Ukrainegate Risks Handing Trump Another Gift

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President Trump talks with the press on his way to Marine One in 2018. (AP / Evan Vucci)

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An impeachment inquiry is supposed to be captivating, but Ukrainegate, so far, is murky and convoluted. One problem is the lack of suspense: Whatever may be uncovered about President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine, a House Democratic vote to impeach him is a foregone conclusion. Then there is the secrecy: The testimony has been conducted behind closed doors, depriving Democrats (and cable news networks) of riveting, dramatic moments, as well as the public of the opportunity to weigh the full evidence for themselves.

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Representative Adam Schiff, leader of the Democrats’ impeachment effort, has just vowed to start holding his proceedings in public. But it is unclear if a public hearing will surmount another obstacle: For all of the initial talk of a simple, open-and-shut case, the Ukrainegate scandal is difficult to follow and open to interpretation.

A case in point is Thursday’s apparent bombshell comments by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The prevailing narrative is that Mulvaney admitted to a “quid pro quo” wherein Trump suspended US military aid in order to coerce Kiev to investigate Trump’s bizarre theory about a DNC server. But that conclusion not only requires adopting a whole new narrative—it was a coerced Biden investigation, after all, that we are supposed to be concerned about—but also taking a long answer by Mulvaney and isolating a small fragment. Asked why Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, Mulvaney first claimed that it was primarily because of Trump’s concerns about corruption in Ukraine and insufficient financial support to Kiev from European allies.

According to Mulvaney, “those were the driving factors.” He then continued: “Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”

It is clear from that passage that Mulvaney is claiming that the “driving factors” were not what we are told he admitted to—the DNC server, which only got a “mention” from Trump “in the past.” Perhaps Mulvaney is lying—something we can never put past this (or any) White House. But that possibility does not justify erroneous characterizations of what he actually said.

Mulvaney also drew a distinction between Trump’s efforts to obtain Ukrainian assistance with an investigation into alleged Ukrainian meddling in 2016, and an investigation into alleged corruption by the Bidens. That is a fair distinction. Although we can confidently dismiss Trump’s incoherent server theory, Ukrainians did meddle in the 2016 race with the aiming of hurting Trump’s candidacy; at the time, they even bragged about it. As the Justice Department now reviews Russiagate’s origins, it is not unreasonable for Trump to request Ukraine’s assistance with potential questions about that 2016 meddling. Nor would it be unprecedented to withhold US aid in order to compel Ukraine’s cooperation. That was, after all, the exact tactic that Joe Biden pulled to force the firing of an allegedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor in 2014.

It also is the same tactic that the Trump administration has deployed against Central American nations to coerce them to stop the flight of desperate migrants, or against the United Nations in a bid to blackmail Palestinian refugees into abandoning their internationally recognized right of return. Neither of these far more brazen and damaging aid freezes elicited anywhere near the same levels of Beltway outrage, let alone calls for impeachment, as Trump’s alleged one in Ukraine.

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This is for obvious reasons: The victims are not US elites; they’re suffering people with no political power. The Ukrainegate episode is scandal-worthy because the aggrieved parties are establishment figures, Joe Biden and the Democrats.

All of that said, if Trump did try to use US military aid to force an investigation into Biden and his son, that would be unethical. It is already clear that Trump acted inappropriately when he invoked Biden during his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It also clear that Trump improperly granted his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, a role in Ukraine matters that the former New York City mayor has no business having. But complicating the picture is that, as with the Mulvaney comments, the available testimony undermines the maximalist narratives about what occurred.

Private text messages initially appeared to offer a smoking gun. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, wrote to his colleagues on September 9. But Kurt Volker, the newly resigned US envoy to Ukraine, told lawmakers that Taylor was responding to media reports, not inside information. The White House did ask Ukrainian officials to investigate corruption in Ukraine, including at Burisma, the company where Hunter Biden obtained his lucrative board seat. But according to Volker, Biden “was never a topic of discussion” in his dealings with his counterparts in Kiev, and the bid for a Ukrainian investigation of some kind did not go very far.

By the time the Ukrainians learned about the frozen military aid from a media report in late August, Volker told lawmakers, an effort to compel their announcement of a corruption probe was already abandoned. At that point in late August, Volker said, “the Ukrainians felt like things are going the right direction, and they had not done anything on…an investigation, they had not done anything on a statement, and things were ramping up in terms of their engagement with the administration. So I think they were actually feeling pretty good then.” In short, there was no quid to accompany the quo.

Instead of having to acquiesce under a threat of lost US military aid, it appears that Ukraine was enticed with the possibility of a White House meeting. According to TheNew York Times, former Trump adviser Fiona Hill testified that the Ukrainians were told that a sit-down with Trump was contingent upon “a commitment to investigate corruption, which was seen as code for investigating Democrats.” At the same time, the Times reports that Hill’s testimony “did not establish a quid pro quo between the suspended aid and Mr. Trump’s pressure for investigations.”

All of which leaves us with multiple scenarios: If Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden, that would be brazenly unethical; if he was more concerned with alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election—the top issue of his July 25 call with Zelensky—then that would be a legitimate line of inquiry. If he tried to leverage military assistance, which he was congressionally mandated to deliver, that would be an abuse of power; but if he sought to leverage a coveted meeting, a White House prerogative, that could be justifiable.

Will these head-scratching details and varying possibilities coalesce into a gripping tale worthy of impeaching a sitting president? Perhaps. But as it unfolds, those who want to defeat Trump in 2020 ought to take stock of the immediate consequences.

The signs from within the Democratic Party itself are not encouraging. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opted against holding a vote to formally authorize the impeachment inquiry. The decision was reached at a caucus meeting where, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times reports, the prospect “was quickly shot down” because of objections from “nervous freshmen in swing districts…fearing it would be a distraction.” Although “official Washington is obsessed with the impeachment inquiry,” Stolberg observes, “for many Democrats—especially those in competitive districts…impeachment is the proverbial elephant in the room. It looms large, but they don’t want to talk about it.”

Unfortunately, they now have little choice. Even without a formal vote, the impeachment inquiry is having the predictable consequence of overshadowing everything else, including the policy agenda that Democrats hope will win over voters in 2020. It certainly does not help matters that the scandal also calls daily attention to one of their top presidential candidates’ dealings in Ukraine in addition to Trump’s. At Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Ohio, the elder Biden offered no apologies for his son Hunter’s payday in Ukraine, while claiming that he, as vice president, “carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption” in the country. Biden may well have been faithfully carrying out official policy, but his professed concern for “corruption in Ukraine” is hard to square with his simultaneous defense of his son’s receiving a $50,000-per-month (or even $83,333, according to Reuters) energy board seat there—just months, it is worth recalling, after Biden’s administration backed a coup that toppled its government.

None of the 11 other Democratic candidates took the opportunity to call out this vulnerability on the debate stage. But if Biden manages to become the nominee, Trump surely will not be as charitable.

It is also worth considering how swing state and undecided voters might respond should the Ukrainegate saga drag on. Right now, the Democrats could be a party defined by mobilizing millions of people on issues that concern us all: supporting striking GM auto-workers and Chicago teachers, reversing a plutocracy-favoring tax code, or offering up a humane way to withdraw US troops from Syria, instead of joining with Republican hawks and ceding anti-war rhetoric to the warmongering Trump.

Instead, Democrats and their media partisans are again the party of secretive hearings and an all-consuming, bureaucrat-driven scandal. After Russiagate, Trump was able to bolster his phony self-image as a working-class champion whose “America First” agenda is thwarted by coastal globalists and “deep state” bureaucrats. The way the Ukrainian sequel is unfolding, it will not be a surprise if Trump ends up with new opportunities to exploit resentment toward the Beltway for undeserved Main Street support in 2020, when it matters most.