As the case for impeaching the US President builds, Paul Thomas lays out the absurd defences being used by Donald Trump and his supporters.
Remember the Mueller probe? After two years in the headlines, it concluded in mid-year not with a bang but a whimper, leaving it to the politicians to decide what to do next and laying itself open to censorship and mischaracterisation by Trump’s Attorney-General, William Barr.
America’s top law-enforcement official has spent much of his time since criss-crossing the globe on the basis of debunked conspiracy theories and in search of evidence that would overturn Mueller’s core conclusion – that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to assist Trump – and enable the criminal prosecution of FBI and national security officials involved in the investigation. This month, the Independent quoted a British official with knowledge of the wish-list Barr brought with him to London thus: “It’s like nothing we have ever seen before. They are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services.”
This is the Trump Administration in essence: obsessive, vengeful, corrupt, borderline treasonous.
The impeachment inquiry now under way in the House of Representatives isn’t based on Mueller’s findings. Rather than build momentum for impeachment, Mueller’s fastidious approach, best illustrated by the line in his report stating, “if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so”, created a vacuum – one that Trump himself quickly filled.
Although the Mueller investigation still has legal life, its political life – and impeachment is a political process – effectively ended with his testimony to Congress on July 24. The impeachment inquiry stems from what took place the next day and a whistleblower’s revelations about it. In a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump appeared to attempt to strong-arm yet another foreign country into interfering in US domestic politics on his behalf: unless Ukraine announced an investigation into former US vice-president and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, US$391 million of much-needed military aid would continue to be withheld. Since 2014, Ukraine has been engaged in a conflict with pro-Russian, Moscow-backed separatists.
The diplomatic and national-security officials who have testified before the impeachment inquiry have confirmed the quid pro quo component of the Trump-Zelensky call and registered their alarm over both the crude injection of political self-interest into the conduct of US foreign policy and the bizarre back-channel dealings with Ukraine overseen by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Trump and his acolytes, meanwhile, have tried various defences, ranging from claiming no harm has been done, to calling the impeachment bid a coup.
1. No harm, no foul
Because the military aid was eventually released, no damage was done so it doesn’t matter what Trump had in mind when he asked Zelensky to do him “a favour”.
As the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland wrote, “If you set fire to a barn and the barn survives, it’s still arson. Besides, the aid was released only once the unnamed Government employee blew the whistle. It’s not much of a defence to say you halted your criminal scheming the second you got caught.”
2. Incompetence is not an impeachable offence
The White House’s dealings with Ukraine were such a shambles that there couldn’t possibly have been anything as well planned and clear cut as a good, old-fashioned quid pro quo.
To quote fairweather friend Senator Lindsey Graham: “What I can tell you about the Trump policy towards the Ukraine is that it was incoherent … They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”
Likewise, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, who began his career at the notorious lobbying firm headed by Trump’s imprisoned 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and the aforementioned Stone and authored a book justifying the CIA’s post-9/11 use of torture, wrote that “[Trump’s] handling of Ukraine seemed less the execution of an intelligible plan than a chaotic mishmash of constantly changing urges and demands … Trump surrounded himself with a toxic brew of individuals whispering into his ear and appealing to his worst instincts.”
With a defence like that, who needs the case for the prosecution?
3. L’État, c’est moi
These hostile witnesses are card-carrying members of the Never Trump Deep State, out to undermine the President because he doesn’t subscribe to the foreign policy and intelligence establishment’s world view.
In his narcissism, delusions of grandeur and would-be authoritarianism, Trump sees himself as the embodiment of the state, hence his wild accusations of “treason” when confronted by criticism, opposition or attempts to hold him accountable. For Trump and adherents to his cult of personality, loyalty to him should take precedence over loyalty to the flag, the Constitution, America itself. Trumpists are enraged that public servants should sound the alarm when they see US interests and standing being damaged: in their pitiful subservience, the cultists believe Trump’s personal interests should be paramount.
Marie Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the foreign service, was recalled from her post as US ambassador to Ukraine in May after being smeared and undermined by Trump and Giuliani. As she was testifying before Congress, Trump tweeted, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” As satirist Bill Maher observed, “I’ve heard men blame stupid shit on women, but Somalia?”
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, expressed concern to White House lawyers after listening in on the July 25 call. He has been accused of having “dual loyalties” and even being a double agent engaged in espionage on Ukraine’s behalf. Vindman’s family left Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, when he was a child. Only in Trump’s America would the army be having to monitor the safety and security of a family that came to the US to escape Soviet oppression and a soldier who won the Purple Heart in Iraq.
4. George Soros is behind it all
George Soros is a left-wing evil genius whose power and reach are matched only by his cunning and determination to stop Donald Trump making America great again.
Joe diGenova, a lawyer and informal Trump adviser, recently told Fox News that “there’s no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career foreign service of the US State Department. He also controls the activities of FBI agents overseas who work with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] … He corrupted FBI officials, he corrupted foreign-service officials and the bottom line is this: George Soros wants to run Ukraine and he’s doing everything he can to use every lever of the United States Government to make that happen for business interests.”
Soros certainly sounds like a bad dude. He’s also pretty active for an 89-year-old. Soros is actually a Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist who has become a right-wing bogeyman on account of being that rarest of creatures, a left-of-centre multibillionaire. He’s also a Jew and, as his defenders have pointed out, the attacks on him have a distinct echo of traditional anti-Semitism.
As an Anti-Defamation League report stated: “Soros-related conspiracy theories include other well-worn anti-Semitic tropes such as control of the media or banks; references to undermining societies or destabilising countries; or language that harkens back to the medieval blood libels and characterisation of the Jews as evil.”
The beauty of conspiracy theories is that you don’t have to produce evidence to support them: the conspirators are so embedded that they leave no trace; so numerous and well placed they can suppress all evidence of their existence. Once again, you can only shake your head at the sheer, bug-eyed lunacy and viciousness of some of what’s offered up in Trump’s defence.
5. It’s bad but not bad enough
Okay, Trump did put a quid pro quo out there and, no, it’s not a good look, but it’s not an impeachable offence.
Tom Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College and a prominent anti-Trump conservative – and therefore “human scum” in Trump’s delightful characterisation – summed it up succinctly: “It’s no different than your local mayor saying, ‘You can have this waste-disposal contract as long as I get a kickback.’ Trump is screwing over one of our friends to get dirt on his opponents while hanging [the friend] out to dry with one of our worst enemies, Russia.”
6. It’s a coup
The impeachment process is an illegitimate, unjustified attempt by a bunch of sore losers to overturn the democratically expressed will of the people that Donald Trump should be President.
As Conor Friedersdorf pointed out in the Atlantic, the term “coup” “conjures a sudden, illegal, often violent taking of government power, often by part of an army. The House impeachment inquiry is neither sudden nor illegal nor violent nor being carried out by the military.”
And the accusation that the Democrats are trying to overturn the election result is equally bogus: if Trump were to be removed from office, Vice-President Mike Pence, his 2016 running mate, would become president and nothing Trump has done in office, including the appointment of two Supreme Court judges, would be undone.
The claim that impeachment is illegitimate is particularly staggering given that it’s enshrined in the constitution as the process whereby the legislative branch can act as a check on the executive branch. It’s also sinister since Trump’s lawyers are simultaneously arguing the proposition that a sitting president is beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. If the courts can’t touch the President and Congress can’t touch him regardless of what high crimes and misdemeanours – the constitutional threshold for impeachment – he may have committed, then he’s above the law. And if that turns out to be the case, then the US would cease to be a true democracy since its leader would be elevated high above his fellow citizens: unaccountable, unrestrainable and unremovable by any means short of, well, a coup. Welcome to the Banana Republic.
Endeavouring to convey the gravity and significance of what was about to unfold, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff opened the impeachment inquiry by quoting Benjamin Franklin. Asked what the Founding Fathers had come up with at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention from which the constitution emerged, Franklin replied, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
It was a timely reminder of what’s at stake and the threat that Trump and his followers pose, whether by accident or design, to the great American experiment initiated by the Founding Fathers 232 years ago.
Perhaps at some point in the proceedings Schiff could also remind congressional Republicans of what Theodore Roosevelt had to say about patriotism. Roosevelt, the 26th US president, was a Republican from New York but there the similarities to the present occupant of the White House end. Roosevelt was a war hero who led the legendary Rough Riders against Spanish forces in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American war. He was a progressive and a regulator who distrusted big business, an adventurer, a conservationist, an intellectual who read several books a day in multiple languages and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. When he took office, aged 42, in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley, he became the youngest US president, a distinction he still holds. He is one of the four presidents immortalised in granite on Mt Rushmore, along with Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
“Patriotism means to stand by the country,” said Roosevelt. “It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he effectively serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.