High Crimes and Misdemeanors? The Anatomy of the Trump-Ukraine Scandal
By Alex Reinsch-Goldstein
For the first time in an administration which must rank as one of the most scandal-ridden in history, President Donald Trump actually faces the prospect of an impeachment inquiry. This begs the question: what makes the present scandal so much more severe than all the others? What is it that has finally prodded Congress into action?
At the heart of the matter is a July phone conversation between President Trump and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump asked the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President, Democratic presidential candidate, and Trump opponent Joe Biden. Trump requesting that a foreign nation deliver potentially damaging information on the son of a political opponent brings up shades of the previous accusations against Trump: that he solicits foreign governments for opposition research. This time, however, the opposition is much more grave. Here, he used an official phone call, in his capacity as President speaking with a foreign leader, to do so.
We all know about the character on one end of the phone call; Trump has been president for two-and-a-half years and we’re all well familiar with him by now. But who is Volodymyr Zelensky? It goes without saying that he is far from an average politician. 43 years old and an actor and comedian by training, he first rose to prominence when he won the Ukrainian equivalent of Dancing With the Stars. He went on to star in the popular TV series Servant of the People, in which he played a schoolteacher whose anti-corruption rant goes viral and is swept into office as President of Ukraine. While the show was still on air, a political party named Servant of the People was registered by employees at the eponymous TV show’s production company. Servant of the People promised to fight the rampant corruption in Ukrainian politics, end the war in the east, and bring Ukraine closer to the European Union. The party nominated Zelensky--whose only qualification was playing the President of Ukraine on television--for president, and won a large majority in parliament. Zelensky won a landslide victory with over 73% of the vote. The comedian was now president.
Ending the war in the east was a major priority for Zelensky’s administration. With the war against pro-Russian separatists and Russian irregulars dragging into its fifth year, Ukraine is heavily dependent on external support--from the US and the EU--to keep the military situation minimally stable. On July 25th, two months into Zelensky’s term, he called President Trump to discuss the situation. Zelensky mentioned that Ukraine would shortly be ready to buy more American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, but the conversation between the former comedian and the former reality TV star quickly went awry. In response to Zelensky’s mention of more arms purchases, Trump replied that he had a favor to ask.
The favor, as laid out in the now-infamous whistleblower report, was a Ukrainian government investigation of Hunter Biden.
Hunter Biden might fairly be called the wild child of the Biden family. He chose not to follow his father and older brother Beau into politics, and in 2014 was dismissed from the Navy reserve for cocaine use. Going instead into the world of international finance, Hunter Biden joined the board of the Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma Holdings. In the pseudo-kleptocratic economic situation which has prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is hardly a place of scrupulous conduct in the financial sector. Trump claimed, without evidence, that not only had Hunter Biden participated in said culture of corruption--but that, while in office, Joe Biden had pressured the government of Ukraine to fire the country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, for investigating Burisma.
However, the reality is much more complex than that. Shokin inherited an investigation into the head of Burisma Holdings when he assumed office in 2014, on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Shokin, however, was widely regarded to be corrupt himself and was seen to be attempting to slow down or neglect corruption investigations, so much so that the Burisma case had grown dormant under his leadership. Shokin was so ineffectual that the US government actually considered opening its own investigation into Burisma’s alleged international money laundering--contradictory to Trump’s claims of US government-endorsed suppression of the investigation. The US endorsed firing of Shokin because he was trying to suppress corruption investigations, not because he was carrying them out effectively enough to implicate Joe Biden’s son.
Whatever the facts are, it is clear that Trump would stand to benefit from an investigation into whatever it was that Hunter Biden was doing in Ukraine. Even if no actual illegality was found, even the allegations of corruption would likely be enough to give Trump fodder for attacks against Biden--linking him to international criminal interests in a vein similar to the “Crooked Hillary” line of attack from 2016. The essence of the scandal is this: that Trump used his office as President to ask a foreign country for opposition research, during a call that was otherwise about continuing US support for Ukraine in a time of war. While the drawn-out and ponderous Russia investigation--into whether Trump conspired with a foreign power to gain dirt on his political opponent, while he was a private citizen--ultimately could not prove anything, Trump has just about proved that he is well capable of enlisting the help of a foreign government on behalf of his campaign. This time, however, he did it while he was President, using the weight of his office.
The question as to whether Trump was using a carrot-and-stick method on Zelensky is additionally important. The fact that Trump raised “favor” of a Biden investigation immediately after Zelensky discussed a weapons purchase makes it a definite possibility that Trump intended it as an exchange--weapons for information, the support of the American government for opposition research. Zelensky says that Ukraine would like to buy more Javelins--and Trump’s immediate reply is “I would like you to do us a favor, though...” This raises the direct prospect of an American president extorting a foreign leader for dirt on a political opponent. This possibility is grave enough that it has finally spurred the reluctant Democratic House leadership into action on the matter of impeachment.
Where do we go from here? Well, immediately speaking, it appears likely that the person who filed the whistleblower report will appear before Congress in the coming weeks to shed whatever light they can. With a majority of public support now behind it, according to a CBS news poll, it seems likely that the impeachment inquiry will go forward. But even if Articles of Impeachment are passed by the House, they are likely dead on arrival in the Senate. In spite of former Senator Jeff Flake’s comment that he knew of 35 Republican senators who would vote to impeach Trump if the vote was secret, the considerations of partisan politics are almost certain to make getting 67 votes for conviction impossible. The spectacle of Republican senators marching up to the White House and telling President Nixon that he has lost the support of Congress and should resign is something which belongs to the past. The Republican Party is all-in on Trump; they are in too deep to reverse themselves now. They will be with him to the bitter end.
So, if the odds of Trump actually being convicted are practically nil, what is the point of having an impeachment inquiry at all? Some would say that this all just amounts to pointless grandstanding, the final form of a partisan crusade against Trump--but the Democratic leadership’s obvious reluctance to get the ball rolling on impeachment indicates that there’s more to it than blind partisanship. Impeachment proceedings will deliver a way to get at the witnesses they need and the evidence which may be difficult to obtain otherwise. And even if the impeachment process is dead on arrival in the Senate, it will force senators to concretely, without equivocation or question-dodging, say what they think about what the president did. Once all the evidence is gathered and the witnesses heard from, they will have to choose a side definitively--and square their vote with their conscience and the word of the law. It is not a choice that can possibly be taken lightly.
The ponderous machinery of impeachment is finally in motion; perhaps it may be said that we are slowly approaching a precipice. The investigation will go on; there will be testimony, witnesses, partisan grandstanding, all the things we are used to, only with the stakes now a good deal higher. And the stakes will keep getting higher--that is all we can fairly expect.