Americans can be excused for wondering why, of all the possible reasons for subjecting President Trump to an impeachment inquiry, Democrats in the House are focusing on the president’s interactions with the leader of a relatively small country that is not terribly well known or well understood in the United States. Could most Americans even find Ukraine on a map?
But the accusations against Trump — including the claim that he held up hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed, congressionally appropriated foreign aid for Ukraine in an effort to extort a personal political favor from that country’s president — are the very sort of misconduct for which the impeachment remedy exists. In the Federalist Papers urging ratification of the U.S Constitution, Alexander Hamilton described an impeachable offense as “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
When the impeachment inquiry moves from closed-door depositions to public hearings in the coming days, the Democrats who are leading the investigation must explain to the public why the president’s actions in relation to Ukraine satisfy that definition.
That will be challenging because of the complexity of the unfolding narrative, the large cast of characters and the fact that the actions for which Trump is being investigated involve the conduct of foreign policy, a realm in which the president has traditionally enjoyed considerable latitude.
Democrats must also contend with Trump’s almost daily disinformation campaign and the fact that House Republicans are behaving not as independent investigators but as defense lawyers for a president with an excitable base they are afraid of antagonizing.
The best way to dispel the fog and convey the gravity of the situation is to concentrate on the central issue in this inquiry: the allegation that Trump used his leverage as president of the world’s most powerful country and the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to induce a foreign country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s domestic political rivals, and to lend credence to a narrative that serves the president’s domestic political purposes. In holding up the aid, Trump put Ukraine at risk in its ongoing conflicts with Russia and its efforts to liberalize and democratize; presumably, holding up aid authorized by Congress was also counter to America’s own national security interests.
The idea that a president would abuse his authority in that way ought to outrage Americans regardless of their political allegiances. The columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently suggested that Trump supporters ask themselves this question: “Is it acceptable that an American president muscle an ally in this way for personal political gain? If that is OK then it’s OK in the future when there’s a Democratic president, right?”
The president and his supporters have suggested repeatedly that House Democrats are improperly using the impeachment process in an attempt to “overturn” the results of the 2016 election. The best way to counter that assertion is for the House intelligence and judiciary committees to focus on the key issue. They have plenty to work with — beginning with Trump’s own words in his July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump has described that call as “perfect,” but it’s actually appalling. After reminding Zelensky that “we do a lot for Ukraine,” Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to investigate a conspiracy theory that Ukraine had some connection to the hacking of Democratic emails in 2016. Then Trump suggested that Zelensky speak to Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer and television apologist, who has been urging Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden. Trump added that there was a “lot of talk” about Biden as vice president stopping the prosecution of a company on which his son Hunter served as a director. (That too appears to be a conspiracy theory without foundation.)
Since a rough transcript of the Trump-Zelensky conversation was released, a series of witnesses have given depositions to House investigators that lend credence to the notion that the delivery of the U.S. aid to Ukraine was made contingent on an agreement by that country to announce an investigation of the Bidens —the much-discussed “quid pro quo.” This week, Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, amended his prior testimony to make it clear that he told Ukrainian officials they likely wouldn’t receive the aid if they didn’t publicly commit to conducting the investigations sought by Trump.
These witnesses have testified despite Trump’s orders that they not to cooperate with the investigation, a transparent effort to impede its progress. Democrats should now make sure that these witnesses repeat their private testimonies in public, and should continue to seek testimony from other key figures, including former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton. The more Democrats focus on the question of abuse of power, the harder it will be to characterize their investigation as a partisan witch hunt.