Impeachment draws nigh, and it’s certainly time for it

President Donald Trump took to the south lawn of the White House to double down on calls for foreign intervention into the U.S. 2020 presidential election. Courtesy of MSN UK

President Trump’s record should be familiar to all of us, but a quick reminder of what the Special Counsel determined in its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is relevant before we get into the most recent controversy. Notably, the Special Counsel didn’t even attempt to decide whether the president was guilty of a crime because an Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo stated that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Robert Mueller III also didn’t press charges against Donald Trump Jr. because he couldn’t determine if Trump Jr. had the required corrupt intent or if the information gained was legally a “thing of value.” (Robert Mueller III, “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election,” 04.18.2019) As much as we all wish that was the end of it and we could get back to our regular lives, the president has decided that he needed a fresh, new election meddling controversy for the coming election cycle.

Our cast for this new controversy is composed of U.S. President Donald Trump, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, U.S. Attorney General William ‘Bill’ Barr, Ukraine former Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, California Rep. Adam Schiff, an unnamed whistleblower whom I shall refer to as Mark, presidential candidate Joe Biden and Uncle Joe’s son Hunter Biden.

The current impeachment inquiry was kicked off by, and centers around, an anonymous whistleblower complaint which alleges that President Trump misused the broad foreign policy powers of the presidency for personal gain by soliciting a foreign government to investigate a political rival. According to the whistleblower complaint, which is not a firsthand account but instead is extremely clear about where each statement came from and who said what, Trump spoke with Ukraine President Zelensky about starting or continuing an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden (“Whistleblower Complaint,” 08.12.19 ).

Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma Holdings, an energy company in Ukraine. He had no special qualifications or outstanding features—so I can safely opine that Burisma Holdings wanted to curry favor with the United States by giving a prestigious position to the son of the then Vice President. This is not illegal, and did not violate any particular conflict of interest or ethical statute that applies to the Vice President (KCRW, “LRC Presents: All the President’s Lawyers,” 09.25.2019).

Joe Biden was part of an international group of politicians and officials in 2016 which pressured Ukraine to fire its Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin for his failure to prosecute cases of corruption and bribery. This international effort was successful, and Shokin was ousted from his position. Shokin has given varied accounts of whether Burisma Holdings and Hunter Biden were under investigation, with his most recent statement being that they were never under investigation at all (Bloomberg, “Ukraine Prosecutor Says No Evidence of Wrongdoing by Bidens,” 05.16.19 ).

This firing and potential investigation are the main crux of Trump’s call with Zelensky. On that call, Trump went so far as to say, “Good, because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair…The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.” (White House, “Memorandum of telephone conversation,” 07.25.19 ).

The main defenses being voiced by Republican Congress-critters, as far as I can tell, are that the whistleblower complaint is nothing but hearsay, which should not be the basis for an impeachment, and that the call requires a quid pro quo for it to be an impeachable offense.

To the first point, let’s define hearsay. For our purposes, just assume that it’s a statement given while not under oath. There’s a myriad of exceptions and edge-cases, but as a general rule it’s not allowed to be used as evidence in a court. You’ve probably experienced plenty of hearsay in your life. Remember last week, when your friend George boldly claimed, “Billy says you look like a lemur”? Since you weren’t actually there when Billy pointed out that you resemble a phallic primate (I’m not saying you do, I’m just saying he wouldn’t have said it if you were there), you can’t confirm whether Billy said that you look like a lemur. Easy enough.

You can see where hearsay enters into the conversation around the whistleblower complaint, as Mark even says, “I was not a direct witness to most of the events described.” But Republicans are incorrect in characterizing hearsay as a roadblock to impeachment. Evidence that isn’t admissible in court can still be used to obtain a search warrant, phone tap or other investigative measure. The idea that it would be impossible to use hearsay to start an impeachment inquiry, literally an investigative tool, is absolute bunk.

The notion that Trump’s request can only be considered an impeachable offense if there was a quid pro quo is similarly erroneous. Quid pro quo translates to “this for that” and implies that there must be a reciprocated gesture on the part of the United States in exchange for Ukraine launching an investigation into the Biden family. For example if Ukraine investigates someone for us, we’ll give Ukraine rockets or money. This entire argument is stupid, given that we know already that reciprocity isn’t a requirement for election meddling. Literally just asking a foreign government to meddle in a U.S. election is a severe ethical violation—full stop. But, I will entertain the notion just to point out what a wrong-headed avenue of defense this is.

Take the following exchange, which took place in the recently released phone call:

Zelensky: “[The Ukrainian Government is] ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps[.] [S]pecifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”

Trump: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” (White House, “Memorandum of telephone conversation,” 07.25.19)

What did this favor entail? Looking into a Democratic National Convention server that was hacked. What else? Well, as Trump put it “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that…” Again, just to hammer this in, President Trump hinged the United States’ military support for Ukraine (selling it Javelin Missiles) on whether or not Ukraine investigated his political rival. The Republican phrase “There was no quid pro quo” is a bad defense, not just because it doesn’t matter, but because there actually was a quid pro quo.

So obviously we’re already knee-deep in a shitshow, but I have barely mentioned Rudy Giuliani so far and…oh boy.

Ever since the whistleblower report became public, Giuliani, when he hasn’t been speaking at events literally sponsored by the Kremlin, has been going on television giving incoherent, incriminating statements. When asked by CNN’s Chris Coumo whether he had asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, Giuliani said, “No.” Fewer than 30 seconds later, he responded to the same question with “Of course I did!” (Youtube, CNN, “Chris Cuomo clashes with Rudy Giuliani over Ukraine,” 09.20.2019) In an interview with the New York Times Giuliani one-upped himself, saying, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation.” (The New York Times, “Rudy Giuliani Plans Ukraine Trip to Push for Inquiries That Could Help Trump,” 05.09.2019).

Again, I would like to point out that this is the president’s personal attorney going on record saying that they were meddling in an investigation, specifically an investigation involving the president’s political rival Joe Biden.

Not to be outdone, Trump has been spending his free time trying to figure out a way to make a statement more reprehensible or ill-advised than his own lawyer’s. He struggled at first, merely implying that Mark’s source should be beheaded or otherwise killed (The Guardian, “Trump compares whistleblower’s source to a ‘spy’, audio reveals – as it happened,” 10.01.2019). He aimed higher and implied that Rep. Adam Schiff should be killed (Twitter, @[realDonaldTrump], 09.30.2019). He stepped it up even more, quoting a pastor who said that impeaching Trump would lead to a civil war (Twitter, @[realDonaldTrump], 09.29.2019). He doubled down on that particular rhetoric and concluded that these were not impeachment proceedings but rather a coup (Twitter, @[realDonaldTrump], 10.01.2019).

Twitter was a good outlet for all of that, but for his magnum opus Trump migrated out of his cave and into the sun, to the White House lawn in front of God knows how many cameras to publicly ask China and Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. That’s pretty damning evidence.

For those keeping track at home, the potential crimes the president might have committed include attempting to defraud the U.S. government, witness tampering and various campaign finance violations. Chances of a conviction on any of these charges is extraordinarily low, because the Department of Justice won’t indict a sitting president and because the president has broad powers in foreign policy and it could be impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president did any of the violations with the required corrupt intent.

Politically, impeachment is the only correct move. Soliciting a foreign government to help you in an election is unethical. So is threatening to withhold aid unless you are given some sort of personal gain. Doing both at the same time is obviously forbidden. Threatening a witness, particularly a whistleblower, is obviously an abuse of power. Sending your personal attorney all over the globe to conduct backchannel diplomacy is probably inappropriate, at best.

What’s the point of opening an impeachment inquiry though? It’s because Trump can’t shut up. He’s going to try to explain himself or attack those he views as his enemies. He’s already turned on Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Utah Senator Mitt Romney. The man feels hunted, and when this particular man feels hunted, he does stupid things. He feels abandoned; his lawyers have hired lawyers and even Tucker Carlson has spoken out against him (CNN, “Tucker Carlson says Trump’s Ukraine call was inappropriate: ‘There’s no way to spin this’,” 10.05.2019). Trump is a mad dog, and I’m guessing sooner rather than later he’s going to do something so stupid or malevolent that his approval rating hits a record low or 20 Republican senators take a stand and vote to remove him. Either way, I don’t see a way out of this for Trump that improves his position or increases his odds of being re-elected. He’s not a stable genius; he’s just an old man attacked on all sides and about to lose the only semblance of control he has left.

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