In criminal law, there are times when a crime has clearly been committed, but it’s not clear whether the perpetrator had criminal intent.
The impeachment effort against Donald Trump is the opposite situation: a case where there is no high crime or misdemeanor, but the president’s intentions are said by his enemies to be so plainly criminal that he simply must be impeached and removed.
On July 25, President Trump called Ukraine’s recently elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to congratulate him on his victory. During the call, Trump asked Zelensky about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in connection with a cybersecurity firm called CrowdStrike, which had investigated the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computers. Trump said, according to the official transcript:
I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. [Ellipses in the original release.]
CrowdStrike is a California-based company, but in 2017 President Trump told the Associated Press, “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.” Did a DNC server with evidence of foreign involvement in the 2016 election find its way to Ukraine through the company’s ownership? That was what Donald Trump was asking Zelensky to find out—that was the “favor” in question. It had nothing to do with Hunter Biden, let alone Joe Biden, or the 2020 election. It was a request related to an election that happened three years ago.
President Trump’s suggestion that Zelensky talk to Attorney General William Barr also was not about the 2020 election. “I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it,” Trump said, according to the transcript. “As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
Ukrainian interference in America’s 2016 election has been well-documented, including by Politico, which in January 2017 published a story headlined “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump backfire.” According to authors Kenneth Vogel and David Stern:
Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found.
So it’s clear that Trump’s first concerns in the call were the 2016 election, the DNC hack, who was responsible for the hacking, and how Ukrainian connections informed the Mueller investigation—an investigation that did not result in the special counsel recommending impeachment it’s worth remembering. Zelensky, in turn, said he was eager to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States. Trump had suspended military aid to Ukraine before the call, and Zelensky wanted it back.
The portion of the call touching on the Bidens involved Trump asking Zelensky to look into whether Joe Biden, as vice president, had used political pressure to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired at a time when that prosecutor was looking into Hunter Biden’s relationship with an oligarch-owned Ukrainian oil company. Biden fils, with no experience in the oil industry, received $50,000 a month or more for his service on the board of Burisma Holdings Ltd., according to reports in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump told Zelensky. “So whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
Biden had indeed said at a Council of Foreign Relations event in 2018 that as vice president he used the threat of withholding foreign aid to get a Ukrainian prosecutor dismissed.
“I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars,” Biden told the gathering. “I said, you’re not getting the billion. I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was what six hours. I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. (Laughter.) He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
A CIA officer who had worked with Biden when he was vice president heard about Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky and filed a whistleblower complaint, which became the spark for the impeachment inquiry. Take a moment to think about that: Trump’s action—withholding aid—was not a crime or misdemeanor, and was something Joseph Biden himself had threatened to do.
Trump seemed more interested in answering questions about the 2016 election and the Mueller investigation than in looking into Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden is not running for public office in 2020; he was a recipient of questionably earned foreign income when his father was vice president, and his father used his office to get the prosecutor examining the case fired.
Yet, according to Democrats and their friends in the media—including, of course, neoconservatives and other NeverTrumpers—Trump should be impeached and removed because he was trying to use foreign influence to affect the outcome of next year’s election. As if Trump didn’t have sufficient reason to ask Zelensky to look into things based on the role Ukraine played in 2016 and the Mueller ordeal.
Even if Trump had been focused entirely on the Bidens, there would have been nothing illegal about Trump’s behavior. Nor is there anything improper about trying to get information about potential influence peddling between a foreign country and an American political dynasty. The fact that Joe Biden is running for office does not give him immunity. No one on the left thinks Trump or his family should be immune from such scrutiny, after all.
Media headlines and pundits’ summaries continue to frame this messy story as if it were all about Trump trying to steal the 2020 election. Even that take is nonsensical: shouldn’t the American people know about Biden family influence peddling one way or the other, so voters can decide for themselves in next year’s primaries and general election? No one is claiming that Zelensky was asked to fabricate evidence and frame the Bidens. And on Sept. 12 Ukraine received the aid that had been delayed, without there being any apparent quo for this quid.
The whole episode shows no wrongdoing on Trump’s part—but should raise serious questions about the way the Biden clan operates. Who’s surprised this has instead turned into a Mueller-like media frenzy, with Trump’s criminal culpability too obvious to need proof?
There may still be landmines under President Trump’s feet: his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, kept questionable company with Ukrainian-American businessmen who have now been arrested for campaign-finance violations. But nothing that has come out so far gives any merit to the impeachment effort. It is purely political, designed to weaken the president ahead of 2020 and drive a wedge between him and the Republican Senate. Voters—and senators—must see past the fog.