To Impeach or Not to Impeach: less of a question

On September 24th, Nancy Pelosi, President of the U.S. House of Representatives, announced the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. In the eye of the storm, there is a phone call on July 25 between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, in which the US president allegedly lobbied for Ukraine to initiate an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter, former board member of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. In essence, Trump seemed to be pressuring a foreign actor to assist him in damaging his domestic political rival, Joe Biden. 

Biden has until now been widely considered the favorite in the Democratic Party’s primary race, and thus the likely challenger to Trump in the 2020 US presidential elections. With support from a written complaint from a whistleblower in the American intelligence community, the Democrats finally initiated the procedure they had been discussing for so long. They were no longer afraid that taking action could turn voter sentiment against them.

In what may be an effort to confuse public opinion, Trump has tried to create the narrative that Joe Biden pushed for removal of Viktor Shokin, the Ukrainian prosecutor in charge of investigating the gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served. Trump has tried continually to frame that event as an indicator of Biden’s own corruption. That was a lie. Shokin was indeed removed, but only because the US and the entire international community insisted that Shokin’s own corruption made it impossible for Ukraine to develop. Trump, moreover, sought to use the promise of a $400 million US military aid package, necessary for the Ukrainian state to repel the ongoing Russian invasion of the Donbas territory, to compel the Ukrainian president to open an unfounded investigation into Biden and his son. 

When faced with the accusation of him having blackmailed the Ukrainian president, Trump replied that the brake imposed on the funding had been decided days before the phone call. He claimed that it was motivated by the corruption in Ukraine, which would make any kind of funding futile. Trump minimized the situation by again blaming Democrats for a “witch hunt.” However, the phone call transcript showed that Trump indeed pressed Zelensky eight times. The fact itself is striking, though the result remains uncertain. It seems difficult for the Senate, with a Republican majority, to agree to vote against the president — whatever he does.

It’s also true that politically, impeachment could have a boomerang effect on Democrats. Starting the procedure during an election year is a political gamble. Democrats may have discredited their position by giving reason to Trump to speculate about a possible witch hunt against him. The Democrats’ move was an achievement by the most liberal in the party, and has stood to put the moderates of the party in some trouble for the next election. Fears may be justified for the fact that, until recently, there has been no so-called “smoking gun.” 

It should also be borne in mind that, in general, the impeachment procedure is an unpopular practice. Even more so, it should be said that the involvement of the Biden family in the Trump/Ukraine affair, whatever their clear innocence of Trump’s claims, is unavoidably to the detriment of the Dems themselves. Some of Biden’s competitors for the party’s candidacy, such as Elizabeth Warren, could benefit from public confusion over the facts. But, in general, it could be the whole party that pays the price, especially if impeachment fails. 

As for the Democratic Party, it must be stressed that the election campaign should not rely on judicial solutions. Instead, the party should build a strong campaign, regardless of Trump’s actions. A situation of constant antagonism and attacks on the president seems to discredit the Democrats, in showing an apparent lack of ideas. Finally, as noted by Kyle Kondik, political analyst at the University of Virginia, Trump is skilled at managing difficulties — he drags those who want to muddy him down into the abyss with him, and then beats them in a conflict without exchanging any blows. Democrats should therefore do their best to convince voters of the validity of the impeachment procedure, avoiding a possible victimization of Trump, which could make the Dems appear arrogant and naive. In the event that the impeachment procedure really does prove to be a boomerang for Democrats, that could benefit Trump, on his way toward possible re-election.

Since the beginning of the impeachment inquiry, it has been clear that there are  numerous actors and scenarios appearing as part of the complex case of Ukraine-gate. Central to clarifying the facts are the depositions of U.S. diplomats Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU; determining the role of Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, and Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee; and the presence of other whistleblowers. 

The deposition of Volker has already further compromised the position of Trump and his staff, and in particular Pompeo and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Volker provided 60 pages, containing exchanges of messages and other documents proving Trump’s intention to provide war aid to Ukraine in exchange for help with Trump’s re-election as US president in 2020. But Ambassador Sondland has been the first to specify that Trump did not offer a specific quid pro quo to Ukraine President Zelensky, a key argument by the Republicans against impeachment (though Sondland later qualified that claim). Many Republicans have suggested that it amounted only to Volker having served as a media bridge between Trump and Giuliani and the Ukrainian authorities. Volker’s name also appeared in conversations revealed by the original whistleblower. The very same day of the call between Trump and Zelensky, Volker contacted Andrey Yermak, a figure very close to President Zelensky, indicating the possibility of a visit to the White House if the investigation of the Bidens sought by Trump were to proceed. Finally, Volker, with the help of Ambassador Sondland, prepared a draft statement for the Ukrainian president to use in announcing the resumption of Ukraine’s investigation into the Burisma case, involving Joe and Hunter Biden. The statement was made under the guidance of Rudy Giuliani, who, in view of the latest evidence, seems to be well rooted in the Ukraine-Washington affair. 

Former Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko, told the Los Angeles Times that Giuliani was “obsessed” with finding events of potential evil by Hunter Biden. Trump’s attorney repeatedly lobbied Lutsenko to investigate the Bidens. Lutsenko also revealed that he was interested in helping the U.S. investigation into the Bidens as long as Ukraine is not used as a topic for the 2020 presidential election campaign. Despite this, Lutsenko has not been able to provide any kind of evidence on potential misconduct by Hunter Biden in his role on the board of  the Burisma group. 

The Ukrainian prosecutor general, however, has now changed. The new prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshpka, decided to review the case of the Burmisa group, but without dwelling on Joe and Hunter Biden. No evidence was found in the file against the Bidens’ conduct. Undeterred, Trump proceeded recently to invoke China to investigate any possible Biden irregularities in Chinese business. A statement, tweaked by the President, has not gone unnoticed for two reasons. First, because according to case law, it is illegal to make statements that seek favor from foreign governments. In addition, because this request for help can be a key element for a possible resolution of the trade war between Washington and Beijing. To obtain trade concessions, the Chinese government could decide to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s activities in state-owned companies. In addition, there is new information that recently emerged regarding the contacts between Xi and Trump, where the American leader spoke of Biden and then assured Xi of his silence on the Hong Kong protests, provided that trade negotiations between China and the U.S. move forward. This would support the possibility of an unusual axis of collaboration between the two governments against the interest of Joe Biden. 

In reality, the accusations of Trump against the Bidens are currently unfounded — in fact, they have been disproven many times over. There is no evidence of any transfer of money by the Chinese government to Hunter Biden to influence his father in the choice of trade policies in favor of China. Trump alludes to the sum raised by the BHR Equity Investment Fund Management Co., a private equity firm based in Shanghai. Hunter Biden is a member of the BHR since its foundation in 2013, and in 2017 acquired 10% of the company. Despite investigations, no evidence exists at this time of any wrongdoing by Biden. 

Pending any revelations from China, what could determine progress and speed of the impeachment investigations is the presence of other whistleblowers. According to Daily Beasts, new potential whistleblowers are contacting the Congress, prompted by the bravery of the first whistleblower. At the moment, a second whistleblower has already spoken with the Inspector General about Trump’s business in Ukraine.The presence of new information brought by the new whistleblower could corroborate information already available in the ongoing impeachment investigation. According to the New York Times, the information contained in this second whistleblower report also contains information directly linked to the events mentioned by the first whistleblower. According to the Washington Post, the documents contain details of the calls from Trump to foreign leaders. Republicans are trying to stress that Sondland denied the existence of a quid pro quo between the two presidents, which they say absolves the president of any wrongdoing. However, it has just been reported that Ambassador Sondland now says that Trump dictated to him his statement about the absence of a quid pro quo. This is bad for President Trump.

In addition to the possible presence of new data released by a second informant, the investigations have also revealed the interesting involvement of Pompeo, Secretary of State, and Adam Schiff, a Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The Secretary admitted, during his diplomatic visit to Rome, that he listened in on the call between Trump and Zelensky, and was therefore aware of the exchange between the two heads of state. There was more minor embarrassment for the Democrats, as in his deposition the whistleblower admitted to having had contact with Adam Schiff before he approached the authorities about Trump’s conduct. Schiff said that he was sorry at having omitted that fundamental detail, but reassured the authorities by saying that the informant was merely guided in the complaint procedure, and on how to find a lawyer and file the document itself, but was not influenced by Schiff or other Democrats in drafting the complaint against Trump. 

According to many of the Republicans, Schiff’s omission should condemn the entire impeachment process. That prompted Trump to call for the impeachment of Schiff and Pelosi (which cannot be done), accusing them of treason (Pelosi, because she knew of some facts not revealed at the start of the impeachment procedure.) 

Despite this fall from grace on the part of Schiff, the investigations seem to slowly give strength to the Democrats. At the start of the formal investigation called by Nancy Pelosi, we have doubted the wisdom of her decision. While one part of public opinion focused on the possibility of impeachment bringing down Trump easily now or in the 2020 election, others objected that the procedure could have a boomerang effect, damaging the Democrats precisely on the eve of the election. Conducting investigations with a Republican-majority Senate seemed to many an obstacle not easily surmountable. In fact, if all 47 Democrats in the Senate vote in favor of an impeachment trial, they would still need a yes vote from 20 Republicans.

However, collaboration between Dems and the GOP is no longer so far away. According to Republican strategist Mike Murphy, 30 Republicans would vote in favor of a trial. Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake says the number is actually closer to 35. While the possibility of seeing Trump ousted from the Presidency is still remote, given the latest developments on Ukraine-gate, it’s an eventuality that becomes increasingly feasible. If the second whistleblower decides to release new information that fully supports the events in the first informant’s report, the Senate numbers could reshuffle.  In any case, the general feeling is that the situation of the President may get worse. At the same time, Biden and the Dems must fear the reopening of the Burisma case in Ukraine, with the risk that the leading Democratic presidential candidate could be dragged into the Ukrainian scandal along with Trump. 

Despite the uncertainties about possible developments in the Ukraine-gate affair, Trump’s impeachment is becoming more realistic. As reported by CNN, in both cases more Americans are in favor of the Trump impeachment process, compared to the two previous historical American cases. The general feeling is that the actions of the American leader should be investigated, regardless of his political position. 

The Democrats have been delivering subpoenas that could weigh into Trump’s impeachment. In response, the White House announced their unwillingness to cooperate in the probe. For the first time in his electoral campaign, in a rally in New Hampshire, Joe Biden openly called for the impeachment of Trump — who he says is “shooting holes in the Constitution.” 

As we wait for new events to define the developing situation, including possible information from the second whistleblower or others, it seems that the procedure begun by House Democrats has lost the threat of a possible boomerang. And the position of the US POTUS is becoming ever more tenuous. 

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