Insane in the Ukraine

In mid-September 2019, according to The New York Times, an unidentified internal Trump administration whistleblower filed a complaint about “multiple acts” by a shitty excuse for a president Donald Trump. The whistleblower in question is part of the US intelligence community and filed this complaint back in August, which was passed to their inspector general. That inspector general determined it credible and a matter of “urgent concern” – legal standard normally requiring notifying congressional oversight committees. He then concluded the complaint, “relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.” However, Trump’s acting national intelligence director stepped in to block key congressional committee chairs from receiving the whistleblower complaint’s details, which remain murky. An act some legal analysts claim is breaking the law.

Now despite the murky details, the whistleblower’s complaint reportedly involves a broader set of events than a single phone call. But not surprisingly, the Trump administration is trying to prevent further info from coming to light. For some time, it’s been rumored Donald Trump tried pressuring Ukraine’s government into launching an investigation of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden, possibly by withholding military aid to the country unless they complied. On August 28, 2019, Politico reported that the Trump administration was, “slow-walking $250 million in military assistance to Ukraine.” According to the site, Trump had personally asked his national security team to review the program, supposedly to ensure the money was being spent on American interests, writing, “The funds for Ukraine can’t be spent while they’re under review and the money expires at the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.” Now it’s not confirmed if the whistleblower complaint has anything to with this Ukranian debacle, but both cases seem closely related.

Naturally given Donald Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladmir Putin and Russia’s war with Ukraine, critics instantly accused him of supporting Putin’s policies again. On September 5, 2019, Washington Post editorial claimed they’ve been told that Trump was trying to force the Ukranian government to investigate Joe Biden. They write:
“Some suspect Mr. Trump is once again catering to Mr. Putin, who is dedicated to undermining Ukrainian democracy and independence. But we’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.”

During a September 2 press conference in Warsaw, Associated Press’ Jill Colvin asked Vice President Mike Pence, “Can you assure Ukraine that the hold-up of that money has absolutely nothing to do with efforts, including by Rudy Giuliani, to try to dig up dirt on the Biden family?” Pence conspicuously didn’t make that kind of assurance. Instead, he replied, “as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.” However, the notion that the Trump administration has any great concern about corruption issues is basically akin to Pig Pen having any concern about personal hygiene. Because we all know that Trump and his cronies engage in corruption on a regular basis that the swamp he’s promised to drain has now become a reeking cesspit of hazardous waste. Hell, the only time the Trump administration shows any concern about corruption is when it pertains to someone they don’t like because it makes them look bad. So naturally, they’re looking for dirt.

On Friday, September 20, 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that, during a July phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Donald Trump pressured him “about eight times” to work with his sell out lawyer Rudy Giuliani on an investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter. That Thursday, Giuliani tweeted that if Trump told Ukraine to “investigate corruption that affects US” he’d just be “doing his job,” and complaining that “the Biden Family… bilked millions from Ukraine.” He even later confirmed that he himself has been trying to get Ukraine to investigate Biden. Strange Trump didn’t call the Ukrainian government to investigate his own campaign manager Paul Manafort back in 2016, because he actually bilked millions from the Ukraine and is serving prison time for it. However, if Trump did this as president, it would be a shockingly corrupt use of his foreign policy powers. Since he’s basically demanding a foreign country intervene in the 2020 election by digging up dirt on a potential opponent, or have its security put at risk.
The idea that Donald Trump’s team would try getting the Ukranian government to investigate Joe Biden’s family isn’t just theoretical. Even Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has openly admitted he’s been doing just that. As he told the New York Times in May, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do.” Ukraine-related corruption has already played an outsized role in Trump scandals. Paul Manafort’s prosecution for financial and lobbying crimes related to his work for a former Ukranian regime was a major part of the Mueller probe. And during the summer of 2016 back when Manafort was Trump’s campaign chair, he was plagued by reports that the Ukranian government was looking into his payments. So Donald Trump’s team apparently has the idea to try and cook up a similar scandal involving Joe Biden.

The details relate to Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son Hunter who joined a Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma’s board in 2014. Now the company’s owner was under investigation for corruption and money laundering. Two years later, Ukraine’s prosecutor general Viktor Shokin was fired, after pressure from Vice President Biden and other Western officials along with many Ukrainian officials and citizens. Biden just happened to have the loudest voice. Shokin has reportedly claimed he was pushed out because he was investigating Burisma’s payments to Hunter Biden. However, the New York Times writes, “there is no credible evidence that Biden sought Shokin’s removal in order to protect Hunter.” Instead, the rationale was said he wasn’t doing enough to investigate the corruption. Now, in an effort to cause political problems in Biden’s 2020 campaign, Giuliani has been pushing the new Ukrainian government to open an investigation into the Biden matter, as well as whether there was any foul play in the earlier Ukrainian Manafort investigation. Giuliani confirmed he was doing all this to the Times back in May. The effort continued through August. But Giuliani was cagey in Trump’s personal role in the scheme. He told the Times in May that Trump supports his endeavors and “he basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer.” In August, he told the Times he was just acting as a private citizen. Despite that State Department officials were involved in Giuliani’s communications with Ukrainian officials for some reason.

Now that Donald Trump has all but openly admitted that he pushed Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Congress must impeach him. Impeaching Trump over Robert Mueller’s findings in the Russia investigation would’ve been an attempt to address past offenses. Impeaching Trump over these calls would be an attempt to halt what surely resembles an ongoing attempt to hijack American foreign policy in service of his reelection. Democrats are obligated to stop this before it gets any further. Sure, impeachment is virtually guaranteed to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate so there’s no real chance of actually removing Trump from office. Public opinion about the Russian scandal became more set along partisan lines as time went on, making it unlikely that drawing attention to it would galvanize the public against Trump in 2020. Since that would risk distracting Democrats on which Trump is genuinely unpopular like on healthcare and climate change and jeopardize the House Democratic majority with marginal gain.

But the new Ukraine scandal challenges this logic. There is now an obvious and immediate pragmatic upside to impeachment: stopping an ongoing abuse of presidential power that could undermine the 2020 election’s integrity. Thanks to an intelligence community whistleblower, investigative journalists, and Donald Trump’s own public statements, Trump seems to have repeatedly attempted to convince the Ukranian government to open an investigation into Hunter Biden’s Ukraine business dealings and Joe Biden’s alleged involvement in protecting his son from prosecutorial attention. But there’s no evidence of illegal conduct by either Biden in the Ukraine dealings. Hunter’s partnership with a corrupt Ukranian oligarch was arguably unethical. But there’s no reason to believe his dad was involved in it. Still, even if either Biden was implicated in anything illegal, Trump’s actions would still be as impeachable. Because he’s trying to get a foreign power to investigate a potential political opponent on the pretense of turning Biden’s fake Ukraine scandal into “her emails” 2.0. Thus, he actively working to weaponize the presidency to boost his political fortunes.

Hell, it may be even worse. Donald Trump himself has linked the Biden issue to US to Ukraine aide. On Sunday, he told reporters, he “had every right” to push Ukraine about Joe Biden because “we don’t want a country that we’re giving massive aid to be corrupting our system.” If Trump threatened to condition aid to Ukraine on its Biden investigation, then he’s been nakedly twisting US foreign policy to suit his own ends. This is a grotesque and seemingly ongoing abuse of power with potential implications for an election’s integrity next year. Whereas the Russia investigation an attempt to find out exactly what happened in a prior election, the Ukraine scandal reflects Trump’s contemporary and future-looking behavior. Given that the goal is no longer retrospective accountability, this dramatically changes the logic of impeachment. Since it’s now about stopping his current behavior. The hope would be that impeachment would bring so much attention and scrutiny to Trump’s Ukraine push that he can’t get away with undermining another election.

Any impeachment proceeding would be the story in American politics, sucking up media attention and congressional investigative resources. A House majority vote to impeach would lead to a trial in the Senate, attracting more scrutiny even if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to take the proceedings seriously. The aim would be to prevent Trump from making some kind of shady, behind-the-scenes agreement with some Ukrainian authorities and make him think twice about any other similar scheme for using his powers for electoral gain. Such level of attention seems like the best available tool for preventing Donald Trump from continuing his efforts to undermine the 2020 election. Moreover, such high levels of press coverage and partisan furor would also make it harder to imagine the Ukrainian government would make any corrupt deal with Trump. Democratic posturing would serve as a counterweight to Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, signaling the country’s leadership that any cooperation with Trump’s inappropriate demands could seriously fray relations with the US in the next administration. Under this logic, it doesn’t matter if impeachment will invariably fail in the Senate. Just shining a light on Trump’s misbehavior will limit his freedom to act. Because if you have a president actively trying to abuse his power in order to invite foreign meddling in the next presidential election, you need to do what you can to stop him. Impeachment is the biggest and most powerful tool in the Democrats’ inventory. Because impeaching Trump is about signaling that his conduct is unacceptable as well trying to impose accountability on him and setting a standard for future ones.

Should impeachment be used not only to signal disapproval but actually work to head off an ongoing threat to American democracy, then the normative power of the proceedings might be reestablished. They won’t just be futile raging at American politics’ debased nature under Donald Trump, but an effective means of actually changing these politics for the better. For Trump’s impeachment to actually serve as a means of accountability to show future officeholders that misbehavior carries costs, there needs to be actual bite to them. Otherwise, they really risk sending the opposite intended signal that nothing really matters and that the president can do whatever he wants as long as at least 34 senators support him. But if impeachment can plausibly constrains Donald Trump, preventing him from engaging in abuse of power for political gain, then the Trump administration’s lesson would be that actions carry consequences, that Congress’ ultimate constitutional power can still be used to rein in a president even in a political environment seemingly defined by extreme partisanship. Furthermore, impeachment sends the strongest and most high-profile signal possible that Trump’s actions are unacceptable, both now and to future presidents.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s behavior in this Ukraine situation should worry anyone who cares about the health of American democracy. If this isn’t impeachable behavior, then I don’t know what is. Could impeachment potentially rein in Trump? I’m not sure since Trump never learns from his misconduct. But it will limit him on what he can get away with. Will a formal impeachment inquiry hurt the House Democrats’ chances to retain the House? Who knows. But seeing how the Ukraine scandal drove a painful reality home of an emboldened Trump appearing to meddle in an upcoming US election again, right before our eyes, Congress must impeach.

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