Democrats are in 2020 campaign mode, not engaged in a serious effort to remove the president.
The most striking thing about the impeachment report filed Tuesday afternoon by the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) is how unapologetically partisan it is.
Don’t get me wrong. Chairman Schiff is fiercely partisan and no one would have expected him to call it down the middle. A serious impeachment effort, however, has to try to attract support from Republicans and independents. Schiff gives us not a feint in that direction. His narrative is the Democratic base’s political case against Trump. There is no pretense of at least presenting the other side of the story, even if only for the purpose of refuting it.
To repeat what I argued in Faithless Execution (2014), impeachment is counterproductive if there is no plausible chance of removing the president from power. To impeach under circumstances where the president is certain to be acquitted at the eventual Senate trial (where a two-thirds supermajority is required for conviction and removal) is only to encourage further executive excesses.
That is why impeachment is a historical rarity even when the House (where only a simple majority is needed to file articles of impeachment) is controlled by the president’s opposition party. Prudent lawmakers grasp that it is not merely a waste of time to pursue impeachment in futility; doing so fosters divisiveness in society and dysfunction in government.
Schiff is not trying to develop a broad public consensus that the president should be removed from office. His report is a 2020 campaign document. Its heavy-handedness is only going to irritate Republicans. That includes many who are not particularly enamored of the president but want to see a fair process.
There is also the point I made in Tuesday’s column: If there were truly an impeachable offense, one that was patently egregious and provoked grave doubt about the president’s fitness for office, there would be no need to spin it. All that would be necessary would be a straightforward, nonpartisan recitation. Schiff, to the contrary, is spinning at every turn.
The report, for example, begins by slamming the president for departing, in his dealings with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, from “a standard package of talking points [prepared] for the President based on official U.S. policy.” But it is the president, not the vaunted “policy community,” that makes American foreign policy. If President Trump does not share the “interagency” view that Ukraine is a strategic ally, and doubts that we should eagerly pour financial and military aid into a deeply corrupt country, that is the setting of executive policy. It is not an abuse of power for the president to disagree with the State Department, the NSC, Adam Schiff, the New York Times, etc.
Schiff portrays Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the EU, as a co-conspirator in Trump’s thoroughgoing corruption. In introducing him, the report notes that he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, intimating that he purchased his post, sidelining foreign-policy careerists. Is that really where Schiff wants to go? It is a commonplace for presidents to award ambassadorships to key supporters — a tradition that President Obama enthusiastically continued. How is it that now, suddenly, Democrats have decided that this is corruption?
Most glaringly, the report claims that Trump demanded Ukraine’s help in two investigations solely for the benefit of his 2020 reelection campaign. This is not true, but it leads seamlessly to descriptions of the two investigations that are grossly misleading.
There is little doubt that the president hoped the requested Ukrainian investigative activity would redound to his political benefit. But that was not the only purpose for encouraging them — which is a salient distinction, since all presidents hope their permissible public actions will help their personal political standing.
The first of the two investigations mentioned in the Trump–Zelensky call on July 25 involved Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. Schiff misrepresents this investigation in two ways. First, he suggests it was to be conducted solely for Trump’s 2020 political purposes. In fact, it was primarily about (a) refuting the fraudulent 2016 narrative of Trump collusion with Russia and (b) exploring Ukraine’s meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Schiff ignores the ongoing Justice Department investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. Democrats despise this probe and want the public to see it as a politicized extension of the Trump 2020 campaign. It is, however, every bit as legitimate as was the Mueller probe (also approved by DOJ, and despised as political by Trump supporters). It is routine and proper for governments to seek each other’s help in investigations — especially when the obligation to assist is codified in a treaty, such as the one Washington and Kyiv have had for 20 years.
Schiff’s report obscures this fact by continuing to pretend (as Democrats did throughout Schiff’s hearings) that there is only one narrative of Ukraine’s 2016 collusion: a conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the DNC email accounts. Regrettably, Trump has bought into this discredited notion, and he mentioned it to Zelensky during their discussion. This enables Democrats to say that Trump seeks to undermine the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was the cyber culprit. But even though the president is wrong to dabble in debunked narratives, his focus was on establishing culpability for 2016 campaign wrongdoing, not political positioning for 2020 campaign purposes.
More to the point, Schiff continues to ignore significant evidence that Ukrainian government officials meddled in the 2016 election to promote Clinton and hurt Trump — including a Ukrainian court decision that so held. Coordination among the Obama administration, the Ukrainian government, and Democratic operatives is a legitimate area of inquiry for the ongoing investigation of the Trump-Russia investigation’s genesis. Contrary to the Democrats’ story, regurgitated in Schiff’s report, there is no contradiction in believing both that Russia hacked to harm Democrats and that Ukraine meddled to harm Trump.
The second investigation discussed by Trump and Zelensky (though it is given top billing in Schiff’s report) was to be a Ukrainian inquiry into potential corruption on the part of Vice President Biden and his son Hunter. During the Intelligence Committee hearings, Schiff falsely portrayed Trump as having asked Zelensky to “make up” incriminating evidence about Biden. In reality, Trump asked Zelensky to look into a situation in which there were (and are) palpable grounds for suspicion — e.g., the fact that Burisma, a corrupt energy company, put Hunter Biden on its board, and lavishly compensated him, when Joe Biden became the Obama administration’s point-man on Ukraine policy; and the fact that Biden extorted Ukraine’s government, on pain of losing $1 billion in desperately needed funding, to fire the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma.
Far from confronting these inconvenient facts, the Schiff report dismisses them, conclusorily declaring that “the allegations about Vice President Biden were without evidence” and that the prosecutor was removed solely because U.S. and European officials believed him to be corrupt. But of course, there was no evidence about Biden presented at the Intelligence Committee hearings because Schiff denied Republicans the right to present any. Further, it is fatuous of Democrats to claim that there was nothing at all to the Biden allegations when the neon-flashing conflict-of-interest is undeniable. And while it is certainly possible that the Ukrainian prosecutor in question was removed over corruption concerns, it is also quite plausible that he was cashiered because his investigation could have brought unwelcome attention to Hunter Biden’s cozy arrangement with Bursima, and thus to the vice president.
In no serious, objective investigation would the tribunal deny one side the opportunity to present its case, and then write a report concluding that no evidence supported that side’s position.
But this is not a sober, impartial tribunal weighing competing claims. Adam Schiff is a hardball partisan. His report would have you believe that there is nothing to see in the dodgy Biden situation, but that Donald Trump — despite ultimately giving Ukraine the defense funding without extracting any promise of investigations — somehow makes Richard Nixon look like a piker.