WASHINGTON, D.C.—Who’s winning?
Now that a dozen witnesses have testified before hearings on the possible impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump, and with no more currently scheduled to appear, you might be tempted to ask. Is it time to render a judgment?
Trump seems ready to declare victory. “It’s all over,” he said Wednesday, saying he’d been entirely vindicated. “I think we have to end it now.”
Former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week she also thought it was over, but with a different conclusion, “As to impeachment itself, the case has been so clearly made you wonder what exactly the Senate will be left doing. How will they hold a lengthy trial with a case this clear?”
But if you’re waiting on an official verdict, get comfortable.
“If you really wanted to guess, I’m thinking this lasts at least until March,” Paul Rosenweig, a senior fellow at the conservative R Street think tank, told a crowded and lively town hall audience at a high school in Alexandria, Va. on Thursday.
This ain’t close to over, officially.
But the primary case has been made, and what’s alleged to have happened has been articulated. It’s possible to review what’s happened so far and see where the case against the president stands.
On the validity of the primary initial allegation that the president demanded investigations that would benefit him politically, there is no doubt.
In a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump asked for “a favour”: that Ukraine investigate a conspiracy theory that it was Ukrainians who interfered in the 2016 election, not the Russians, and further to launch an investigation into then-2020 Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden and his son Hunter. A reconstructed transcript of the call released by the White House which Trump has insistently urged people to read explicitly shows him making this request.
And testimony over the past two weeks has made clear this wasn’t a passing impulse: witnesses consistently painted a picture of the campaign to get Ukraine to publicly announce these investigations as a key Trump foreign policy objective, something various top U.S. government officials were working with Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to obtain.
George Kent, a senior official in the State Department supervising Ukraine relations, testified it was an effort to “gin up politically motivated investigations” that “infected” U.S. policy toward the country.
It is almost as clear that the demand for those investigations was made a condition of getting a meeting with Trump at the White House the Ukrainians desperately wanted. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s appointee as ambassador to the European Union who was at the centre of negotiations with Ukraine testified that there was a “quid pro quo” in which a meeting was conditioned on a public announcement of the investigations.
There’s plenty of evidence, though somewhat less conclusive, about whether almost $400 million in military aid Ukraine needed for the war it is fighting against a Russian invasion was also being held up until the investigations were announced. Sondland testified that it also seemed “abundantly clear” that was the case — and that he told Ukrainians he thought that.
The aid was definitely being held up. And we know from multiple witnesses that Ukraine was aware of it, and was desperately asking about it, including on the day of the call between Trump and Zelenskiy.
Bill Taylor, a top Ukraine diplomat, texted Sondland at one point his understanding and opinion: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Outside the hearing room, confirmation seemed to come from the White House: Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who conveyed the order to suspend Ukrainian aid, told a press conference last month that Trump had mentioned the theory about the 2016 election to him in connection with the aid, “And that’s why we held up the money.” He went on to say, “And I have news for everybody. Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
But he walked it back. He later said he had been misinterpreted, and that there was “never any connection between the flow of money” and the investigation.
And Republicans on the committee have emphasized that neither Sondland nor anyone else testified that Trump directly told them the aid was conditional on the investigations — Sondland repeatedly testified he “presumed” it in the absence of other explanations.
Moreover, Sondland testified that when he called Trump on Sept. 9 to ask directly what he wanted from Zelenskiy, Trump said, “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing.”
This is maybe less convincing than it might be, given that this conversation happened after the White House was aware that the whistle-blower complaint had been filed and that congress was going to investigate it. Same for the release of the aid without an investigation announcement two days later.
An obstruction of justice charge seems sure to be added to the list of charges, and how you evaluate that is going to depend on whether you think the president has the right to keep witnesses who worked directly for him from testifying and to keep documents from being submitted as evidence.
So who’s gonna win?
It depends a lot on how you judge victory. To skip to the likely conclusion first, most observers think it is close to a slam-dunk certainty that the house (controlled by the Democrats) will vote to impeach, and that the senate (controlled by Republicans) will vote to acquit him after a trial.
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Which means he stays in office, at least until the November 2020 election. You could call that a win for Trump.
But then he’d have to win that election, and how this will affect that race is hard to know. It’s possible the allegations and the vote to impeach taints Trump in the eyes of voters, or has already tainted him. Polls have shown a slight majority of voters support impeachment.
It’s also possible it helps him — Trump’s base is very loyal, and will want to take revenge on Democrats after what they view as an unfair process.
After being impeached in the house and then acquitted in the Senate, Bill Clinton enjoyed greater popularity in polls than he had at any time before.
It’s hard to tell, beyond the likelihood that both those convinced of Trump’s guilt and those convinced of his innocence will be riled up to vote.
Many people feel, and Democrats have consistently argued, that the real victory at stake here is moral: that there’s a constitutional responsibility to hold the president to account, and that the odds of victory in the Senate or in the election shouldn’t factor into it.
So should they impeach him, on the evidence? As I’ve said, it seems the case has been persuasively made that Trump solicited foreign help in the elections, that he was bargaining a White House meeting for that help, and that he very likely also withheld aid for the same reason — if he never made it explicit, certainly Ukrainians were feeling pressure from the understanding of Trump’s representatives that was the case.
As I wrote in October, experts say soliciting foreign interference in an election campaign is itself, even in the absence of anything offered in exchange, possibly impeachable, and that standard has clearly been met.
But there is the matter of judging the severity of the offence — especially if you aren’t convinced withholding the aid was part of the attempted bargain.
“There is an idea about a quantum of seriousness and impeachment,” Scott Anderson, a senior editor of the national security publication Lawfare, told the Alexandria town hall meeting. “So, you know, run a red light, maybe you can’t prosecute the president if he doesn’t pay his ticket. Are you going to impeach him for that? Probably not.”
Or as Republican Rep. Mike Turner said during the hearing Thursday, “You guys want to be the laughing stock of history to impeach a president because he didn’t take a meeting?”
If you see it as just a meeting, then it seems trivial. If you see it as a president weaponizing the foreign policy apparatus he controls to dig up campaign dirt, there could hardly be a more serious scandal.
Where it goes from here
The hearings have not officially concluded. There are several witnesses whose testimony might be useful — including Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton — whose testimony has been blocked by the White House. A court process to compel their testimony could take years, so the committee is unlikely to pursue them, but would instead roll their absence into a charge of obstruction.
Once this investigative hearing phase is officially over, a report will be filed to the judiciary committee, who would then draw up articles of impeachment, and then the full House of Representatives would vote on them. Then, the senate would decide on the form of a trial — Clinton’s trial took four weeks, but there is no standard format or timeline. Then the senate would vote, leading to Rosenweig’s guess at the town hall of a possible March conclusion. “Just a guess,” he emphasized.
If that seems far off, Rosenweig had more: if the senate were to convict and remove Trump from office, he said it was “legally plausible” that he could still be nominated as the Republican candidate and run again in the November 2020 election, unless the senate explicitly included a clause in its verdict forbidding him from running again. “Legal, not practical,” he said.
Still, it’s another indication that whatever your tally sheet may say right now, it seems possible we won’t know who really won until after the election next year, when the American public gets to render its own judgment.
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