An explanation of where we’re at, with regards to the President’s Impeachment inquiry.
So, an impeachment inquiry has been launched against the President. If you’ve been tuned out, this article will bring you up to speed by looking at five key actors in the dealings between the U.S. and Ukrainian administrations that led to the impeachment inquiry.
The Inciting Incident:
The event which set this all off was a July 25th phone call between President Trump and the President of the Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky. During the phone call, Trump appeared to allude to the possibility that US military aid to Ukraine was dependent on the Ukrainian administration looking into alleged corruption by the Biden family and the possibility of Ukrainian involvement in meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Trump had issued instructions six days before the call to suspend U.S. aid to Ukraine, according to an Office of Management and Budget official. If President Trump did threaten to withdraw aid for the purpose of securing his own position, then he would have misused his power as President to advance his own ends. He would have placed his own political agenda above the security of the United States and its allies. He, instead of asking what he could do for his country, asked another country what they could do for him. This would constitute a betrayal of the office of the presidency, treason, and would be an impeachable offense.
Since the call transcript has been obtained, the inquiry into the President has not focused on obtaining facts of wrongdoing, those have been obtained, but rather on assessing the extent to which the apparent threat of the abuse of power was planned, known about and carried out. Those defending the President suggest that Trump did not know of or intend to propose a quid pro quo with the Ukrainians—the focus of the investigation so far has been testing that claim. That is what links the stories of Rudy Giuliani, Marie Yovanovitch, the Whistleblower and the leaked text messages. Each of these stories in their own way suggests that the administration, and by extension, the President, were aware of the nature, gravity, and impropriety of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
The necessary context for this call stretches back at least to December of 2018, and implicate Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney. In December of last year, Giuliani had a series of meetings with Ukraine’s prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko. In the spring of this year, Lutsenko and other members of the Ukrainian administration alluded to the possibility that Ukraine was in some way involved in meddling with the 2016 US presidential election, allegedly working with the Democratic National Committee. Lutsenko was also publicly critical of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, saying, among other things, that Yovanovitch obstructed the Ukrainian administration from investigating the possibility of Ukrainian involvement in 2016 election meddling. (Remember Marie Yovanovitch; she comes up later.) Lutsenko also spoke publicly, in an article published in the Hill, about his suspicions of Vice President Joe Biden, that Joe Biden had used his political power to protect the business interests of his son, Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden has ties to Bursima, a Ukrainian gas company.
Two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who had been helping Giuliani investigate Joe Biden were arrested this Wednesday. Both had one-way tickets to fly out of the country. They were arrested on charges they schemed to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians and tried to influence U.S.-Ukraine relations. These indictments do not allege any wrongdoing by President Trump, but they are the first criminal charges related to this recent complication in U.S. Ukraine relations. Further, the New York Times reported this Friday that Mr. Giuliani is under investigation, tied to these two arrests. Mr. Giuliani has denied wrongdoing but has stated that he and the two arrested associates worked with Ukrainian prosecutors to gather information about Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
Marie Yovanovitch testified to Congress this Friday about what she felt were the unfair and unfounded grounds for her removal from office. The claims, she said, that she obstructed investigations into corruption were false. “I want to categorically state,” she said in her opening statement, “that I have never myself of through others, directly or indirectly, ever directed, suggested, or in any other way asked for any government or government official to refrain from investigating or prosecuting actual corruption.” She also denied that she had been in any way disloyal to President Trump.
With respect to Mr. Giuliani, she said that she had minimal contact with him, but that the “individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani,” that is, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, “may ell have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.” With respect to her own removal, she said that the Deputy Secretary of State had given, as a reason for her removal, “the President had lost confidence.” The Deputy Secretary also said, according to Yovanovitch, that she “had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he [the Deputy Secretary] had recalled ambassadors for cause.” President Trump had been critical of Yovanovitch before her departure, calling her “bad news.” At the end of her testimony Yovanovitch concluded: “the U.S. government chose to remove and Ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
This testimony came as a surprise, as the US administration had ordered all its officials to not further cooperate with the Congressional investigation. By testifying, Yovanovitch was breaking with rest of the administration and with the tradition of diplomatic discretion. Her testimony will have an impact on the investigations into Mr. Giuliani, and into the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. It will help establish whether there was a political motive behind her removal from Ukraine.
Though the various parts of this scandal have been reported on for the past year, it wasn’t until September when a still unidentified whistleblower published the complaints about the Trump-Ukraine relationship that the scandal gave birth, eventually, to the impeachment inquiry. The whistleblower was alleged that Trump was using the U.S. relationship with Ukraine to advance his own presidential campaign. The whistleblower claimed specifically that Mr. Trump was abusing his power “to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” Trump had been accused of doing the same in the 2016 election, but this accusation was different because there was more evidence, most notably, the reconstructed transcript from Trump’s call with the President of Ukraine. The whistleblower report alleged that White House officials had attempted to “lock down” records of the call—suggesting that the administration new of the issues with the call, and how serious those issues were.
The whistleblower report also confirms that the US State Department was aware of and concerned about Rudy Giuliani’s actions in the Ukraine. These officials saw Mr. Giuliani’s actions as a “circumvention of national security decision-making processes.” These state department officials were concerned with trying to “contain the damage” caused by Giuliani’s actions.
The whistleblower also raised concerns about Attorney General William Barr’s involvement in the investigation against the Biden’s. At the end of the July 25th call, after President Zelensky had agreed to look into the suggestion of corruption, Trump said to Zelensky “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call.” The more US administration officials who are found to be engaged in these interactions with Ukraine, the less the July 25th phone call appears to be a spontaneous event by President Trump, and the more it appears to be a planned step in an ongoing negotiation.
This trend of uncovering US officials knowledgeable about the administration’s dealings with Ukraine was furthered by the release of text messages from several officials, the European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine Bill Taylor former U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker and Zelensky Adviser Andrey Yermak.
The text messages reveal the level members of the Trump team and members of the Ukrainian administration were aware of the implications of the July 25th call. The texts appear to confirm that officials involved knew they were on ethical thin ice.
This mutual red-handedness is most clear in the text messages exchanged between European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland and acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, Bill Taylor. When the latter asked Sondland ‘are we now saying that security assistance and WH meetings are conditioned on investigations?’ Sondland responded: ‘Call me.’
Call me. While it isn’t an explicit admission of guilt, it suggests error in the same way a ‘we need to talk’ text from significant other suggests an impending break-up. The attempt to conceal draws attention to the fact that something needs to be concealed.
The text messages also make clear that there was a quid prod quo between the two administrations, something the White House has until now denied. Kurt Volker, former Special Envoy to Ukraine texted this to Andrey Yermak, a Zelensky adviser.
“Heard from White House, assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”
Here, the exchange is the offer of better relations with the U.S., represented as a visit to the White House, in exchange for getting ‘to the bottom’ of the 2016 election interference. The exchange is stated clearly.
Equally clear is acting U.S. ambassador Bill Taylor’s response to this situation. He texted Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded that he believes Taylor was mistaken about the nature of the affair and that there were no “quid pro quo’s of any kind.” What the text messages confirm without a doubt though, then, is not the existence of any quid pro quo’s, but that administration officials were aware that the interaction between Trump and Zelensky could appear as quid pro quo’s. They are confirmation of the extent of knowledge about the events and nature and quality of the interaction.
The last of the five actors is President Trump himself. The President has not denied the phone call, instead his administration released the transcript. Nor has he denied that he asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. Instead, he publicly called for China to also look into the Bidens’ actions as well. He has questioned the validity of the whistle-blower’s complaint, questioned whether the whistle-blower should receive protections, and suggested that the inquiry against him is ‘unconstitutional.’ He has denied personal political motivation for this investigation, and he has denied that he withdrew aid in order to coerce Ukraine into cooperating with the investigation.
Trump’s defense is that he has done nothing wrong. That is what he has contested, and it is what Rudy Giuliani has contested in defending the president. Rudy Giuliani has cast himself as sincerely interested in unearthing corruption and has called himself a whistle-blower.
While an actual impeachment investigation should depend on whether the accused has actually done something wrong, and not on whether the accused believes they have done something wrong—public opinion of the inquiry depends on the latter question. Public opinion and the opinion of Senate Republicans, who will, in the event that the impeachment inquiry leads to an impeachment trial, decide on the President’s guilt. In a presidency that has normalized breaches in decorum, the question “who did it?” is not enough. The questions “who knew?” and “what did they think about it?” will also need to be worked out, and regardless of the outcome of the inquiry, it will be these questions that will ultimately determine whether this situation is remembered as another gaffe in a government of them, or as a crime.