By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
For 50 years—beginning with Nixon’s subversion of the Paris Peace Talks in 1968—Republicans have repeatedly engaged in covert foreign subterfuge, and Democrats have fecklessly failed to hold them accountable. Will this time be any different?
In early 2017, comedian John Oliver described the emerging Russiagate scandal as “stupid Watergate,” meaning a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad. Ultimately, Trump got away with it, because Democrats—following a 50-year pattern—pulled their punches. After Attorney General William Barr lied about the content of the Mueller Report, pretending that it exonerated Trump, they failed to press forward and demand a full public presentation of all the wrongdoing uncovered—including multiple counts of obstruction of justice—fearing that a mythical Trump base backlash would help re-elect him in 2020.
Now, Oliver has dubbed the Ukrainian spin-off, “Stupid Watergate II: The Stupidest Watergate.” The name is well-earned. Topping it all off, Trump released smoking gun evidence of his own guilt almost immediately—a record of him extorting a bribe in a call memorandum he laughably described as a “perfect call.” In it, Trump uttered 10 words that showed him corruptly seeking a thing of value (i.e. bribery): “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” That’s how he put the squeeze on Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in their July 25 call that resulted in the whistleblower complaint that brought the whole story to light.
With the smoking gun in plain sight from the get-go, the resulting chaos has GOP senators and representatives defending him with Russian conspiracy theories, blaming Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 election—which was part of what Trump asked Zelensky to investigate, along with Joe Biden’s son. “The Kremlin is having a ball,” Russian propaganda expert Julia Davis wrote in the Daily Beast. “Instead of disseminating their usual conspiracy theories, the Russians watch gleefully as the Republicans do that for them.” In fact, Republicans are clinging to the Russian conspiracy theories for dear life. They even played a key role in the Republicans’ opening statement at the first impeachment hearing.
With no facts to support them, Republicans keep shifting main themes of distraction and denial. For weeks, the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony behind closed doors—the normal way to begin investigations, to prevent witnesses from fallaciously coordinated their testimony—and Republicans screamed bloody murder, pretending it was nefarious and demanding open hearings.
Then, when Democrats began open hearings on November 13 and 15, Republicans screamed again, claiming that the testimony was all hearsay, not eyewitness testimony about Trump himself. But they were eyewitnesses to how Trump’s machinations played out, and they were ideally positioned to tell the big picture story, setting the stage for more narrowly-focused first-hand witnesses to come. Now that those witnesses have started to testify, Republicans are scrambling furiously, looking for yet another misdirection to settle on.
But the basic facts are simple. “I would like you to do us a favor, though” is corruptly seeking—if not demanding—a thing of value. That’s bribery under federal law and unlike the vague term “high crimes and misdemeanors,” bribery is a specifically named cause for impeachment.
Rather than hide it, Trump proudly released the call memo just one day after House Speaker Pelosi announced the beginning of a formal impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24. The memo also destroyed his cover story that he was just trying to fight corruption (for the very first time in his life). Trump didn’t even mention the word “corruption”—not even once—but he did mentioned “Biden” five times.
But Democrats, once again, have been a bit stupid, too, and it’s taken them some time to figure out just how simple it is. Fortunately, as the public impeachment hearings have begun, they’re finally catching on.
The Perfect Call
“What the president has admitted to and says it’s perfect. I said it’s perfectly wrong,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 14. “It’s bribery.”
Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 201, “Bribery of public officials and witnesses” states that any public official is guilty of bribery who “directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act.”
You don’t actually have to get what you’re after. It’s enough to seek and demand. Under federal law, bribery and attempted bribery are one and the same.
What did Trump corruptly demand and seek? First, investigations of the Russian conspiracy theory, and Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Second, coordination with Trump’s team, including his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who was named in the call. Third, it was later made clear, Trump demanded a public presidential announcement of the Biden/Burisma investigation. After all, what’s the good of a ginned-up phony investigation, if you don’t publicize it to the hilt?
The Damning Facts
These are the damning facts at the core of case. But the July 25 phone call wasn’t made in a vacuum. It was months in the making, with Giuliani leading the way with the political machinations that cleared the way for the “three amigos” (Kurt Volker, Rick Perry, and Gordon Sondland) to hijack Ukraine policy on Trump’s behalf. Then the call had weeks of follow-up by this same sleazy crew before the whistleblower complaint became known to House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff on Sept. 9. The White House released its hold on the aid two days later. The jig was up.
Now, the hearings have begun to tell the full story—including how it was necessary to smear and get rid of our Ukraine ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, in order for Trump’s corrupt scheme to play out. Pointedly, when Yovanovitch testified on Friday, on the second day of hearings, Rep. Jim Himes asked her if she would have gone along with Trump’s crooked shenanigans. Would she have recommended Trump ask the new Ukrainian president to investigate the Russian conspiracy theory blaming Ukraine for election interference in 2016? “No,” she said, “I would repeat, once again, that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that it was the Russians.” Would she have “supported a three-month delay in congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine?” Himes asked. Again, Yovanovitch said, “No.” Would she have recommended Trump ask for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son? Once again, her answer was “No.”
Before Yovanovitch, the hearings started with Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador who replaced Yovanovitch, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. They set the stage by telling the larger story of what they saw unfolding on their watch, both directly and via information gleaned from others working for or with them.
Since Trump has already effectively confessed, by releasing the smoking gun phone call memo, House Republicans had no motivation to bring out more evidence, all they could hope to do was sow confusion, hurl accusations, echo conspiracy theories and riff on Trump lies.
Thus, in his opening statement the first day, ranking member Devin Nunes claimed, “We should not hold any hearings at all until we get answers to three crucial questions the Democrats are determined to avoid asking,” two of which revived Trump’s illicit demands—to investigate the Russian conspiracy theory blaming Ukraine for campaign interference, and to investigate Hunter Biden—and the third which involved investigating the whistleblower, whose warning touched off the inquiry. “These questions will remain outstanding because Republicans were denied the right to call witnesses that know these answers,” Nunes said.
Later, the GOP’s designated attack dog, Rep. Jim Jordan, temporarily added to the committee, doubled down on the last point. “Now, there is one witness, one witness that they won’t bring in front of us; they won’t bring in front of the American people, and that’s the guy who started it all: the whistleblower,” Jordan said.
“I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify,” Rep. Peter Welch shot back. “President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there.”
Welch’s remark also pushed back against the Republican’s “hearsay evidence” canard, underscoring Trump’s strenuous efforts to prevent anyone with first-hand knowledge from testifying, himself included, of course.
But on Friday, Trump went one step beyond, tweeting an attack on Yovanovitch as she was testifying, echoing a threat he had made in his smoking gun “perfect” call, that “she’ s going to go through some things.”
“And now, the president in real-time is attacking you,” Schiff said to her. “What effect do you think that has on other witnesses’ willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?”
“Well, it’s very intim- idating,” Yovanovitch said.
Witness intimidation is a crime of obstructing justice—and in this case, obstructing Congress in conducting a lawful impeachment investigation.
“I could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes,” Trump bragged during the 2016 campaign. Now, he was putting that theory to the test.
But Trump was also committing a high crime with his avalanche of lies, as noted former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega on Twitter. “As Rep. Walter Flowers so eloquently put it back in 1974, a president who betrays the public trust through deceit undermines the very basis of our government,” de la Vega wrote. “Such a betrayal, such a massive violation of the presidential oath of office, is an abuse of power that requires impeachment.” And indeed, she pointed out, Section 8 of the Nixon Articles of Impeachment spoke directly to this.
That’s not to argue that every lie Trump tells is an impeachable act. But consider the sheer volume of lies Trump has mounted in this case.
On Nov. 16, CNN’s Daniel Dale, who’s been fact-checking Trump since 2015, posted “A list of 45 ways Trump has been dishonest about Ukraine and impeachment,” about the phone call (8 lies), the whistleblower (6 lies), Adam Schiff (8 lies), the impeachment process (8 lies), the Bidens (8 lies), dealings with Ukraine (5 lies) and polls (2 lies). “Everything he’s saying about his dealings with Ukraine, about the Bidens’ dealings with Ukraine, about the whistleblower, about Schiff, about the impeachment process. It’s all wrong, all the time,” Dale said in an on-air interview.
Deceit on that scale truly does undermine the very basis of our government. Nixon was charged for it. Trump should be, too.
Democrats want to tell a simple story—always a good idea, experienced prosecutors say. “But,” warned Elizabeth Drew, who covered Watergate, “the great danger is that the legacy of this period will be that Mr. Trump got caught doing one bad thing rather than that he abused power across the board and wantonly violated the Constitution.”
There is a way to make that a simple story, too. “Now that we’ve shown you how Trump abused his power for personal benefit with Ukraine, let’s examine some other examples.” Congress doesn’t have to investigate every last example—that would take decades to do properly. It only needs enough to establish a pattern of abusing power, obstructing justice and undermining the basis of government, a pattern essentially of limitless abuse of power. It will only end if Democrats are willing to limit that abuse, once and for all.