Unraveling the Impeachment Inquiry Testimony

The several days of hearings produced lots of melodrama but no direct evidence that President Trump held up aid to Ukraine to pressure the Ukraine to investigate meddling in the 2016 election or the company Burisma that hired Hunter Biden to its Board of Directors. There were hints and presumptions, but the only factual evidence was Trump’s firm statement to Gordon Sondland that there was no quid pro quo.

National Review’s Rich Lowry has suggested that with more patience, the Democrats could have compelled testimony from Bolton, Mulvaney and Giuliani that would have confirmed their suspicions. Lowry is not a fan of impeachment, but his argument is that it was a fool’s errand for the House Republicans to argue there was no quid pro quo. He, and many others such as Representative Hurd are more at ease with the argument that Trump’s actions fall far short of an impeachable offense. Whatever the political merits of Lowry’s point, a close look at the actual fact pattern contained in the hearing testimony suggest that Trump never offered to schedule a meeting or stop the hold on aid in return for a public announcement of the desired investigations.

It is very telling that US Ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor emailed Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland to express fear that the Ukrainians would make the announcement and Trump would not lift the hold anyway. In other words, no such offer of a quid pro quo for the release of aid was ever made to the Ukrainians because in addition to not wanting to alarm their Ukrainian counterparts, the American diplomats had no assurances that Trump would go along with it.

To be certain, from the phone call and Trump’s endorsement of the transcript, we know he asked President Zelensky to investigate the possible Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 campaign and added later on the call that they should also look into what Biden had meant when he boasted that he had pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor investigating Burisma. There is nowhere on the call where he even hinted at any linkage between his requests and either the scheduling of a meeting or the release of aid. Indeed, it would have made no sense for him to demand the announcement of the investigations as a pre-condition for the release of aid because he was literally telling Zelensky directly that he thought Biden’s using American aid to pressure Ukraine was horrible.

The most likely explanation of why the hearing produced no direct evidence of a quid pro quo is because Trump never offered one. The theater of the absurd that played out in the hearing room was a drama in which the Democrats presented a succession of self-proclaimed selfless public servants who were playing Marquis de Lafayette to Zelensky’s George Washington. Sent to the Ukraine to save the fledgling democracy from the evil Putin’s King George, their heroic efforts were betrayed by Trump’s Benedict Arnold. The drama was further enhanced by the damsel in distress role played by Ambassador Yovanovich. It was all political theater but if you looked carefully at the testimony, it offered a fairly clear picture of what actually happened, the most revealing of which was the testimony of U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, until his resignation on September 27, 2019, Kurt Volker.

Volker’s opening statement and subsequent testimony provided useful information and insight. His story began with the May 23 meeting where he testified that Trump was extremely negative about Ukraine. Trump made the remark “they tried to take me down” and when asked about it he told them to talk to Rudy who as Trump’s lawyer, was trying to find out about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. The most reasonable interpretation of Trump’s comment is that if they wanted to find out why Trump believed the Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election, they should talk with Giuliani because he had information about it. It was not a delegation of authority to Giuliani for US policy on Ukraine.

This meeting took place shortly after the Mueller report came out and Democrats and their collaborators in the news media were still spinning that the Mueller report had not exonerated him, and Trump was justifiably angry. Some of that anger undoubtedly came through in his discussion of Ukraine. His frustration must have been enhanced as some of the Steele Dossier was rumored to have originated in Ukraine.

Volker concluded from the meeting that Trump’s low opinion of Ukraine was based on Trump believing a so-called “debunked conspiracy theory” that was fed to him by Giuliani and that they would have to work through Giuliani to get Trump to change his mind. Volker and his fellow diplomats were very encouraged by the election of President Zelensky and believed that given a face to face meeting, Trump would get along well with the new Ukrainian leader and he would soften his attitude. The Ukrainians were eager to schedule a White House meeting for their newly elected President as it would enhance his stature in the Ukraine. To persuade Trump to have the meeting, the American diplomats encouraged their partners in Ukraine to make an announcement that they would launch an investigation into meddling in the 2016 election and another investigation into the company Burisma that employed Biden’s son. It was the hope of Volker and Sondland that this would persuade Trump to schedule the meeting. At the hearing, Volker went into some detail about the efforts to develop such a statement.

No evidence was ever presented that Trump knew about the linkage between the announcement and the scheduling of a meeting let alone that he had agreed to it. He knew about the attempts to begin investigations which we know from the July 25 phone call with Zelensky. Furthermore, we know that Trump saw nothing wrong with the call as he released the transcript and told everyone to read it for themselves. It appears from the hearing that the linkage was in the minds of the diplomats for whom the quid was the investigation announcement and the quo was Trump scheduling the White House meeting.

When news came to them that the there was a hold on the aid, they concluded that the problem was that Trump was waiting for the announcement. They did not want the Ukrainians to know about the hold because they felt it would complicate United States - Ukraine relations. If Trump was really extorting, bribing or “quid pro quo”-ing, he would have insisted the Ukraine know of his demands. In fact, no evidence was presented that Trump ever agreed to the deal for the White House meeting that his diplomats were trying to work out with their Ukrainian counterparts.

When the diplomats learned that there was a hold on the aid package, they became more worried about Trump’s attitude. They became concerned that Trump was holding the aid hostage to an announcement of the investigations. As was clear from all of the testimony at the hearings, this was a presumption on the part of the diplomats. They had no direct knowledge of such linkage and in fact had no idea whether a Ukrainian announcement would have led to the release of the funds. Ambassador Bill Taylor worried that Trump would not release the aid even if Zelensky himself made the announcement. Gordon Sondland testified that he was unclear about Trump’s thinking and called Trump to ask directly what he wanted. Sondland testified that trump responded “Nothing. I want nothing. There is no quid pro quo. I just want them to do the right thing.” A few days later, under intense pressure from Congress including especially Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson, Trump relented and released the aid.

For all the talk about Trump being dishonest, the fact is that he is extremely transparent. Trump ran on a promise of an America first foreign policy where decisions are based on what he thinks will be good for the American people. He wants to get out of foreign wars, build up the US military and tell the world we’ll leave you alone but if you mess with USA, we will make you pay a steep price. For Trump, the diplomats’ and Defense Department functionaries’ view of Ukraine do not square with his vision for foreign policy. His decision making on Ukraine is based on what’s good for the United States and not what is good for Ukraine. The diplomats claim the same motivation but they see things differently from Trump. On Trump’s side, he is the president and under the Constitution, he gets to set foreign policy. Furthermore, he was very clear about his priorities when he ran in 2016 and that in part explains why he got elected.

Trump said repeatedly, including on the phone call with Zelensky, he was concerned that other nations contribute their fair share. Moreover, he was concerned that the nations receiving our aid have our interests at heart. He wants to avoid war and he seeks better relations with Russia. These priorities are at the heart of his America first foreign policy. In the theater of the absurd that took place at the impeachment hearing, we were told that he was putting his own electoral fortunes over and above the national security of the United States. That is the least plausible explanation of Trump’s motives but it is the most attractive to his political opponents.

To be sure, the advice he was getting from his diplomats in Ukraine and his National Security staff, strongly favored support for a strong Ukraine that is aligned with the West and ultimately incorporated into NATO. Trump was very wary of this advice. And his view is not without precedence. For the past seventy years the issue of paramount importance in US/Russia relations has been the avoidance of war. That means that any decision regarding military actions including the arming of Russia’s neighbors must take into account the relative risk such actions entail. In 1956 President Eisenhower declined to intervene in Hungary when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to oust the government of Imre Nagy. In 1968, LBJ provided no military assistance to the government of Czechoslovakia when the tanks from the Warsaw Pact invaded that country to remove Alexander Dubcek and crush his attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face”. In 2008, George W Bush did nothing when the Russian Army occupied South Ossetia, a part of Georgia. In 2014, Obama embargoed arms to the Ukraine when Russia took over Crimea and threatened a part of the eastern Ukraine. In all cases, the decisions were driven by a very real fear of getting into a war with Russia.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump said repeatedly that he wanted to have better relations with Russia. One can argue over individual assessments of risk in dealing with areas of conflict with Russia, but it would be insane to have a policy that pushes the US needlessly towards war. Obama was very cautious about provoking Russia by arming countries in Eastern Europe with advanced missile systems and he refused to send lethal weapons to the Ukraine after Russia invaded because he felt it wasn’t worth the risk. When considering continuing lethal aid to the Ukraine, it is hard to believe that potential conflict with Russia wasn’t of grave concern to Trump.

In the end, there was no deal, Trump released the aid and no investigations were announced. All the Democrats have left is the Trump request to look into what Hunter Biden was doing with Burisma, something that every witness and even Hunter Biden himself acknowledges created the problematic appearance of a conflict of interest. Is the House of Representatives really going to impeach Trump for that?

Graphic credit: YouTube screen grab

The several days of hearings produced lots of melodrama but no direct evidence that President Trump held up aid to Ukraine to pressure the Ukraine to investigate meddling in the 2016 election or the company Burisma that hired Hunter Biden to its Board of Directors. There were hints and presumptions, but the only factual evidence was Trump’s firm statement to Gordon Sondland that there was no quid pro quo.

National Review’s Rich Lowry has suggested that with more patience, the Democrats could have compelled testimony from Bolton, Mulvaney and Giuliani that would have confirmed their suspicions. Lowry is not a fan of impeachment, but his argument is that it was a fool’s errand for the House Republicans to argue there was no quid pro quo. He, and many others such as Representative Hurd are more at ease with the argument that Trump’s actions fall far short of an impeachable offense. Whatever the political merits of Lowry’s point, a close look at the actual fact pattern contained in the hearing testimony suggest that Trump never offered to schedule a meeting or stop the hold on aid in return for a public announcement of the desired investigations.

It is very telling that US Ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor emailed Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland to express fear that the Ukrainians would make the announcement and Trump would not lift the hold anyway. In other words, no such offer of a quid pro quo for the release of aid was ever made to the Ukrainians because in addition to not wanting to alarm their Ukrainian counterparts, the American diplomats had no assurances that Trump would go along with it.

To be certain, from the phone call and Trump’s endorsement of the transcript, we know he asked President Zelensky to investigate the possible Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 campaign and added later on the call that they should also look into what Biden had meant when he boasted that he had pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor investigating Burisma. There is nowhere on the call where he even hinted at any linkage between his requests and either the scheduling of a meeting or the release of aid. Indeed, it would have made no sense for him to demand the announcement of the investigations as a pre-condition for the release of aid because he was literally telling Zelensky directly that he thought Biden’s using American aid to pressure Ukraine was horrible.

The most likely explanation of why the hearing produced no direct evidence of a quid pro quo is because Trump never offered one. The theater of the absurd that played out in the hearing room was a drama in which the Democrats presented a succession of self-proclaimed selfless public servants who were playing Marquis de Lafayette to Zelensky’s George Washington. Sent to the Ukraine to save the fledgling democracy from the evil Putin’s King George, their heroic efforts were betrayed by Trump’s Benedict Arnold. The drama was further enhanced by the damsel in distress role played by Ambassador Yovanovich. It was all political theater but if you looked carefully at the testimony, it offered a fairly clear picture of what actually happened, the most revealing of which was the testimony of U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, until his resignation on September 27, 2019, Kurt Volker.

Volker’s opening statement and subsequent testimony provided useful information and insight. His story began with the May 23 meeting where he testified that Trump was extremely negative about Ukraine. Trump made the remark “they tried to take me down” and when asked about it he told them to talk to Rudy who as Trump’s lawyer, was trying to find out about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. The most reasonable interpretation of Trump’s comment is that if they wanted to find out why Trump believed the Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election, they should talk with Giuliani because he had information about it. It was not a delegation of authority to Giuliani for US policy on Ukraine.

This meeting took place shortly after the Mueller report came out and Democrats and their collaborators in the news media were still spinning that the Mueller report had not exonerated him, and Trump was justifiably angry. Some of that anger undoubtedly came through in his discussion of Ukraine. His frustration must have been enhanced as some of the Steele Dossier was rumored to have originated in Ukraine.

Volker concluded from the meeting that Trump’s low opinion of Ukraine was based on Trump believing a so-called “debunked conspiracy theory” that was fed to him by Giuliani and that they would have to work through Giuliani to get Trump to change his mind. Volker and his fellow diplomats were very encouraged by the election of President Zelensky and believed that given a face to face meeting, Trump would get along well with the new Ukrainian leader and he would soften his attitude. The Ukrainians were eager to schedule a White House meeting for their newly elected President as it would enhance his stature in the Ukraine. To persuade Trump to have the meeting, the American diplomats encouraged their partners in Ukraine to make an announcement that they would launch an investigation into meddling in the 2016 election and another investigation into the company Burisma that employed Biden’s son. It was the hope of Volker and Sondland that this would persuade Trump to schedule the meeting. At the hearing, Volker went into some detail about the efforts to develop such a statement.

No evidence was ever presented that Trump knew about the linkage between the announcement and the scheduling of a meeting let alone that he had agreed to it. He knew about the attempts to begin investigations which we know from the July 25 phone call with Zelensky. Furthermore, we know that Trump saw nothing wrong with the call as he released the transcript and told everyone to read it for themselves. It appears from the hearing that the linkage was in the minds of the diplomats for whom the quid was the investigation announcement and the quo was Trump scheduling the White House meeting.

When news came to them that the there was a hold on the aid, they concluded that the problem was that Trump was waiting for the announcement. They did not want the Ukrainians to know about the hold because they felt it would complicate United States - Ukraine relations. If Trump was really extorting, bribing or “quid pro quo”-ing, he would have insisted the Ukraine know of his demands. In fact, no evidence was presented that Trump ever agreed to the deal for the White House meeting that his diplomats were trying to work out with their Ukrainian counterparts.

When the diplomats learned that there was a hold on the aid package, they became more worried about Trump’s attitude. They became concerned that Trump was holding the aid hostage to an announcement of the investigations. As was clear from all of the testimony at the hearings, this was a presumption on the part of the diplomats. They had no direct knowledge of such linkage and in fact had no idea whether a Ukrainian announcement would have led to the release of the funds. Ambassador Bill Taylor worried that Trump would not release the aid even if Zelensky himself made the announcement. Gordon Sondland testified that he was unclear about Trump’s thinking and called Trump to ask directly what he wanted. Sondland testified that trump responded “Nothing. I want nothing. There is no quid pro quo. I just want them to do the right thing.” A few days later, under intense pressure from Congress including especially Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson, Trump relented and released the aid.

For all the talk about Trump being dishonest, the fact is that he is extremely transparent. Trump ran on a promise of an America first foreign policy where decisions are based on what he thinks will be good for the American people. He wants to get out of foreign wars, build up the US military and tell the world we’ll leave you alone but if you mess with USA, we will make you pay a steep price. For Trump, the diplomats’ and Defense Department functionaries’ view of Ukraine do not square with his vision for foreign policy. His decision making on Ukraine is based on what’s good for the United States and not what is good for Ukraine. The diplomats claim the same motivation but they see things differently from Trump. On Trump’s side, he is the president and under the Constitution, he gets to set foreign policy. Furthermore, he was very clear about his priorities when he ran in 2016 and that in part explains why he got elected.

Trump said repeatedly, including on the phone call with Zelensky, he was concerned that other nations contribute their fair share. Moreover, he was concerned that the nations receiving our aid have our interests at heart. He wants to avoid war and he seeks better relations with Russia. These priorities are at the heart of his America first foreign policy. In the theater of the absurd that took place at the impeachment hearing, we were told that he was putting his own electoral fortunes over and above the national security of the United States. That is the least plausible explanation of Trump’s motives but it is the most attractive to his political opponents.

To be sure, the advice he was getting from his diplomats in Ukraine and his National Security staff, strongly favored support for a strong Ukraine that is aligned with the West and ultimately incorporated into NATO. Trump was very wary of this advice. And his view is not without precedence. For the past seventy years the issue of paramount importance in US/Russia relations has been the avoidance of war. That means that any decision regarding military actions including the arming of Russia’s neighbors must take into account the relative risk such actions entail. In 1956 President Eisenhower declined to intervene in Hungary when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to oust the government of Imre Nagy. In 1968, LBJ provided no military assistance to the government of Czechoslovakia when the tanks from the Warsaw Pact invaded that country to remove Alexander Dubcek and crush his attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face”. In 2008, George W Bush did nothing when the Russian Army occupied South Ossetia, a part of Georgia. In 2014, Obama embargoed arms to the Ukraine when Russia took over Crimea and threatened a part of the eastern Ukraine. In all cases, the decisions were driven by a very real fear of getting into a war with Russia.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump said repeatedly that he wanted to have better relations with Russia. One can argue over individual assessments of risk in dealing with areas of conflict with Russia, but it would be insane to have a policy that pushes the US needlessly towards war. Obama was very cautious about provoking Russia by arming countries in Eastern Europe with advanced missile systems and he refused to send lethal weapons to the Ukraine after Russia invaded because he felt it wasn’t worth the risk. When considering continuing lethal aid to the Ukraine, it is hard to believe that potential conflict with Russia wasn’t of grave concern to Trump.

In the end, there was no deal, Trump released the aid and no investigations were announced. All the Democrats have left is the Trump request to look into what Hunter Biden was doing with Burisma, something that every witness and even Hunter Biden himself acknowledges created the problematic appearance of a conflict of interest. Is the House of Representatives really going to impeach Trump for that?

Graphic credit: YouTube screen grab