By asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to assist with an investigation into Joe Biden, President Donald Trump clearly engaged in unethical conduct. After all, Biden could be Trump’s opponent in 2020. Regardless of whether or not the Biden family has had unsavory dealings in Ukraine, Trump should not enroll another country’s leader to find out. The whistle-blower’s concern that Trump attempted to “abuse his office for personal gain” is worthy of investigation.
But whether this rises to the level of impeachment is a separate question. Impeachment is a political—not a legal—issue, and so the answer is based not only on the merits of the case but also on the consequences of pursuing it.
Democratic leaders and media pundits are convinced that Trump extorted Ukraine by delaying military aid to compel an investigation into Biden. Their theory may prove correct, but the available evidence does not, as of now, make for a strong case. Trump had held up military aid to Ukraine by the time of his call with Zelensky, but if the public transcript is accurate, it did not come up during their conversation. According to The New York Times, Zelensky’s government did not learn that the military aid was frozen until more than one month later. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who met with Zelensky in early September, said that the Ukrainian president “did not make any connection between the aid that had been cut off and the requests that he was getting from [Trump attorney Rudy] Giuliani.” It will be difficult to prove extortion if Trump’s purported target was unaware.
It is also unclear from the transcript what exactly Trump wants Zelensky to do. The president’s rambling leaves room for ambiguity. On the Biden front, Trump tells Zelensky that “whatever you can do with the Attorney General [William Barr] would be great” and also asks him to “look into it.” But Barr says that he and Trump never spoke about investigating Biden or contacting Ukraine; Zelensky says that he did not feel any pressure to investigate Biden; and “look into it” can be interpreted in ways ranging from damning to benign.
Moreover, Trump’s foremost concern—and the object of the “favor” he asks Zelensky—is not Biden, but securing the Ukrainian president’s assistance with Barr’s review of the origins of the Russia investigation. Although he may be incoherent, Trump is within his rights to ask for Ukraine’s cooperation. As Lev Golinkin noted in The Nation, Ukrainian officials meddled in the 2016 election, with the explicit aim of hurting Trump’s candidacy, by leaking damaging information about Paul Manafort.
The whistle-blower’s complaint underscores the tenuous evidence to date: Its concerns are based entirely on second-hand and open-source information. The complaint references a “word-for-word transcript” produced by the Situation Room. If that is different from the one released by the White House, then perhaps there is still a smoking gun to be found. But if not, then as it stands, Democrats would be pushing for the most serious verdict possible, removal of the president from office, on a shaky case.
Democrats also opted to do so before both the transcript and complaint were released. It is worth asking why Trump’s behavior was already deemed impeachment-worthy before such critical pieces of evidence were available. And given how many immoral and destructive acts Trump commits daily, it is also worth asking why this one was deemed to be, in the words of Representative Adam Schiff, the president’s “most serious misconduct thus far.”
The answer is not difficult. In Washington, elites generally face consequences for the harm they cause not to the general population but to other members of the club. The standard was laid bare in Watergate, when Richard Nixon faced impeachment not for mass murder in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but for targeting the opposing elite faction and trying to cover it up. George W. Bush surely could have been impeached over the Iraq invasion if not for the fact that his crime against humanity was carried out with bipartisan support.
In the era of Trump, prominent Democratic and media figures have shaped their “Resistance” around the imperatives of the national security state and hostility to Trump’s occasional deviations. That is what gave us Russiagate, where US intelligence officials suspected Trump of being a Russian agent for breaking with bipartisan hostility toward Moscow. Ukrainegate also originates with the national security state. Its whistle-blower hails from the CIA, and his sources occupy nearby perches, including inside the White House. The prevailing concern is not just Trump’s alleged corruption but also, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that “Russia has a hand in this.”
Their outcry presupposes that Trump endangered Ukraine and emboldened Russia by pausing the military assistance. In reality, US military aid has prolonged a disastrous proxy war with Russia that has claimed thousands of lives. It has also empowered far-right forces in Ukraine who have benefited from the US military assistance that Trump briefly froze. It was a concern for this very outcome that prompted President Obama to resist intense pressure to send that same military aid. Trump reversed Obama’s decision after facing the same Beltway pressure—with the added weight of contemporaneous allegations that he was not only soft on Russia but also its accomplice. The warning of former National Security Council member Charles Kupchan in August 2017 that sending “lethal weapons to Ukraine is a recipe for military escalation and transatlantic discord” has proven to be tragically prescient.
For Democrats to once again oppose Trump via a militarist, Cold War “scandal” risks more danger for Ukraine, Russia, and their own 2020 prospects. We all know how the last one turned out: three years of innuendo, discredited “bombshells,” and an investigation that not only found no Trump-Russia conspiracy but, upon scrutiny, almost no actual contact between Trump and Russia—insofar as “Russia” means the government that his campaign supposedly conspired with, not just Russian passport-holders or people who claim to know them. It should now be clear what Russiagate meant for the cause of defeating Trump in 2020. The collusion hype not only sidelined focus on the harm Trump has done to the country and the world but gave him the additional gift of vindication when it collapsed.
As much as we may hope that a Ukrainegate-centered impeachment proceeding could curb Trump’s other abuses, there are no reasons to expect that outcome. Instead, we risk another all-consuming affair much like Russiagate, with political and media energy consumed by minutiae that few Americans care about, and a hawkish worldview once again deemed synonymous with being anti-Trump. The fact that Schiff, the top congressional promoter of discredited Trump-Russia innuendo, is once again leading the charge does not inspire confidence. Schiff has already falsely declared that the whistle-blower alleged that “Trump pressured Ukraine to manufacture dirt on Biden” and that this allegation was “Confirmed.” In fact, the whistle-blower only alleged that Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden, not “manufacture dirt” on him, and the transcript does not “confirm” otherwise.
Republicans will also get ample opportunities to highlight Democratic double standards. Even if Trump and Giuliani’s worst suspicions about Biden are incorrect, what is already established is damning enough. Hunter Biden obtained his lucrative board seat on a Ukrainian gas company despite having no experience in the country, and just months after his father’s administration backed a coup that overthrew its government. That very fact will weaken any Democratic effort to highlight Trump’s efforts to enrich himself and his family through the Oval Office. Republicans will also point to the irony of Trump’s being accused of seeking 2020 election help from Ukraine after Democratic Party officials already received such help in 2016. And after they take their turns hammering Biden’s dealings and Democrats’ hypocrisy, Senate Republicans will inevitably vote for Trump’s acquittal.
Throughout Russiagate, the interests of national security state officials converged with those of the neoliberal Democrats who lost to Trump in 2016. The unwavering focus on a conspiracy theory allowed Democratic elites to stave off the transformation that should have resulted from losing to a billionaire con man who posed as a working-class champion. Ukrainegate grants them yet one more extension: Instead of a Democratic primary where issues like Medicare For All, education, climate change, immigrant rights, militarism, and class warfare are addressed like never before, the country risks another incessant fixation with an intra-elite battle that relegates voters, and their concerns, to the margins. Democrats risk not only sidelining voters but their own best opportunity to reach them.
It is possible that enough incriminating evidence will be uncovered to make the Ukrainegate gambit worth it. But there are already enough parallels with the self-defeating scandal that consumed Democrats over the course of Trump’s first term to give pause. That is, at minimum, worthy of careful reflection as we head into the period that will decide whether Trump is to win or lose another four years.