Paul Niland, founder of Lifeline Ukraine, outlines what we know about the US impeachment scandal so far.
In the US, the process of impeaching Donald Trump is underway, although not formally. What is happening now is an impeachment investigation. This is not yet an actual impeachment, but it is a (long overdue some would say) step in that direction.
What is happening at the moment is a discovery process. Witnesses are being interviewed, testimony is being taken. The facts of the matter are being established through the testimony, under penalty of perjury, of various individuals with knowledge of the actions that – it is alleged – are against the law and which add up to the impeachment benchmark of high crimes and misdemeanours.
Such events are rare.
This is only the fourth time that impeachment proceedings against a US President have begun, the first being against Andrew Johnson in 1868. In the case of Richard Nixon, the process was close to complete when he resigned. With Bill Clinton, his guilt in lying about his relationship with a White house intern was established, but he still beat the rap. And now, Trump joins this list.
So far, witnesses have been heard in two formats: in secret and in public testimony. The Republican Party, scrambling to mount a defence of Trump, first decried the closed door nature of the early stage and then, when open hearings were announced, the GOP denounced that too. The party of law and order, as it claims itself to be, is being very situational in its objections. But, when you have little of substance to stand on, straw clutching is all you’re left with.
The most riveting testimony so far has been that of Ambassador Maria (Masha) Yovanovitch, who served as the US Ambassador to Ukraine from August 2016 until May 2019. The end of her session in front of the bipartisan (if it can be described as such, though technically it is) panel resulted in a standing ovation.
What is the Impeachment Investigation About?
In a nutshell, Trump is alleged to have broken the law.
What Trump is alleged to have done is to attempt to extort the new President of Ukraine. Congress had approved military aid to help Ukraine fight against Russian aggression in the east of the country and Trump, it is alleged, saw an opportunity to exploit this to demand a political favour. That favour was the public announcement, from President Volodymyr Zelensky, of investigations into the business dealings of the son of former Democrat US Vice President Joe Biden, and an investigation into alleged Ukrainian involvement in US election meddling.
It mattered not to Trump that the favour he was asking for – alleged foreign assistance in a US election – was illegal.
For the record, there is no evidence to support any allegation that Hunter Biden acted illegally or improperly. He was employed by a company with a shady beginning, but companies can try to clean up their act and present a more ethical kind of governance, which often involves hiring overseas directors.
But, the best lies hinge on a hint of truth.
The tale being spun by those trying to present the Republican side of things is that Joe Biden got a Prosecutor General fired (which is true) for investigating the company his son worked for (which is false.) The prosecutor in question, Victor Shokin, was deeply corrupt and his removal was something that was also being insisted on by many other countries and many of those interested in helping Ukraine’s continued progress on anti-corruption.
The most ludicrous of the elements of Trump’s demands from Ukraine, one that can be read clearly in the incomplete transcript of the 25 July phone call between the two leaders, was an investigation into something call “Crowdstrike” which, in the confused mind of Donald Trump and other lovers of conspiracy theories, is a server linked to the Democratic National Committee, which is supposedly in Ukraine. This is hardly worthy of mounting a defence against – it is not only without foundation, but absurd. But, in Trumpland, this warrants a deeper look and I suggest that it is an attempt to draw fire away from Russia over election interference and aim it at Ukraine instead.
The intent of the White House, I believe, is to shift the narrative just enough so that Trump’s actions might be seen by some to be justifiable, regardless of the law, or at least to have muddied the waters enough to enable those around him to lie with a straight face.
There is a kind of perverted logic to the Trump defence, but it is not to disprove the allegations levelled against the President.
In his thorough and technically correct deliberation, Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, stated that he had followed guidance stating that a sitting President cannot be charged with a crime. But, in the footnote of his first page of conclusions, Mueller cited the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon as a precedent.
The point the US is at now is a process of deciding how many articles of impeachment there could be. Rather than listing specific crimes, one scholar suggests four broad headings, under each of which there would be a list of multiple offences.
Yes, it really is that bad.
Paul Niland is an Irish writer and political commentator based in Kyiv, Ukraine.