Impeachment evidence building on Trump arm-twisting
As a number of government officials, one after another, testify before U.S. House committees to the veracity of the whistleblower’s report of President Trump’s July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Republican members of Congress are weighing their options.
Now that the House has voted in favor of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s rules for open hearings of the impeachment inquiry, the American people will soon hear in public what the House committees have heard in private. The testimony will make pretty clear that Trump implied to Zelensky that release of American military aid for Ukraine’s defensive war against the Russian invasion was dependent upon Zelensky initiating an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Several media outlets are reporting that the U.S. pressure on Ukraine to implicate the Bidens in corruption had been going on for several months prior to the July phone call. And some Trump allies, like acting chief of staff Nick Mulvaney, have publicly corroborated the charge. Mulvaney told a press conference that such demands are standard foreign policy procedure for the government, and that reporters should “get over it.”
So far Republicans in Washington have concentrated their opposition to the Democratic impeachment push on the process of the investigation, not the substance of the charges. But in the next few weeks the pressure will build for them to decide how they will handle what the investigation turns up. It’s likely to be unpleasant for them.
Some Republicans are simply denying the whole thing. That implies that they accuse the many witnesses of lying. That’s a difficult case to make, since there are documents, emails, texts and other evidence that back up the testimony.
Others are saying that they don’t see a quid pro quo in the Trump-Zelensky telephone call. That’s also a tough position to take, since evidence is building that the administration’s arm-twisting of Zelensky had been going on for months before the phone call.
After the Democratic majority in the House votes to impeach Trump---which is almost certain to happen---the charges will be turned over to the Senate, where the actual trial will take place.
Some Republican Senators are buying time (correctly and wisely, in my opinion) by pointing out that the investigation is still in process in the House, and therefore it’s not a Senator’s place to comment until all the facts are known. To do otherwise would be like a judge issuing an opinion before the trial takes place.
But the time will come when all Senators will have to stand before their constituents and the rest of America and declare whether Trump should be convicted of the House impeachment charges.
When that moment arrives, I’m guessing that most Senate Republicans will do what Senate Democrats did in the Clinton impeachment trial 21 years ago. They’ll admit that what the President did was wrong, or ill-advised, or unseemly, or stupid. They may even offer a censure vote as an alternative. But they’ll pronounce that “it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.”
Remember that phrase? It was the fall-back position, the default argument, of the Democrats in 1998. They couldn’t escape the fact that Clinton lied under oath, but they could maintain (with some justification) that in so doing, Clinton hadn’t endangered the nation or weakened its government. Therefore he didn’t deserve to be removed from office.
Clinton’s sins, they said, weren’t as great as Nixon’s had been back in the early 1970s. And back then Senators from both parties agreed: Nixon would have been emphatically impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. Congressional leadership had counted noses and knew what the judgment would be. So Nixon resigned first.
And in fact, the Democrats in 1998 guessed right. The American people weren’t ready to boot Clinton as their President. In fact, Democrats gained strength in the November 1998 House election, the first time since 1822 that the party in power had done so in the sixth year of a two-term President.
The loss of Republican House seats in the 1998 election cost Newt Gingrich his job. Gingrich, who as Speaker of the House had masterminded the Clinton impeachment, had to step down as GOP leader, and resigned from the House in 1999.
So what will Senate Republicans decide about Trump? Is his wrongdoing on the scale of Nixon’s or more like Clinton’s?
Chuck Grassley, a Senator from Iowa in the Clinton years, voted to convict Clinton on both charges brought against him by the House. After the current House lays out its charges against Trump, and its evidence, will Grassley vote likewise this time?
Or will he, like the 1998 Senate Democrats, find that the President’s actions were improper, but that they “don’t rise to the level of impeachment”?
Both Grassley and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst serve on the Senate judiciary committee. In that capacity they carry a special responsibility. Iowans will be watching to see how they handle the evidence. It may be among the most important votes they cast during their political careers. No matter what they decide, Iowans in turn will judge their decision.