The decision by Nancy Pelosi this week to finally name the ongoing congressional investigations into President Donald Trump’s behavior “impeachment investigations” has made far too many Democrats, both officials and voters, far too nervous. Will this help Trump be re-elected, they ask? Will it be a big can of worms for Joe Biden that he will carry into a general election? Will this simply end up being another victory for Trump, no matter the facts, like the Mueller Report was?
The answer to all of it is no. For one thing, the perception that impeachment proceedings will help the president is largely based on the experience of Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s impeachment was a true fishing expedition. It started with Whitewater and progressed to his lying to Congress about his sexual encounter with Monica Lewinsky. It was apparent to everyone that Ken Starr was just looking for some way to impeach Clinton, and few people really believed that his evasive answers about sex with Ms. Lewinsky (however contemptible his behavior and his and the whole country’s treatment of her was) constituted an impeachable offense.
Trump’s actions are quite different. In fact, the House would be wise to bring numerous articles of impeachment, even if they want to focus on the whistleblower report and the extortion of Ukraine. He has committed numerous acts that call for impeachment, including obstruction of justice, misappropriation of funds, violations of the emoluments clause that are too numerous to list, and the betrayal of the public trust, as in this current case with Ukraine. The lawlessness here is beyond anything any president has ever done before.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it is worse. George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, with results that continue to cascade and cost hundreds of thousands of lives to this day. Lyndon B. Johnson even more clearly lied us into a major escalation in Vietnam. Thus far, it would be a wild exaggeration to claim that anything Trump has done is worse than those acts, although his continued lies about the Iran nuclear deal and the abrogation of it could ignite something worse than either. That has not happened yet, and hopefully, it won’t.
But those acts were not going to be seen as impeachable offenses. I wish they were. I wish we had a different kind of politics, and I work every day to try to bring that about. Until then, something like the Ukraine scandal, or the Watergate break-in is what will get a president impeached.
The Democrats Are Right To Move To Impeachment
There really wasn’t a choice here anymore. There was already a very strong perception among Independents and indeed many Democrats, that the House leadership was showing clear weakness in the face of Trump’s brazen behavior. But the issue with the Ukraine and Biden is unlike anything that has come before in that Trump has basically admitted that he did exactly what he is being accused of doing: compromising a key US foreign policy program, and using that policy, military aid in this case, to convince a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election. There’s simply no way the Democrats could respond to that with more of the inaction they have pursued for the past two and a half years.
More than that, however, while it is true that impeachment is likely to die in the Senate, the process is entirely different from the Mueller report. In that case, there were months of inaction and waiting for a report that was always going to be a huge, dry, legal document. This process will involve testimony that can be immediately broadcast to the public, where they will see the substantive evidence against Trump. That will not convince any Republicans, true, but it will be very convincing to Independents — in other words the very voters who voted Obama then either voted Trump or stayed home/left president blank in 2016. Republicans will have to explain why, in the face of what we’re all seeing, they are defending Trump. That’s going to carry a cost in contested Senate and House races.
Trump’s “witch hunt” nonsense is tired. Sure, it convinces Republicans, but they’re not the issue — literally none of the Republicans who make up that 80–90% who approve of Trump’s job performance are ever going to vote against him. But by putting Trump’s crimes out there in a more digestible way (i.e. video, instead of text) and forcing Republicans to explain themselves, a lot of Independents and Never Trumpers are going to be reached.
There are other important reasons, like the fact that if impeachment is not used here, it would essentially be rendered meaningless. But of course, that doesn’t address the concern that impeachment will help Trump’s re-election.
I think the key point here is that this incident is unlike the others. Unlike the Russia issue, Trump is directly involved, and it is his actions that are under scrutiny. Moreover, the transgression in the accusation is clear. It’s not obstruction of justice, it’s using the power of the U.S. government to pressure a foreign power into involving itself in a U.S. election. That’s a much clearer abuse of power, and it doesn’t take a roomful of lawyers to suss it out. And it’s not buried in a 600-page report written in legalese.
Finally, keep in mind that Trump’s own position is going to be much weaker as he weathers this due to the economic slowdown, the increasing awareness that his foreign policy has failed on every front, the continuing failure to build a wall, etc. Most importantly, he is weakened by the fact that he has not delivered on his promise to bring manufacturing back to states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and his trade war with China has had devastating effects that are getting worse on remaining manufacturers as well as farmers. The people affected by that are not going to be distracted by impeachment.
For all these reasons, impeachment now is not only necessary, but strategically advantageous.
What About Joe?
As Trump flails about looking for his way out of this latest scandal, he has used his tried and true tool, whataboutism, targeting Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Trump claims that there needs to be an investigation of both father and son due to Hunter having been on the board of Ukraine’s largest natural gas company and being paid an exorbitant salary to be there. Trump further accused Joe Biden of pressing the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who was looking into Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
This is already proving to be a useful con game for Trump. Many on the right have been quick to jump on board the Biden conspiracy theory train and ride it at breakneck speed, sadly helped by some people who should know better (looking at you, Krystal Ball). But a con game is what it is. I take little pleasure in pointing this out. I believe very strongly that Biden is a terrible candidate, and I have made the case that Biden is more vulnerable (i.e., less electable) than most of the rest of Democratic field. But though I know I am distinctly in the minority with this opinion, I believe Trump’s accusations are going to help Biden in the primaries. When people look at all the facts, and Democratic voters will, it will be Biden, not Trump, who will appear as the aggrieved party in this race.
Let’s start with the problematic points. Hunter Biden should never have been on the board of directors of Burisma Holdings. He was paid a remarkably high salary for a board member, as high as $50,000 per month. It is, of course, not unusual for companies to pay a lot of money to high profile individuals to impress customers and business partners. This was a big sum, though, and one must believe that Burisma paid it because they believed having the son of the Vice President of the United States was going to help their business quite a bit. A smarter man than Joe Biden would have put his foot down with his son and told him not to join that board because there would be an appearance of impropriety. Indeed, Obama administration officials said at the time that Hunter should have turned down the offer.
But, while the appearance of a conflict of interest is there and is aggravated by Joe Biden’s prominent role in pressing Ukraine on corruption, no evidence of any wrongdoing exists. Ukrainian authorities investigated Burisma, but Hunter Biden was never accused of any wrongdoing. Joe Biden, along with many allied nations, pressed the Ukrainian government to crack down on corruption, and the decision to push hard on Ukraine was made, from all accounts, by many branches of the Obama administration, through normal policymaking channels.
The prosecutor, Victor Shokin, that Trump claims lost his job due to Biden’s effort to protect his son was criticized by many countries for being lax in his pursuit of corruption cases. Indeed, the investigations into Burisma and its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, were dormant by the time Biden was pushing for Shokin’s ouster, as confirmed by Shokin’s successor, his deputy at the time. So, if there was anything to find, Biden was risking greater scrutiny on his son.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Joe Biden ever interceded with Ukraine or any other foreign government to protect Hunter. It will be crucial for Democrats to beat that drum very loudly as long as Trump tries to use it to dodge the charges against him.
This indicates why I find Joe Biden to be a poor candidate who will make a terrible president. Hunter is a problem child, with a history of scandals involving his personal life, and drug and alcohol abuse. It’s obvious that, as the son of the vice president, he should not have been on the board of a Ukrainian company when his father was going to be a key figure in pressing the government in its anti-corruption efforts. It is this kind of poor judgment that shows why Joe Biden is the last thing the United States, and indeed the world, needs in a post-Trump leader.
But while he may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier and is prone to painful reminders that his thinking is stuck in the world of a privileged, moderate, white man of half a century ago, there is no evidence to support the kind of accusations Trump is making. More than that, what we do have contradicts Trump’s statements.
Yuriy Lutsenko, who stepped down as Ukraine’s lead prosecutor in August, told Bloomerg News back in May that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by Hunter Biden. He reiterated that to the Washington Post on Thursday. Around the same time in May, the Pentagon also confirmed that Ukraine was taking “substantial action” against corruption.
That was important, since Trump accused several prominent Democratic senators — Dick Durbin (IL), Patrick Leahy (VT) and Bob Menendez (NJ) — of threatening aid to Ukraine in a letter sent to the Ukrainian prosecutor if the Ukrainian government didn’t investigate Russia’s help in securing the 2016 election for Trump. In fact, the letter never even alluded to aid to Ukraine, but rather it urged Ukraine to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation after the New York Times had published an article stating that Ukraine had stopped doing so in the case of Paul Manafort in order to avoid Trump’s wrath.
Trump is weaving his usual tangled web of lies to give the appearance that Joe Biden and other Democrats did what he is accused of doing — actually, what he has already admitted he did. It’s important to keep those facts straight. Rather than abdicate our ability to do so for ourselves and for our fellow citizens, and thereby also abdicate the obviously correct course of impeachment, maybe we should simply commit ourselves to keeping those facts straight and plainly in the public view. That way, we can win in 2020 and do the right thing now.