot of procedural maneuvering to keep the best partisan view on the emerging details. We can expect fights about when and how to vote, on whether to define the impeachment articles broadly or only on this set of incidents, on whether to go after others besides the president himself. We can expect endless discussion about the effects on the Biden and Trump political campaigns, on the reactions to impeachment on the economy and international adventurism. What does an aggressive Iran or North Korea do while we have a wounded Trump as president?
Predictably for Pelosi, Trump has skated through a zillion incidents of bad behavior in his three years of presidency — all with the help of a pliable Justice Department, outrageous obstructions and the ever-present support of Senate Republicans.
Trump predictably changed his story multiple times during the week about the degree to which he had withheld the military funds voted by Congress, arguing first that he couldn’t just hand over $400 million to a Ukraine stamped with corruption, then retreating to a weak and inaccurate argument that the United States was being asked to fund Ukrainian defense without similar participation by Europe, which actually has provided billions of dollars towards fighting the Russian incursions into Ukraine.
And various Republicans predictably decided that the Biden issue alone needed to be re-washed and hung out to dry. The one non-predictable event of the week was that Biden actually rose to full standing to yell a bit back at Trump.
As for the Ukrainian president Zelensky, he seemed baffled to find himself at the heart of a domestic U.S. political dispute, and the sudden fragility of the Trump presidency made the week’s Trump blustering at the United Nations’ General Assembly almost irrelevant. Between Trump’s boisterous isolationism for America and his sudden isolation in a chaotic White House, the only mouse squeaking was the president’s ever-present Twitter feed in would-be defense.
Among the many articles on the scandal this week, a highlight New York Timesstory outlined Trump’s obsession with the Ukraine, whom he wrongly tags as having started what we know of the Russia investigation, as well as holding the keys on any defunct Biden investigation.
Here’s where I assess we stand at week’s end:
· The House Judiciary Committee — and five other committees — will be emboldened by the impeachment “inquiry” declaration and press for quick court support for writs forcing the White House. But things will still not move quickly. There are too many pieces, too many outstanding court cases, too much fragility among Democrats themselves to assure an efficient, quick process.
· The White House, Justice, State and Team Trump are going to argue there was no crime, no abuse of power, not even an impolite conversation. Indeed, both Barr and Guiliani should be called to testify about their roles.
· On the main issue, Trump has admitted bringing up investigating Biden, an abuse of asking foreign help in an election. He simply does not recognize doing so as wrong — legally, morally, or constitutionally. The lawyers are split on criminality. But for sure, Trump had held up military funds while asking for the renewed investigation. The summary document alone shows incriminating statements that look innocent only to serious defenders of Trump.
· As for the Biden part of the story, there had been investigation in Ukraine in 2015, which found nothing to pursue. Biden, as vice president, had joined a wide number of European voices to call for removal of the Ukrainian prosecutor, somehow allegedly benefitting his son, Hunter, a board member for a company doing business in Ukraine. That’s it.
· Expect a wave of narrow legal definitional arguments about whether the complaint was “urgent,” about whether the Director of National Intelligence did or did not have leeway in a decision to withhold the complaint from Congress, about the procedural votes that are needed and the like.
· There are a ton of substantive questions still out there, ranging from the facts still unknown here, to how Senate Republicans will respond, to timetable and the rest.
Still, it does feel righteous to see that the Democrats could at least get over their own divisions to come to a decisive outlook on the impeachment question. The House could always vote Censure against the president, which might be a black mark for Trump, but leave him in office.
Let’s Make America Great Again — by ridding ourselves of this president.