Public support for the Democrat impeachment initiative seems to have stalled following two weeks of nationally publicized “open” hearings which failed to provide any new direct evidence that President Trump violated the law or committed an impeachable offense in delaying the release of $391 million in US military aid to Ukraine or in scheduling a face-to-face meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The impeachment effort was initiated by a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s request for a “favor” from Zelensky during a July 25 phone call between the two presidents. Trump asked Zelensky for an investigation which would “get to the bottom” of allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and suspicions that then-Vice President Joe Biden improperly pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who was investigating a Ukrainian natural gas company that was paying Biden’s son, Hunter, at least $50,000 a month to sit on its board.
The whistleblower’s complaint, based entirely on second-hand information, claimed that Trump had offered Zelensky an illegal quid pro quo exchange, If the Ukrainian president agreed to launch a corruption investigation of Joe Biden, Trump’s likely 2020 Democrat opponent, Trump would release the frozen US military aid and fulfill his promise to grant Zelensky a face-to-face meeting.
RUSSIAGATE DEJA VU
In other words, Trump is being accused, again, of attempting to “collude” with a foreign power – in this case, poor war-torn Ukraine, rather than the evil Russians – to influence an American election.
It took two years, $32 million, 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents and other staff, 2,800 subpoenas, and 500 witnesses for a special counsel to “not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” according to the Mueller report. Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff are trying to make the same case again – same target, same accusation, but this time with a different co-conspirator. They are also rushing to complete the process before the end of the year, hoping the American people won’t notice that the current case against Trump is just as lacking in direct evidence of guilt as the previous one.
The Democrats’ claim this time is that Trump’s admitted interest in having Ukraine investigate corruption allegations against the Bidens is sufficient proof that he did not have a legitimate reason for temporarily holding up aid to Ukraine. They are saying that Trump deserves to be removed from office because he is “guilty” of the non-crime of seeking to use the normal powers and functions of the presidency for his political advantage, as every other US president had done before him.
THE FAILURE OF A WORN-OUT STRATEGY
Schiff’s efforts to build a case for impeaching Donald Trump in secret hearings in which Republicans were not given the right to call their own witnesses to defend their president, or even to mention the name of his main accuser, are being seen by the American public as highly partisan and inherently unfair. Schiff’s public relations strategy of character assassination through leaks to the anti-Trump media had already been discredited by overuse during the two year-long Russian collusion hoax investigation. The multiple retractions issued by formerly prestigious media news outlets, admitting that their “bombshell” headlines leading to confident predictions of Trump’s imminent demise were wrong, severely undermined their credibility. This has also caused many members of the American public who are not already convinced that Trump is evil to be highly skeptical of the latest accusations by his enemies.
This helps to explain a surprising finding that is deeply troubling to the Democrats leading the impeachment effort. If the public had paid any attention to the six weeks of Schiff’s committee hearings – whose mainstream national news coverage was dominated by carefully selected leaks of “secret” testimony from Democrat sources, and five days of televised show trials presenting one-sided evidence of Trump’s guilt – one might expect the country to be outraged and demand that the Senate convict the president for committing near-treasonous impeachable offenses that defy the US Constitution and undermine the rule of law.
But that is not what happened. Because Democrats, once again, were unable to present any clear evidence that Trump had committed a recognizable crime of any kind with respect to Ukraine, the president’s standing in the eyes of the public actually improved. A widely respected new poll of voters in Wisconsin, a crucial Electoral College swing state, found that Trump has overtaken and is now leading all of his main Democrat opponents, prompting two new Democrats to enter the race for the nomination at this late stage. In addition, Trump’s national popularity, as measured by Gallup, is at or near its highest point since the start of his presidency.
UNCOMMITTED VOTERS REFUSE TO BE FOOLED AGAIN
The explanation is simple. The American people have learned the appropriate lessons from the two years wasted by Democrats hyping the Trump-Russian collusion hoax. Those who have not yet drunk from the anti-Trump Kool-Aid served up by the mainstream media are rightfully skeptical of Schiff’s congressional show trial, which his nemesis, ranking Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, has dismissed as a “low rent Ukrainian sequel” to the Mueller investigation.
Schiff apparently realized that after five days of endless show trial hearings which tried but failed to prove Trump’s guilt, his message that Trump had to be impeached wasn’t getting across to the American people. In a highly emotional but not very convincing closing argument at the end of the last televised hearing, Schiff, in desperation, repeated the thoroughly discredited accusation that Donald Trump had illegally colluded with the Russians to influence the 2016 elections and then tried to get the president of Ukraine to do the same by interfering with the 2020 presidential election.
Schiff was also highly critical of House and Senate Republicans who, with only one exception, have remained quietly united in opposition to the impeachment effort. In his closing statement, Schiff asked “Where is Howard Baker?” who was the ranking Republican member of the Senate Watergate Committee during its 1973 hearings who became famous for repeatedly asking every member of Richard Nixon’s administration called to testify, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
NO WATERGATE LEVEL BOMBSHELLS
Schiff was hopeful that his hearings would reveal new evidence to buttress the impeachment case against Trump, as happened during the Watergate hearings. The White House Counsel for President Nixon, John Dean, refused to participate in the White House coverup, and gave damaging testimony about the president. Nixon’s deputy assistant, Alexander Butterfield, had also revealed in startling testimony to the committee the existence of a system to secretly record every conversation in the Oval Office. The publication of the transcripts of those secret tapes, as ordered by a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, ultimately forced Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace.
But there would be no such bombshells of breakthrough testimony against Trump from the witnesses in Schiff’s hearings, in part because Schiff and Pelosi were in a hurry to get the House to pass articles of impeachment before the start of 2020, when the Democrat presidential primary race would move into high gear.
Members of Trump’s inner circle, including Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who had firsthand knowledge of the reasons behind Trump’s decisions to temporarily withhold the military aid from Ukraine and delay meeting with Zelensky, were subpoenaed to testify.
But all of them, with the exception of US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and former State Department special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, obeyed White House instructions to fight the subpoenas in court. Schiff and Pelosi feared that it would take too long to get the courts to enforce the subpoenas, so they made a strategic decision to do without the other officials’ testimony, at least at this stage of the impeachment process. But this also deprived Schiff’s hearings of the potential to uncover bombshell revelations proving Trump’s guilt.
SONDLAND’S MIXED TESTIMONY
Sondland had been forced to correct a relatively minor misstatement in his original secret testimony, and Trump’s opponents had hoped that under intense questioning in his public hearing, he would testify to something that Democrats could point to as hard evidence of Trump’s guilt. Sondland did testify that Trump had told him that he would not give Zelensky the Oval Office meeting he wanted until the Ukrainian president agreed to his demand to launch a comprehensive corruption investigation into alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election and the Biden/Burisma connection.
This was somewhat less than the smoking gun evidence that Schiff had been hoping for. Sondland refused to say that Zelensky’s agreement to launch the corruption probe was also Trump’s condition for releasing the $391 million in frozen US aid, which sounds much more like a real bribe than offering to meet the Ukrainian president. Sondland said that he now believes that Trump did want Zelensky to commit to the corruption investigation before releasing the frozen aid, but insisted that nobody had ever told him that explicitly and the belief is based solely on his logical deductions.
But at least Sondland’s statement that Trump was insisting on the investigation before approving a White House meeting was something that Schiff could tout as new evidence that the president had offered Zelensky some kind of improper quid pro quo, even if it did sound like a routine White House foreign policy exchange.
However, Sondland’s testimony at the public hearing also included his statement that when he had asked Trump bluntly during a brief September phone call, “What do you want from Ukraine?” Trump responded emphatically “I want nothing, I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo…. I just want Zelensky to do what is right, to do what he ran on,” i.e. cleaning up Ukraine’s notorious corruption. It was a directly exculpatory statement which, if true, revealed that Trump’s request was not corruptly motivated, and will help his defenders if the Senate does eventually put him on trial.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO QUESTION BOLTON
An example of the opportunity that Schiff missed to get the explosive evidence that he was seeking against Trump came from the testimony by NSC staffer Fiona Hill about the reaction that she read in the body language of then-National Security Advisor John Bolton when he first heard from Ambassador Sondland in July that Trump had agreed to meet with Zelensky in return for the Ukrainian president’s agreement to launch a corruption investigation. Hill said that Bolton stiffened and immediately found an excuse to cut the meeting short. Immediately after the meeting, Hill said that Bolton told her to see senior NSC lawyer John Eisenberg and tell him that Bolton “was not part of whatever drug deal” Sondland and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up with Ukraine.
However, because Bolton rejected the subpoena obligating him to testify before Schiff’s committee, Bolton was never asked under oath to confirm Hill’s interpretation of his reaction to what he had heard from Sondland and further explain his objections to the proposed meeting between Trump and Zelensky.
After the public hearings were over, Schiff expressed regret that Bolton had apparently decided to save his criticisms of decision-making at the highest level of the Trump administration for a book he is writing instead of sharing them with his committee.
According to conservative columnist Roger Kimball, Schiff’s unimaginative strategy was to “selectively leak to create a fog, a miasma of vaguely negative-sounding ‘facts’ or allegations that seem ominous but also too complex and in-the-weeds for ordinary folk to follow. Then publicly ‘confirm’ those leaks as the authoritative account of the ‘scandal.’”
The obvious weakness in Schiff’s execution of that strategy was that there was very little testimony accusing Trump of wrongdoing that was not based on hearsay evidence and negative interpretations by the testifying witnesses about Trump’s motives.
REVENGE OF THE FRUSTRATED DIPLOMATS
With the exception of Ambassador Sondland, none of the witnesses had ever discussed US policy towards Ukraine directly with the only man who had the sole constitutional authority to make it: President Trump. Sondland and Volker were the only witnesses who were part of the small group of advisors, headed by Rudy Giuliani. After Giuliani convinced Trump that the Obama-appointed US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, should be removed from her post in May for failing to give the president her full support, Giuliani’s group became the dominant influence on Trump’s policies towards Ukraine.
This caused a tremendous amount of resentment among the career diplomats, State Department officials and members of the national security establishment who had formed a consensus among themselves which determined America’s policy toward the pro-Western Ukrainian government since its formation five years ago. These included former Ambassador William Taylor, deputy assistant Secretary of State for Eastern Europe George Kent, National Security Council Ukraine specialist Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, former NSC advisor on US policy toward Russia and Europe Fiona Hill, State Department advisor to Vice President Mike Pence on European and Russian affairs Jennifer Williams, and Tim Morrison, who took over Fiona Hills’ position at the NSC after she resigned in August of this year.
Some of them had listened in to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, while others had learned about what was said on the call secondhand, or from the rough transcript the White House released on September 25. Several claimed in their testimony to have been “responsible,” in one way or another, for US policy towards Ukraine, and were openly resentful of the growing influence of Giuliani’s informal groups of advisors, which included Rick Perry, in addition to Sondland and Volker.
Schiff and his committee paid special attention to the role that Giuliani and his advisors played in convincing Trump to fire Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine, and to the complaints from other career State Department officials at how she had been mistreated. Schiff invited Yovanovitch to give a full day of televised testimony to defend her record as ambassador and to create public resentment towards Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for their resistance to requests from the foreign policy establishment, especially Ambassador Taylor, to intercede with the president on the embattled ambassador’s behalf.
EVERYONE AGREED THAT TRUMP SHOULD BE IN CHARGE
Yovanovitch did prove to be a sympathetic witness, who appeared to be genuinely puzzled about why Trump had fired her. It took patient, determined questioning from Nunes and other Republicans during the public hearing to force her to admit that she served as ambassador at the pleasure of the president, who had the legal authority to fire her at any time without having to state a reason.
Another witness for whom Schiff had high hopes was Lt. Colonel Vindman, who had been a holdover NSC advisor on Ukraine from the Obama administration. Trump was harshly criticized by Democrats for publicly attacking Vindman, a highly decorated military officer, and questioning his patriotism, after portions of his earlier “secret” testimony to the committee which criticized the president’s decision to delay aid to Ukraine and the accuracy of the White House summary of the July phone call were leaked by Democrats to the media.
Vindman explained that he was deeply troubled by Trump’s decision to temporarily delay the transfer of military aid to Ukraine, a democratic country fighting blatant Russian aggression. But he also admitted under committee questioning that President Trump clearly has the legal authority under the Constitution to impose such a delay without seeking the approval or opinion of any other official in the federal government.
In other words, as president, Trump was under no obligation to acquiesce to the groupthink offered by the career State Department and NSC officials who fully expected him to continue unquestioned US support for a newly-elected and totally untested Ukrainian government, just because that country had been fighting for five years an ongoing military invasion from Russia.
Vindman and Williams both testified that they were disturbed by what they heard when they listened in on the July phone call. Williams called the contents of the call “unusual” but did not take her concerns any further. In his testimony, Vindman declared Trump’s discussion with Zelensky to be “inappropriate and improper” and filed a report of his objections up the chain of command to a lawyer for the NSC.
But the impact of all the negative innuendos and assumptions about Trump’s motives in the testimony of the witnesses was put in perspective by Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe, who was one of the most effective voices raised in the president’s defense during the hearings. He started by stating that any impeachment case must be clear, overwhelming and compelling in order to succeed. He noted that none of the witnesses ever used the Democrats’ preferred accusatory word, “bribery,” to characterize the conversation between Trump and Zelensky. Ratcliffe then concluded that after comparing the transcripts of all the witness testimony, “there is no consensus” about what they heard.
A RATIONALE FOR HOLDING BACK ON US AID TO UKRAINE
In retrospect, Trump’s reluctance to confront the Russians over the independence of Ukraine should not have come as a surprise. Trump had argued as a presidential candidate that the US should be careful of expanding its foreign military commitments. He also said that a successful effort to end the ongoing confrontation between Putin’s Russia and the United States would help to solve many of the other strategic and diplomatic problems the US country faces.
There is also an important difference between US support for the independence of the current Ukrainian government and America’s mutual treaty commitment to the military defense of other members of the NATO alliance if they are attacked. Former member states of the Soviet Union which have won their freedom, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as former Soviet Union Iron Curtain allies such as Hungary and Poland, have recent histories of independence and were never considered to be an integral part of the Russian national homeland. But Ukraine and Belarus are different in that respect. They share ancient historical and cultural roots with Russia, and are seen by Putin and many other Russian nationalists as integral to the Russian heritage and national identity.
Putin had already felt threatened by the expansion of the US-led NATO alliance to include states that Russians had long considered to be within their natural sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Ukraine still remains an officially declared neutral state, but Putin felt that there that the pro-Western shift of the government of Ukraine in 2014 was a serious threat to Russian security.
Maintaining close ties to Ukraine is seen by Russia as economically and strategically vital to its national interests. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of grain and Russia relies on it to feed much of its population. Ukraine is also the largest country fully contained within Europe, and maintains the continent’s second largest standing military, after Russia. Ukraine’s city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea has long been the home base of Russia’s southern fleet, which guards Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea and year-round access to the oceans of the world. Russia has also traditionally viewed Ukraine and neighboring Belarus as essential land buffers offering strategic depth against the threat of invasion from Europe.
George F. Kennan, who was the architect of the successful US containment strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, warned the Clinton administration after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the enlargement of NATO would eventually be seen by Russian leaders as a security threat. That prediction has come to pass. There are modern-day strategists who still think Kennan’s concerns are valid. They do not agree with the current anti-Russian consensus of the American foreign policy establishment, and do share Trump’s concerns about provoking more Russian military responses if the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU is allowed to continue.
KEEPING A CAMPAIGN PROMISE
When Trump ran for president, he promised that he would not be bound by the Cold War-era attitudes and assumptions that still dominate the thinking within the American foreign policy establishment. He blames those obsolete concepts for the many failures of American foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has promised to develop a new approach for American foreign policy based on this country’s current economic and national security needs.
Trump has carried out that promise, by discarding unfair free trade agreements, demanding that European NATO allies pay their fair share of the cost of mutual defense, walking away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, confronting the growing economic challenges posed by communist China’s unfair trading practices, as well as its increasing military threats to its regional neighbors. Those who support the major improvements in US policies towards Israel due entirely to Trump’s decision, and against the advice of many US allies, should also be willing to consider that his caution with respect to US support for Ukraine might also have a rational basis, even though it has been widely criticized from within his State Department and National Security.
During the show trial open hearings, the lack of any direct evidence presented by witness testimony of Trump’s guilt was emphasized repeatedly in questions posed by Nunes and other Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, including Jim Jordan. But Schiff and Pelosi had designed the televised public hearings in such a way that none of the Republicans got their chance to ask questions on camera until at least an hour into the boring broadcasts, and were prevented by Schiff from calling their own witnesses or from pursuing lines of questioning that the Democrat committee chairman deemed to be irrelevant or inappropriate.
HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED
Schiff’s forbidden topics included any effort to determine whether there was good reason for Trump to ask for Zelensky to investigate charges that actions by Joe Biden and his son in Ukraine were corruptly motivated, or which might, in any way, shape, or form, disclose the identity of the whistleblower, even though the federal whistleblower statute only protects him from on-the-job retaliation by his departmental superiors within the federal government. His identity is not a government secret. Members of the media and anyone else outside the federal government are under no legal or moral obligation to protect his anonymity. Yet Chairman Schiff and the anti-Trump mainstream media seem prepared to go to any lengths to censor and forbid any public mention of the whistleblower’s name.
In fact, the whistleblower’s identity was never really a secret. Only a few days after his complaint about Trump was first publicly revealed, enough personal facts about the whistleblower were published by mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, to make him easily identifiable by members of the Washington political establishment. He was described as a Democrat currently employed by the CIA who had worked for Vice President Biden during the Obama administration. His name has been widely reported, along with more details on his background, by independent and conservative news outlets, including the investigative page on the RealClearPolitics web site, the Washington Examiner newspaper, and by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh to his nationwide radio audience.
The whistleblower’s name is reportedly Eric Ciaramella, a 33-year-old registered Democrat who was held over from the Obama White House NSC staff, and who had previously worked with former Vice President Joe Biden and former CIA Director John Brennan. Ciaramella left his staff job in the Trump White House in mid-2017 and returned to his former employer, the CIA, after suspicions were raised that he was the source of anti-Trump White House leaks to the media.
Reportedly, in 2015, Ciaramella worked in the Obama White House with DNC operative Alexandra Chalupa to dig up dirt that the Clinton campaign could use to link the Trump campaign to the Russian government. If that report is confirmed, it would seriously taint the credibility of Ciaramella’s original whistleblower complaint which triggered Democrat demands to launch the impeachment process. That would explain Schiff’s insistence on protecting his identity and his warnings to media outlets not to investigate or report on him.
IS THIS IMPEACHMENT EFFORT LEGITIMATE?
After the latest round of public testimony in Schiff’s committee, it was painfully obvious to political and legal observers alike that there was still not enough evidence to convince most Republicans and moderates that Trump was guilty of committing an impeachable crime, or that his request for a political favor from the president of Ukraine was so serious an abuse of power that it amounted to a threat to the stability of the American system of government. It was also clear that most of the evidence presented in the Schiff hearings would not have been admissible if Trump were standing trial in a criminal court of law, while Trump and his lawyers would have been given the opportunity to present a powerful defense of the president’s actions to a jury.
Advocates for impeachment have argued that the normal courtroom safeguards for the rights of a defendant don’t apply to impeachment, which is inherently a political rather than a judicial process. But it is also clear from previous impeachment attempts that a broad public consensus in favor of removing the president must first be in place for the necessary 2/3 majority vote of the Senate to convict the president to be achieved. That would first require that an effort be made to convince the American people that the impeachment process was being conducted fairly and in as non-partisan manner as possible. But the one-sided ground rules dictated by Pelosi and Schiff for the committee hearings gave exactly the opposite impression.
Democrats are not even making an effort to achieve a national consensus, and seem to have given up hope of winning a conviction in a Senate controlled by a Republican majority still united in support of the president. That suggests that the Democrats’ real goal in pursuing the impeachment process is to energize their liberal-progressive voter base to defeat Trump in the general election next November.
RISKS TO DEMOCRATS FROM PURSUING IMPEACHMENT
Such a strategy also entails obvious and potentially serious political risks for the Democrats as they enter a presidential election year:
- Assuming that the House Judiciary committee generates articles of impeachment and Speaker Pelosi can generate the 218 votes in the House needed to pass them, casting that vote could endanger the re-election next year of more than 30 House Democrats representing districts which were carried by Trump in the 2016 election.
- The impeachment process is likely to interfere with the Democrat presidential primary process. It will certainly compete with the primaries for frontpage headlines in the print and electronic media and could limit the ability of US senators running for president to maintain a full campaign appearance schedule while the Senate is conducting Trump’s impeachment trial.
- The refusal by Democrats to go forward with any joint legislative initiatives with Trump while the impeachment process is ongoing has already resulted in criticism of Pelosi by organized labor and industry groups, for failing to schedule a House vote on the new USMCA free trade treaty which Pelosi herself claims to support. There are other legislative priorities which are also being neglected by Democrats for the sake of pushing impeachment forward, such as the need to approve the 2020 fiscal year federal budget – which is already two months overdue, – as well as resolving the longstanding impasse over reforming federal immigration policy. Immigration could again become a crisis overnight if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Trump’s executive order ending the DACA program, which protects hundreds of thousands of young “dreamers” from the threat of deportation. It’s hard to imagine how the necessary compromises could be reached to resolve such problems while Trump and the Democrats are at war with one another over impeachment.
- If Democrats do succeed in passing an article of impeachment against Trump based on new criteria above and beyond the high crimes and misdemeanors specifically mentioned in the Constitution, any future president could be similarly threatened by an opposition party with a House majority which is willing to do whatever necessary to reverse the outcome of the last presidential election. The embittered partisan feeling, bordering on hatred, which has poisoned the atmosphere in Washington since the 2016 election would become a permanent state of political warfare in which both sides refuse to seek the compromises needed to legislate while demonizing their opponents.
DEMOCRATS ARE PAST THE POINT OF NO RETURN
The problem for Pelosi and other House Democrats is that they have already passed the point of no return by formally endorsing impeachment, launching Schiff’s hearings, and passing an official impeachment resolution against Trump in an almost entirely party line House vote.
Even though Democrat party leaders know that they have virtually no chance to win enough Republican votes in the Senate to convict Trump, at this point they must publicly insist, for the benefit of their base, that they do have a case strong enough to prevail in the Senate and remove Trump from office.
After discarding such substitute concepts to justify impeachment as quid pro quo or abuse of power, which failed to gain much credibility with independent voters, Democrats now claim that the Trump’s request for a corruption probe from President Zelensky meets the definition of “bribery,” which the text of the Constitution says would justify the impeachment of a president. But legal scholars point out that the actions which Democrats can prove Trump took fall far short of the accepted federal code definition of bribery on multiple counts.
First, the transcript of the July phone call shows that it did not include a clear quid pro quo demand by Trump, which is the textbook definition of bribery.
A bribe implies an illegal exchange – usually of money or something else of clearly established value – from the first party, in return for a desired corrupt action by the second party. But in this case, it appears that when Trump talked to Zelensky, the Ukrainian president was not yet aware that Trump had put a hold on the US aid already designated to go to his country, so it is hard to argue that Trump was using the aid to bribe him.
It is true that Zelensky was also anxious to secure the face-to-face meeting with Trump which he had been promised in their previous phone conversation. However, the timing of such “summit” meetings is traditionally at the discretion of the president, and is usually conditioned on some kind of agreement that would be of political benefit to both heads of state involved.
BUSINESS AS USUAL IN CONDUCTING FOREIGN POLICY
As Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney perhaps unwisely tried to explain to reporters, negotiating such mutual agreements in the course of arranging a state visit or a phone call between the president and a foreign head of state has been the “ordinary course of foreign policy” for many years. For emphasis, again unwisely, Mulvaney added, “And I have news for everybody. Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
In the same news conference, Mulvaney insisted that the main sticking point holding up the release of the aid to Ukraine and the face-to-face meeting between Trump and Zelensky was not the request to investigate the Bidens. That was only part of Trump’s larger demand that Zelensky crack down on the corruption in Ukraine, coupled with two other demands – that other EU members join the US in giving aid to Ukraine to help it defend itself against Russian aggression, and that Ukraine cooperate with ongoing investigations conducted by Attorney General William Barr and his Department of Justice.
Trump and his defenders insist that, taken as a whole, Trump’s demands of Zelensky, including the call for a general crackdown on corruption, were perfectly legitimate expressions of America’s national interests. But the Democrats reject that argument because of their conviction that Trump, due to his evil nature, always has a corrupt, selfish, or ulterior motive for every policy and official action he takes. This enables Trump’s enemies to ignore the legitimate motives cited by Mulvaney which could justify Trump’s reluctance to keep sending US aid to Ukraine, or grant a White House meeting to Zelensky, and to automatically assume that Trump’s primary motive must have been a selfish desire to embarrass his main 2020 political opponent.
IS THIS REALLY BRIBERY?
The prosecution of a public official for “bribery” usually involves proving that the official accepted a bribe to betray the people’s trust. But in this case, Trump is being accused of offering a bribe to the president of Ukraine, in the form of approving the release of $391 million in aid. Trump asked in return for a simple public announcement by Zelensky that he intends to launch a broad corruption investigation, which would have been consistent with Zelensky’s promise to institute a sweeping cleanup of Ukraine’s endemic corruption when he campaigned for president earlier this year.
Impeachment advocates claim that since Trump expected the Ukraine investigation to hurt Biden’s reputation with American voters, his request for the probe could be considered an illegal demand from the Ukrainian president consistent with the definition of criminal bribery. But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel rejected that interpretation in an opinion it gave to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire in August, when it instructed him not to pass the whistleblower’s complaint about what Trump said in his phone call with Zelensky to the leaders of Congress.
In fact, the whistleblower’s complaint itself was problematic on both legal and procedural levels. Since it was made against the president, who is not a member of the intelligence community, it should not have been accepted by Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. It should also have been disqualified based upon the traditional requirement that all whistleblower complaints be based on first-hand information.
ARE DEMOCRATS BEING USED TO PROTECT THE DEEP STATE?
But some conservative political analysts take a dimmer view of the current impeachment effort against Donald Trump, and consider it to be fundamentally misleading. In a lengthy essay, Michael Anton, a former Deputy National Security Advisor for the Trump administration, quotes John Marini, who is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada. Marini specializes in the analysis of the administrative state, which some conservatives refer to as the “deep state,” or, more colloquially, the permanent residents of the federal bureaucratic “swamp” based in Washington, DC.
Marini traces the origins of the administrative state to the late 19th century, but it did not begin to take serious hold until the mid-1960s, when, as Anton explains, “elites inside and outside our government have centralized authority in a ‘fourth branch,’ the executive branch’s agencies and bureaucracies,” which was never envisioned by the Constitution, and whose members are not accountable to the voters or even other elected government officials.
Marini says that the power of the administrative state is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-constitutional. It justifies its rule by referring to a consensus of “experts” who do not recognize the authority of non-expert voters of the political leaders they elect to challenge their power and political beliefs.
TRUMP SEEN AS A THREAT TO RULE
Anton and Marini both believe that the fundamental moving force behind the current effort to impeach President Trump is not Democrats who were disappointed by the outcome of the 2016 election, but rather the experts of the administrative state who see Trump’s determination to challenge their consensus policies as a mortal threat to their power over the government and, by extension, the lives of all American citizens.
Marini goes a step further. He does not believe that successful impeachment efforts are reactions to great scandals exposing underlying corruption. He believes that scandals are “a means of attacking political foes while obscuring the political differences that are at issue. This is especially likely to occur in the aftermath of elections that threaten the authority of an established order. In such circumstances, scandal provides a way for defenders of the status quo to undermine the legitimacy of those who have been elected on a platform of challenging the status quo.”
MISPLACED LOYALTY AND HYPOCRISY
There is an interesting example of this misplaced loyalty by members of the administrative state in the testimony in a hearing last week given by David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Kiev. He was called to testify after Ambassador Taylor informed the Schiff committee that Holmes told him he had overheard a cellphone conversation between Ambassador Sondland and President Trump which took place while he and other embassy employees were having lunch at a café in Kiev on the day after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.
Holmes said that Trump’s voice was coming through so loudly that Sondland took the cellphone away from his ear, allowing Holmes and others at the table to also hear what Trump was saying. But what Holmes heard did not add much to the evidence that the Schiff committee had already gathered. Holmes said that Trump had asked Sondland whether Zelensky is “going to do the investigation?” Sondland replied “Oh, yeah. He’ll do anything you ask.” Holmes’ testimony does confirm what had already been well established – that Trump wanted Zelensky to launch the corruption investigation. But Sondland’s additional comment, that the Ukrainian president was eager to do whatever Trump wanted, undermines the Democrats’ bribery claim. It suggests that Zelensky was not acting under pressure or in response to a bribery offer from Trump, and that his cooperation was voluntary.
But perhaps even more revealing was Holmes’ opening statement, in which he said, “Upon reading the transcript, I was deeply disappointed to see that the president raised none of what I understood to be our interagency agreed-upon foreign policy priorities in Ukraine and instead raised the Biden/Burisma investigation.” This clearly implies that Holmes, as a member of the administrative state, felt more of an allegiance to the “interagency” consensus on Ukraine policy than to the policy on Ukraine that the president had decided to follow.
Holmes also made it clear that the “interagency” policy being followed by the staff at the American embassy in Kiev was intended to enhance Zelensky’s political support in Ukraine. Referring to Zelensky’s desire to get a face-to-face meeting with Trump, Holmes testified, “We at the embassy also believed that a meeting was critical to the success of President Zelensky’s administration and its reform agenda, and we worked hard to get it arranged.”
This raises an interesting question. If American diplomats sought to shape US policy to strengthen domestic political support for Ukraine’s president, how could these same diplomats argue that it was wrong for Trump to ask the Ukrainian president to do the same for him by investigating the Bidens?
Professor Marini says that, “most political scandals, sooner or later, are transformed into legal dramas. As legal dramas, scandals become understood in non-partisan terms. The way in which they are resolved can have decisive political impacts, but those in charge of resolving them are the ‘neutral’ prosecutors, judges, and bureaucrats who make up the permanent (and unelected) government, not the people’s elected representatives.”
Applying Marini’s insights to the current impeachment effort, Anton concludes that Democrat party leaders who have resorted to false scandalmongering to attack Trump are tacitly admitting that they no longer believe they can defeat him at the ballot box.
The fact that reluctant Democrat party leaders have been bullied into renewing their impeachment efforts on the basis of such thin evidence against Trump is another measure of how much he is feared by members of the administrative state fraternity, such as former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and their fellow Obama administration co-conspirators.
They had initially believed that their “insurance policy” against the remote possibility that Trump would win the 2016 election – consisting of the Russia-Trump election conspiracy hoax, based upon the bogus Steele dossier – would quickly force Trump from office. But Trump was successful in fighting back against it, and its sordid details are now in the process of being exposed both in the United States, in Ukraine, and elsewhere, thanks to the dogged determination of Trump to clear his name and the diligent efforts of Attorney General Barr to track down the 2016 wrongdoers.
HISTORIC IMPEACHMENT ANALOGIES
Anton says that the effort by the administrative state to remove the threat to its power presented by Trump’s presidency bears striking similarities to the Watergate scandal which drove President Nixon from office, and the IranContra scandal which fell just short of taking down Ronald Reagan’s presidency. All three were dogged by “scandal” and threatened with impeachment after they openly challenged the “US government policy community consensus” of their eras.
Additional hidden elements of the administrative state’s campaign to undermine Trump’s campaign and presidency will be exposed on December 9, when the long-awaited investigative report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz into the scandal surrounding the FISA search warrants issued against former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, largely on the basis of the false accusations in the Steel dossier, is due to be released.
WAITING ON IG HOROWITZ
The Horowitz report and its consequences, including an open hearing on its findings to be held on December 11 at Lindsay Graham’s Senate Judiciary Committee, will be competing for space in the media headlines with the efforts by Democrats to formulate and pass articles of impeachment in the House before the end of the year.
Horowitz already has the scalp of former FBI assistant director Andrew McCabe on his belt from the findings in his previous report on the FBI’s botched investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s emails. His next report threatens to expose more members of the administrative state whose lawyers and friends in the mainstream media are already at work to minimize the damage. The targets named in the report have an advantage – according to the rules governing an IG investigation, they get a chance to see an advance copy of the report and offer their comments and corrections to the IG’s office before it is released.
This has given an opportunity to those who were named to leak carefully selected excerpts from the report to the media that put them in the best possible light, as well as spin designed to minimize the importance of the misdeeds they and their colleagues are accused of committing.
FIRST LEAK FINGERS A LOW-LEVEL FBI FALL GUY
So far, the leaks to the media have identified only Kevin Clinesmith, a low-level FBI lawyer, who is accused by the IG’s report of having altered one of the emails which the FBI submitted to the FISA court to support an application for the renewal of the search warrant on Carter Page. Clinesmith had reportedly been forced to leave the FBI due to the incident.
An initial Washington Post report said that Clinesmith had worked as a colleague of ousted FBI agent Peter Strzok on the Clinton email investigation and the FBI’s Trump-Russia collusion probe, but that detail was removed from later versions of that story. Clinesmith was also reportedly cited anonymously by IG Horowitz in his report last year for sending messages lamenting Trump’s victory soon after the 2016 election.
Clinesmith appears to have been a minor figure in the effort to obtain the renewal of the FISA warrant. The leak which reported his name to the media claimed that Horowitz has concluded that despite minor mistakes and wrongdoing by Clinesmith and other low-level FBI employees, the agency was justified in seeking the warrant to eavesdrop on Carter Page. The leaker also predicted that the IG’s report will not accuse any senior FBI officials of supporting the FISA warrant application due to political bias against Trump.
Trump, however, gave Fox News an opposite interpretation to the first disclosure from the IG’s forthcoming report. He said, “This was spying on my campaign, something that has never been done in the history of our country. They tried to overthrow the presidency.”