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The Democrat’s super fun-packed Impeachment Week came to an end yesterday and Donald Trump probably enjoyed a solid three hours sleep beneath his cotton quilt topped with the presidential seal. He knows, for the moment, he’s safe, even if over half of the US now understands that he is deserving of impeachment and removal from office. And if that all sounds paradoxical, welcome to American politics 2019.
The Democrats have surely done what they had set out to do and prove that Trump is the most corrupt president in the history of the Republic. His alleged crimes exceed those of Nixon by a factor of moral turpitude raised to the power of rank stupidity. The only logical conclusion from a neutral reading of the testimony is that Donald Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in order to elicit dirt on Joe Biden, the man he believes will be his political rival in 2020. To suggest otherwise is to invoke a degree of fantasy that involve orcs of a very different kind to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, currently under investigation by Southern District of New York prosecutors and nicknamed by Saturday Night Live as “The Two Shreks”. It would be to suggest that Trump, the man who this last past fortnight was fined $2 million for “personally misusing” his own charitable foundation, is genuinely interested in corruption reform in Ukraine. It would suggest that his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had only the best motives for working with mobbed-up characters like Parnas and Fruman.
And that’s just the point. Everything about this screams “extortion racket”. In the past two weeks, we’ve had everything found in a great mob trial up to and including the “fink” who decides his own neck is worth more than the scoundrels he is supposed to protect. Gordon Sondland, an ultrarich hotelier who had dumped a million into Trump’s campaign and then became America’s ambassador to the EU, had walked into the committee room grinning as though spilling the truth would finally set him free from his personal hell. His testimony was staggering. Sure, he effectively said, there’d been a “quid pro quo”. Everybody in the administration was in on the deal. Rudy Giuliani has been working for the president, pursuing a shadow foreign policy… Sure. Yes. Yep. We did it all!
Sondland pushed the evidence all the way up to the President’s door. Unfortunately for Democrats, he then refused to step through it. The scheme to exchange aid for dirt was never explicitly described in those terms. The furthest he was willing to go was to say the President wanted the Ukrainians to say they were starting investigations into “Burisma”.
Burisma, as you probably know, is Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company with questionable lineage that briefly sought to inflate its international credentials by hiring some big-name players for its board including Aleksander Kwaśniewskim, the former president of Poland; Joseph Confer Black, former director of counterterrorism under George W. Bush; and, of course, Hunter Biden, the son of the then American vice president. Biden was an odd fit, having no experience in the energy sector, yet earning up to $50,000 a month for his services. This became the red meat that Trump has been routinely throwing to his red caps, many of whom dream of earning $50,000 a year yet seem happy to ignore the millions earned by the various junior Trumps since their father’s elevation.
Sondland testified that Trump wanted the Ukrainians to announce an investigation into Burisma but, he noted, they needn’t conduct the investigation. The suggestion was clear. Trump only wanted a justification to smear Biden in the coming presidential election, in the very same way he had successfully smeared “crooked Hillary” in 2016. But therein lies the Democrats’ problem. “Burisma” does not mean “Biden” and they struggled to find that bombshell testimony that would put the word “Biden” in Trump’s mouth when discussing the suspension of aid.
Legal experts across the TV networks have been screaming that a jury wouldn’t need to hear that evidence in order to make that deduction. “You don’t leave your common sense at the jury room door” they kept saying but most juries aren’t the Republican Party. It’s been the nature of the fight between Republicans and Democrats that the GOP are willing to defend one position until it is unviable and then set up their defences elsewhere. For a long time, they complained that there was no quid pro quo. Then when it was obvious there was a quid pro quo, they moved to stand on the point that this was about corruption and not the Bidens.
On Thursday, Dr Fiona Hill spoke for the foreign policy experts that weren’t in on the deal. She explained how she had only recently come to realise that Sondland was involved in a “domestic political errand” (a damning phrase), that had nothing to do with the real work of the “national security foreign policy”. Pundits swooned over Hill, her northern British accent, and the unflappable way she would switch between defending the President against unfair political attacks to then dismantling the Republican case. Dr Hill said that she thought it “not credible” that Sondland didn’t understand that “Burisma” meant “Biden”. Again, it was testimony that should reasonably carry weight but “not credible” took us no closer to the Oval Office. We might not get any closer.
Thursday was the last of the planned depositions and Congress is now on the Thanksgiving recess and won’t return until 2nd December. Democrats are right to think they’ve got all the evidence they need to hand this to the Justice Committee before moving to the House floor. The readout of Trump’s call with Zelensky remains the most compelling evidence of all and, there, Trump does apparently link aid with the Bidens (as well as with the kind of misinformation that Hill testified comes right out of Moscow). Yet the point of these two weeks of public testimony was to make a bigger case before the American public, whose opinion (reflected in various polls) remains the most compelling reason for Republicans to break against a total party-line vote in the Senate in January.
A bad sign for Democrats was the statement made by Will Hurd at the end of Thursday’s testimony. Hurd is considered the least partisan of the Republicans. Formerly of the CIA and always popping up on TV with sensible quotes, Hurd is also quitting Congress at the next election. If anybody was going to break, it was going to be Hurd. And he isn’t breaking. “An impeachable offence should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear, and unambiguous”, he said and then rendered his verdict. “I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
Naturally, there is no such thing as objectivity these matters. Hurd might be leaving Congress but there’s no way of knowing where his political ambitions lie. Many Republicans “quitting politics” are simply escaping the blast zone before the Trump presidency smashes into reality. So, although Hurd has no loyalty to Trump, it would understandable if he did not want to be tagged as a rebel who was once disloyal to his party.
Yet it leaves Democrats with a dilemma. They certainly have enough evidence to impeach Trump and that might be enough to justify this process. They would understand that a deeply corrupt President will be cleared in a shamelessly biased Senate but it still gives them a little political capital going into 2020, whilst realising the ultimate verdict will be handed down by voters. Yet this is to hand the advantage to Republicans, who can reasonably argue this investigation was never about the truth.
Nancy Pelosi made a big play about only reluctantly starting the impeachment process. It was meant to be about justice rather than political opportunism. Without interviewing John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Mick Mulvaney, who emerge from this week’s testimony as key witnesses, that argument would begin to look increasingly weak. Bolton, in particular, has a story to tell. It’s a $2 million story, valued on the deal he’s stuck to write a book, but he’s also being coy. “Glad to be back on Twitter after more than two months. For the backstory, stay tuned…” he tweeted just moments ago, in what amounts to either a “come and talk to me” to the intelligence committee or publicity for his book.