Congress’s first round of impeachment hearings wound up largely focused on whether President Trump had offered a quid pro quo for receiving a favor from Ukraine, i.e. Trump would release held-up military aid and other signs of US support only after Ukraine investigated a particular company that employed Joe Biden’s son and the former Vice President for his actions as well.
Aside from trying to determine if an actual bribe had occurred, the basis for impeachment comes down to whether Trump abused his presidential power by asking a Ukraine for a personal gift of campaign assistance or was he merely seeking out whether there was corruption in Ukraine before releasing military assistance to them. Let’s take a look at this critical question.
America’s founders feared foreign governments destabilizing our young democracy. They wrote into the constitution, “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present… from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
The House of Representatives is trying to determine whether Trump was seeking a “present” from Ukraine. Specifically, the charge is that Trump was asking Ukraine’s new president to publicly announce that his country would begin investigating a company for corruption that employed Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. This would provide Trump an explosive issue that would damage his potential main opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Just this May 2019, Trump’s own polling showed Biden beating Trump in the election. That was followed up in September, when Trump’s reelection campaign, and the Republican National Committee, announced plans to spend $10 million on an ad targeting his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden and the impeachment proceedings. In October, Trump targeted $1 million, out of an already-existing $8 million ad buy, toward anti-Biden spots in early voting states. A 30-second commercial, titled “Biden Corruption,” attacked the former vice president for pushing the removal of Ukraine’s former corrupt head prosecutor Shokin.
Trump would have greatly benefited if he could have convinced Ukraine’s president to announce that he was investigating corruption in Burisma and by extension Hunter Biden, who served on its board. Joe Biden could also be investigated since he was Vice President during that time. No verdict would even be needed; just the investigation could be enough. And that was the message that was sent by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, not a government employee, to the Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.
Testifying under oath before the Congress’s impeachment hearing, Sondland clearly identified Giuliani as Trump’s spokesman saying, “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States …”
Sondland’s description of Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine as being motivated by personal interest and not national interest, was also the conclusion reached by the state department’s top Ukraine official, George P. Kent. He testified before Congress how Trump sought to manipulate American policy in Ukraine to meet his personal political goals, circumventing career diplomats and policy experts and inserting his personal lawyer Giuliani into the process.
President Trump himself was recorded on the July 25 call to the new Ukrainian President Zelensky asking him for a favor of looking into “Biden’s son … and …that [Joe] Biden stopped the prosecution…” of Shokin. Investigating Hunter Biden or Joe Biden was never mentioned in any documents provided to the public prior to that call, from any government intelligence agency. Trump’s request was made immediately after Zelensky said his country was “ready to buy more Javelins [anti-tank missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump made the connection between providing military aid to Ukraine that Congress had already approved and asking Ukraine to conduct an investigation that no one had requested from the US government. That call lead the whistle blower to file a complaint that Trump had used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.” How else could it be interpreted?
Well, Trump and Congressional Republicans simply describe it as encouraging Ukraine to conduct those investigations to see if the Bidens had participated in Ukraine’s well-known culture of corruption. Republicans say Trump’s motive was to protect our foreign aid from contributing to a corrupt nation that could waste US tax dollars.
Curiously, Trump and Congressional Republicans’ argument ignores that Zelensky’s top prosecutor, Lutsenko, had told Bloomberg News in a report May 16 that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.
No one, to date, has testified that Trump directed any federal employee, (excluding Giuliani, who is not a government employee) to investigate either of the Bidens. However, Trump in public statements and via Twitter has repeatedly suggested that they need to be investigated. By going public with these suggestions, he avoided a paper trail and he can legitimately claim not to have ordered government employees to investigate the Bidens. However, if you work for the executive department and you repeatedly see and hear what Trump wants through the media or through his personal attorney Giuliani, it is likely that you would act accordingly.
Joe Biden wanted to end corruption in Ukraine. Trump claims he wanted to end corruption in Ukraine. But Biden wanted to change prosecutors in order to pursue a more vigorous attack on corruption, as reflected in Zelensky’s overwhelming electoral victory. Trump wanted an investigation of Burisma for possible corruption, since it had been accused of corruption in the past. Three previous general prosecutors investigated Burisma and did not file any charges. Trump wanted Ukraine’s government to go back and look for some corruption. He also questioned the legitimacy of Hunter Biden being on the Burisma board, although no past Ukrainian prosecutor had found a reason to investigate him, including the two most recent reformist prosecutors.
Trump did not need to get a conviction of either the Burisma or the Bidens. He just needed a public statement that an investigation had begun. Trump, through Giuliani, rejected the offer that Ukrainian’s general prosecutor make such a statement. Instead, Ambassador Sondland said they were told by Giuliani that Trump wanted Ukraine’s President to make that public statement.
That would be the favor Trump wanted. Something to use in an anti-Biden media campaign. That is a request to have a foreign government sway our electoral process to benefit a particular candidate.
So, which narrative is to be believed? Hunter got a cushy job, Joe Biden got to be an anti-corruption champion. Neither benefited from US aid to Ukraine. No government official in Ukraine or the US has connected them to corruption in Ukraine. However, Trump’s claimed role as a fighter of corruption has focused solely on just the one company, Burisma, which employed Hunter Biden. Neither Trump nor Giuliani ever pursued investigating any other corrupt company in Ukraine.
Trump unambiguously asked Ukraine, both through public statements and through his personal attorney directing government employees, for an investigation that would have helped him win the 2020 presidential election. Republicans in Congress defend Trump by arguing that no Ukrainian investigation was begun on the Bidens, so Trump did not receive any benefit, i.e., no harm was done. However, Republican defenders of Trump have not shown any effort by Trump to stop corruption other than seeking to investigate the one company that employed his main opponent’s son.
The president of the United States repeatedly asking Ukraine to investigate a single company, that had already been investigated by the highest prosecutors in Ukraine, was needlessly redundant and served only to benefit his personal political interests. None of the three ambassadors familiar with Trump’s insistence on an investigation told Congress during their testimonies that it was critical to our national interests.
But will the public understand, and more importantly be concerned, that Trump’s “request” for a favor from Ukraine was an abuse of his presidential power by contorting a national policy of fighting corruption overseas in a way to serve his own political interests? If so, is it grounds for relieving him of his position as the leader of our nation?
Although only the House of Representatives can decide, it is important for citizens to have thoughtful discussions on this impeachment question. Discuss this issue with friends and foe. And share this piece with your local congressional representative as well.