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Impeachment Remains Dicey for Democrats

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After two weeks of public impeachment hearings, the House Intelligence Committee has produced a clear record of a scheme, involving officials from President Donald Trump on down, to improperly use Ukraine to smear former Vice President Joe Biden. The ploy involved pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate, or at least talk about investigating, false claims that Ukraine played some role in the 2016 U.S. election — claims intended to undermine the true story of Russian interference.

On Thursday, the former National Security Council director for Europe and Russia, Fiona Hill, summed it all up. Speaking of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who testified a day earlier that Trump’s demands of Ukraine amounted to an explicit quid pro quo, Hill said: “He was being involved in a domestic political errand” disguised as national-security policy.

Hill’s testimony was admirably blunt, but it didn’t really add factual detail to what’s already known about Trump’s July 25 telephone call in which he dangled an Oval Office visit while asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to do him the “favor” of investigating Biden, a leading Democratic rival.

Some facts remain in dispute, but none of them are particularly relevant to impeachment. For example, Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, denied that they knew that investigations being demanded into the Ukrainian energy company Burisma were really aimed at Biden (his son was on the company’s board), while other witnesses maintained that everyone involved understood the connection. But as it turns out, it doesn’t really matter what Sondland and Volker thought because Trump clearly asked about Biden, and not Burisma, in the July 25 call. So it’s a fact that both Trump and the Ukrainians knew what it was about, whatever others thought. 

Similarly there’s some question about whether various U.S. actors knew that military aid was being withheld, and when Ukraine learned that delivery of the congressionally approved aid had been put on hold. But there’s no doubt that Ukraine wanted the Oval Office meeting at least as much as it wanted the aid. And there’s no remaining doubt that Trump knew about the military aid. 

Republican hand-waving aside — Ohio’s Michael Turner at one point on Thursday sneered at the notion that Trump could be impeached over not “taking a meeting,” as if summits with the U.S. president couldn’t possibly be important — there’s really not much in the way of a substantive Republican challenge to the factual narrative. Republicans vented outrage over the failure of Democrats to call for testimony by the whistle-blower who gave the first account of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call, but many witnesses confirmed the whistle-blower’s allegations. So the whistle-blower’s testimony would be as irrelevant as that of a witness who calls the police on an anonymous tip line. Sure, the witness may be biased, but either the tip checks out or not. This one does. 

The end of this first phase of public testimony, however, leaves Democrats facing tough decisions. Public opinion hasn’t moved. Trump remains unpopular, but not so much that dumping him is an urgent short-term interest for congressional Republicans. And there certainly hasn’t been any public indication that House Republicans are open to impeachment or hints of Republican defections in the Senate, let alone enough of them to produce the 20 Republican votes that would be needed alongside all the Democrats to reach the two-thirds needed for removal. 

Now Democrats must decide whether to move directly to writing articles of impeachment or keep fighting for more information from administration figures and allies like Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who have stonewalled them so far. Whether to limit articles of impeachment to only the Ukraine story, or to incorporate other charges such as obstructing investigations into Russian campaign interference, violations of the emolument clause of the Constitution, and other abuses of power. Whether to move quickly or to wait for cracks in Republican support. In doing so, they will and should consider both the importance of the facts and of the politics of the situation.

In some sense, the downside of impeachment for Democrats hasn’t changed from what it was months ago. It would transfer procedural control from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We don’t know what Senate Republicans would do, but it’s clear that House Republicans, if given the chance, would have turned this week’s hearings into bogus investigations of Joe Biden and debunked conspiracy theories about the 2016 elections that Trump was trying to promote in the first place. And then there's the strong likelihood that impeachment will end with Senate acquittal and a president who believes he is free of any future danger no matter what he does given how hard it is to imagine a second round of impeachment drama. 

On the other hand? There’s the argument that failing to impeach would also send a message to the president that he is invulnerable. And that’s particularly dangerous given that the Ukraine scheme was, after all, an effort to produce stories that would help Trump in the 2020 election. Democrats are not wrong to feel that it is urgent to deter Trump from trying again.

Democrats so far have done a solid job of producing evidence to prove their case. It may turn out that this was the easy part.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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