Witnesses were uneven, but even his closest allies don’t try to deny he did what he’s accused of doing.
Look, the case has been made. Almost everything in the impeachment hearings this week fleshed out and backed up the charge that President Trump muscled Ukraine for political gain. The pending question is what precisely the House and its Democratic majority will decide to include in the articles of impeachment, what statutes or standards they will assert the president violated.
What was said consistently undermined Mr. Trump’s case, but more deadly was what has never been said. In the two months since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry was under way and the two weeks since the Intelligence Committee’s public hearings began, no one, even in the White House, has said anything like, “He wouldn’t do that!” or “That would be so unlike him.” His best friends know he would do it and it’s exactly like him.
The week’s hearings were not a seamless success for Democrats. On Tuesday they seemed to be losing the thread. But by Wednesday and Thursday it was restored.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was not a persuasive witness and did not move the story forward, because in spite of the obvious patriotism reflected in his record he was annoying—smug and full of himself. He appeared in full dress uniform with three rows of ribbons. When Rep. Devin Nunes called him “Mr. Vindman,” he quickly corrected him: “Ranking Member, it’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.” Oh, snap. As he described his areas of authority at the National Security Council, he seemed to glisten with self-regard. You got the impression he saw himself as fully in charge of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Asked if it was true that government offered to make him their defense minister he said “yes” with no apparent embarrassment. I don’t know about you but I don’t like it when a foreign government gets a sense of a U.S. military officer and concludes he might fit right in. (A Ukrainian official later said the job offer was a joke.)
Mr. Vindman—I’m sorry, Lt. Col. Vindman—self-valorized, as other witnesses have, and tugged in his opening statement on America’s heart strings by addressing his father, who brought his family from the Soviet Union 40 years ago: “Dad, . . . you made the right decision. . . . Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
The committee has paid entirely too much attention to the witnesses’ emotions. “How did that make you feel?” “Without upsetting you too much, I’d like to show you the excerpts from the call . . .”
I am sure the questioners were told to take this tack by communications professionals who believe this is how you manipulate housewives. In fact a mother at home with a vacuum in one hand and a crying baby in the other would look at them, listen, and think: “You guys represent us to other countries? You gotta butch up.”
Later, as Col. Vindman returned to work, and clearly wanting to be seen, he posed grinning for photos in front of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
It is not only Donald Trump who suffers from Absence of Gravity.
On Wednesday Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, was both weirdly jolly and enormously effective in doing Mr. Trump damage. He followed the president’s orders; there was a quid pro quo; “everyone was in the loop, it was no secret“; Rudy Giuliani was the point man, with whom Mr. Sondland worked “at the express direction of the president.”
It was his third try at truthful sworn testimony and it was completely believable. It was kind of the ballgame. He seemed like a guy with nothing to lose, or maybe a guy who’d already lost much.
On Thursday Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert, was all business, a serious woman you don’t want to mess with. She reoriented things, warning that those who excuse or don’t wish to see Russian propaganda efforts against America, and targeting its elections, are missing the obvious. The suspicion of the president and his allies that Ukraine is the great culprit in the 2016 election is a “fictional narrative.” They are, in fact, bowing to disinformation Russia spreads to cover its tracks and confuse the American people and its political class. She dismissed the president’s operatives’ efforts to get Ukraine’s new president to investigate his country’s alleged meddling as a “domestic political errand.” She and other diplomats were “involved in national security, foreign policy,” and the interests of the operatives and the diplomats had “diverged.” She warned Mr. Sondland: “This is all going to blow up.”
What became obvious in the hearings was the sober testimony from respectable diplomats—not disgruntled staffers with nutty memoirs but people of stature who don’t ordinarily talk—about how the administration operates. It became clear in a new and public way that pretty much everyone around the president has been forced for three years to work around his poor judgment and unpredictability in order to do their jobs. He no doubt knows this and no doubt doesn’t care. Because he’s the boss, they’ll do it his way.
After Thursday’s hearings I felt some free-floating sympathy for high Trump appointees who joined early. You can say they knew what they signed up for, but it’s human to have hope, and they surely had it when they came aboard. They were no doubt ambitious—they wanted a big job—but they probably wanted to do good, too. They were optimistic—“How bad can it be?” And there would have been vanity—“I can handle him.” But they couldn’t. He not only doesn’t know where the line is; he has never wanted to know, so he can cross it with impunity, without consciousness of a bad act or one that might put him in danger. They were no match for his unpredictability and resentments, which at any moment could undo anything.
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? Who exactly will be the president’s witnesses, those who’d testify he didn’t do what he appears to have done, and would never do it?
Procedures, rules and definitions aren’t fully worked out in the Senate. But we are approaching December and the clock is ticking. A full-blown trial on charges most everyone will believe are true, and with an election in less than a year, will seem absurd to all but diehards and do the country no good.
So the reasonable guess is Republican senators will call to let the people decide. In a divided country this is the right call. But they should take seriously the idea of censuring him for abuse of power. Mr. Trump would be the first president to be censured since Andrew Jackson, to whom his theorists have always compared him. In the end he will probably be proud of a tightening of the connection.
This controversy is really two disputes. One is legal and procedural, regarding the executive branch’s decision to withhold the whistleblower’s complaint from Congress. The other dispute is substantive and perhaps constitutional, over the propriety of what Mr. Trump has all but admitted he discussed with the Ukrainian president.
As to the first dispute, Robert Litt, who served as General Counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the Obama administration, has lucidly laid out the legal complexities. In an article for Lawfare, he concludes that “the argument that the law did not require the DNI to transmit the [whistleblower’s] complaint to Congress . . . is not a frivolous one.” Moreover, if the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the president’s actions weren’t matters of urgent concern as defined in the federal law for intelligence whistleblowers, the DNI might well feel bound to block the transmission of the complaint.
Mr. Litt points out that the intelligence community’s inspector general also sought permission to transmit the complaint to congressional intelligence committees for reasons unrelated to the whistleblower law, and was told that executive privilege would preclude this action. Starting with George Washington, there is a long tradition of presidents declining to reveal the contents of their communications with foreign leaders. Here, as in so many instances, President Trump has violated the norms that sustain our constitutional order while adhering to the forms.
I confess that when I heard the first reports about Mr. Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader, it struck me as a scene from a mob movie: Nice little country you have here, Mr. Zelensky. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it. But as former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti has argued, the president’s conduct doesn’t fit comfortably within statutory definitions of bribery or extortion. Besides, presidents often use levers of power, including foreign assistance, to induce other leaders to act in ways they might prefer not to.
The real offense is distorting U.S. foreign policy to improve Mr. Trump’s re-election chances, which he and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, appear to have done. If so, this would violate the spirit of the oath Mr. Trump swore when he assumed the presidency. Because the courts offer no prospect of remedy, many representatives believe that impeachment is the only recourse, and also their duty. Speaker Pelosi’s announcement is the first step down this road.
Although I respect their motives, I disagree: Impeachment is a constitutional option, not a constitutional obligation. It is, in the broadest sense, a political act, and therefore is subject to political tests of feasibility and efficacy.
There is no evidence that impeaching the president would lead to his removal from office, which would require the consent of 20 Republican senators. (As this article went to press, exactly one— Mitt Romney of Utah—had expressed strong concern about the president’s conduct in the Ukrainian controversy.) Nor is there any evidence that impeaching the president would increase Democrats’ odds of defeating him in the election. Judging by public opinion, the reverse seems more likely.
On the other hand, inaction isn’t an option because it would have the effect of normalizing presidential conduct that is anything but normal—and accepting the unacceptable as a fait accompli. This presents a dilemma for Democrats, many of whom believe that there are only two paths—impeaching the president or doing nothing.
Fortunately for them and for the country, there is a third choice, provided by law: a resolution formally censuring the president. There is precedent. In 1834 the Senate censured President Andrew Jackson for withholding documents related to his defunding the Bank of the United States, one of the most hotly disputed decisions of his presidency.
The House should use the impeachment inquiry to develop the factual basis for a comprehensive bill of particulars against President Trump—an enumeration of his most egregious affronts to the spirit of the laws and the Constitution, and to the honor and dignity of the office he holds. They should pass this bill as a formal motion of censure. And then the Democrats should take their case to the ultimate judges in our republic, the people themselves, for a final decision in November 2020. The Senate will not remove the president from office; only the people can.
If inaction is dishonorable and impeachment futile, censure is the only course that makes both moral and political sense.
If Justice Department guidelines had been otherwise—if federal charges could be brought against a sitting president—would Mr. Mueller have recommended them? That’s the question. Instead we get “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Oh.
Independent counsel Ken Starr wasn’t so shy with Bill Clinton: His 1998 report outlined to Congress 11 possible grounds for impeachment.
I’m sure Mr. Mueller was trying to demonstrate probity. But it looked to me like a loss of nerve. You can have probity plus clarity, and clarity was what was needed.
The spirit of impeachment is now given a boost.
It is still a terrible idea.
It is a grave matter to overturn an election result. Why more cuttingly divide an already divided country? There is no argument that impeachment would enhance America’s position in the world, and no reason to believe it would not have some negative impact on the economy, meaning jobs. The presidential election is in 2020. What is gained from devoting the coming year to an effort that will fail in the Senate? There’s no reason to believe the public is for it. It won’t move the needle—those who like President Trump, like him; those who do not, do not; everyone already knows what they think. For Democrats it could backfire, alienating moderates and rousing those of the president’s supporters who care little for him personally but appreciate his policy achievements, such as his appointment of judges. Why rouse their wrath? If Mr. Trump is acquitted he will pose as the innocent but unstoppable victor over a witch hunt led by a liberal elite.
At this point, could Democrats even do it? Impeachment is “a heavy lift,” as Chris Matthews said on MSNBC the other day. It takes time and focus to organize it politically and legally, to get the committee chairmen on board and investigators mobilized.