House Democrats’ vote to impeach President Donald Trump may offer immediate feelings of satisfaction, but it should not be mistaken for a path forward. Behind their lofty rhetoric, Democrats have presented the public with a weak impeachment case and doubled down on a Cold Warrior–inflected, failure-ridden political playbook.
Article I of Impeachment asserts that Trump “compromised the national security of the United States” by freezing military funding to Ukraine as it fought Russian-backed forces. Congressional Democrats and their impeachment witnesses repeatedly promoted the theme. “When the President weakens a partner who advances American security interests, the President weakens America,” the final House impeachment report proclaims. “We used to stand up to Putin and Russia. I know the party of Ronald Reagan used to,” Representative Adam Schiff intoned in closing remarks before the impeachment vote. “Their [Ukraine’s] fight is our fight. Their defense is our defense.”
This rhetoric is not only transparently disingenuous but also dangerous. By the Democrats’ own logic, President Obama is guilty of a far worse offense than his newly impeached successor. Whereas Trump briefly paused military funding that was ultimately delivered to Ukraine, Obama refused to send that same military funding at all. This was, in my view, a welcome decision: In resisting Beltway pressure, Obama avoided further inflaming a deadly proxy war. At the time, Bill Taylor, the veteran US diplomat who would go on to become one of the Democrats’ star witnesses, described Obama’s approach as “appeasement.” Apparently, today’s Democratic leadership resoundingly agrees.
Equally disingenuous is Article I’s denunciation of Trump’s “invitations of foreign interference in United States elections.” As the newly completed Department of Justice Inspector General’s investigation reminds us, the Clinton campaign and DNC paid a British ex-spy, Christopher Steele, to obtain dirt on Trump from Russia. This act of foreign interference was so consequential that it led to the unwarranted surveillance of a US citizen, Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, and played a major role in fueling three years of baseless, all-consuming speculation that Trump is compromised by the Kremlin and that his campaign conspired with it. And when Ukrainians leaked documents that led to the resignation of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Democrats had no qualms about benefiting from that foreign meddling.
It also does not help the Democrats’ case that the Ukrainian government continues to refute the notion that Trump used the military funding to coerce Ukraine into launching the investigations he sought. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly denied a quid pro quo attempt from Washington. Ukraine Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said last month that he “never [saw] a direct link between investigations and security assistance.… there was no clear connection.” Andriy Yermak, the only Ukrainian official thought to have been told by a US official (Gordon Sondland, the key Democratic fact witness) of a linkage between the military funding and the opening of investigations, said this month that he doesn’t even remember receiving such a message.
For anyone who managed to follow the convoluted impeachment hearings, the Ukrainian disavowals are no surprise. Contrary to widespread hype about his role on Trump’s behalf, Sondland testified that he had in fact told Yermak, in “a very, very brief pull-aside conversation,” that he “didn’t know exactly why” the military funding had been frozen, and that its linkage to opening an investigation was only his “personal presumption” in the absence of an explanation from Trump. Given that Sondland was the only US official believed to have communicated the alleged quid pro quo to the Ukrainian side, the fact that he did so in passing, and based on a “presumption,” opened a major hole in the Democrats’ case. The prevailing Democratic and media response has simply been to ignore it.
The second article, obstruction of Congress, also faces a hurdle. Even if Democrats do have a credible case, they face the same quandary as after the Mueller probe: A legalistic obstruction dispute will not win broad public support unless it is established that Trump is guilty of the underlying offense. Moreover, while Democrats have every right to complain that Trump blocked key witnesses from testifying, their obstruction case is less compelling in light of their refusal to take him to court over it—unlike their ongoing legal fight to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.
This quandary could have been avoided had Democrats opted for what seemed to me the most practical option from the start: censure, as Representative Tulsi Gabbard has just proposed. It is not difficult to make the case that Trump engaged in an abuse of office by asking the Ukrainian president to “look into” Joe Biden and his son Hunter. But Democrats opted instead for the maximal remedy based on a maximalist interpretation of the available facts—an interpretation that ultimately fell short when it became clear that its strongest evidence was Sondland’s mere “presumption.”
The underwhelming Democratic case to date perhaps explains why, if the latest polling is correct, support for impeachment is on the decline. Given that Democrats won the popular vote in 2016, it does not bode well that they have not only failed to move the needle but even appear to be losing ground. The polling is particularly gloomy in the battleground states where it matters most.
It would be easier to feel optimistic if Democratic leaders were mounting any sort of political agenda or movement that could win over voters that they lost in 2016. But that is not the case. It is striking that for all the mockery of Trump’s indignant letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, few liberal media pundits and politicians took exception to his attempt to highlight what he regards as his achievements. Contrary to the letter’s self-aggrandizing revisionism, Trump has betrayed the voters who were led to believe he would “drain the swamp.” His tax scam continues to favor the wealthy, real wages continue to stagnate, shuttered factories haven’t returned, and skyrocketing health care costs are wreaking havoc—to take one example, half of people with diabetes are skipping their insulin. Far from ending “endless wars,” he has expanded them, even in Syria after announcing a withdrawal. Contrary to his vow to “stop racing to topple foreign regimes,” Trump has imposed murderous sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Syria in a brazen effort to starve besieged populations into submission. Meanwhile, Trump and the GOP continue to wage their class war on the most vulnerable: Medicaid is under assault; food stamps are on the chopping block; and, according to a recently disclosed proposal, Social Security is next.
None of this is anywhere near the top of the Democratic leadership’s agenda. Instead, from the failed Trump-Russia conspiracy theory to its Ukrainegate sequel, the Democratic leadership’s resounding message to voters is that, in Pelosi’s words, “all roads lead to Putin.”
Because Pelosi’s mantra is so illogical, it makes sense that she and her cohorts routinely fail to follow it to its logical conclusion. The impeachment vote came one day after the Senate sent Trump a $738 billion Pentagon budget. The measure includes the creation of a key Trump priority, the Space Force, along with carte blanche to continue supporting Saudi mass murder in Yemen. Democrats in both chambers joined with Republicans to pass the bill in what Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna called “an astonishing act of moral cowardice” and a “complete capitulation to the White House.”
It is difficult to believe that the Democrats see Trump as a threat to national security or beholden to Russia when they capitulate to his top policy preferences, particularly ones that boost the lethal military arsenal under his control. In reality, the Democratic leadership’s playbook of discredited Russia conspiracy theories, Cold Warrior jingoism, and White House capitulation results from the dynamic that they have embraced since the 2016 election: challenging Trump through any means that does not fundamentally challenge the political and economic system that grants them power and privilege.
So long as top Democratic and media figures adhere to that position, it is difficult to see how they will avoid a similar fate in 2020. If the polls are not enough of a sign, just look at the poor turnout for the protests on impeachment eve. Impeachment rallies across the country “were notably smaller than many of the other recent mass protests,” the Associated Press observed. “Some activists acknowledge that impeachment doesn’t fire up people like life-and-death issues such as health care, guns or climate change.”
It is difficult to recall a time in recent memory when liberal US politics has been centered on issues so divorced from reality and from issues that matter to people’s lives. As the apotheosis of the Democratic Party’s Trump-era playbook, Wednesday’s impeachment vote was indeed the “solemn” day that Pelosi and company claimed it to be. Unless they change course, it is hard not to anticipate an even more solemn future.