No one in our political debate has been very careful about distinctions lately, so why should the Ukraine controversy be any different?
In evaluating the controversy, it is necessary to acknowledge that different things can be true.
It is completely legitimate for a president of the United States to urge foreign leaders to cooperate with his attorney general on a duly constituted probe of the origins of the Russian-collusion story, and it’s silly of the press and Democrats to pretend as though Trump’s calls to this effect are some sort of scandal.
Hunter Biden’s payday from the shady Ukrainian energy company Burisma is an instance of soft corruption on the face of it, and, as vice president, Joe Biden should have told his son to steer clear while he was heading the Ukraine account for the Obama administration (and should never have permitted him to travel on his plane to China to do business there, as well).
Democrats have been itching to impeach Trump from the beginning, and as soon as Nancy Pelosi thought she saw a political opening to do it (so far confirmed in the polling), she moved ahead, with Adam Schiff, who blew all his credibility hyping Russia, as her chosen instrument.
Yet none of that makes it appropriate for a president of the United States, in the exercise of his official duties, to pressure a foreign government to undertake an investigation in the hopes that it might harm a political rival.
The best-case scenario for Republicans was that nothing much happened after Trump’s famous phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, but text messages released by Democrats after the deposition of former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker document a lot of action related to Trump’s requests. The texts make it clear that a quid pro quo of the release of suspended defense aid in exchange for a Ukraine commitment to investigations was an idea that was at least under active consideration. It is notable, though, that Volker’s opening statement in his deposition minimizes any impropriety. Clearly, complete transparency — the congressional release of Volker’s full deposition and all future depositions, to match the White House’s release of the call transcript and whistleblower complaint — is the only way the public can review the entirety of the factual record.
President Trump has reacted to the controversy by, as is his wont, filling the airwaves and Twitter timelines with haymaker counterpunches and wild charges. Much of this hasn’t been helpful to his cause and has been unworthy of his office. The president shouldn’t troll the press and his domestic opponents with theatrical calls for China to investigate the Bidens, nor should he ridiculously accuse his critics of treason. Utah senator Mitt Romney’s denunciations of Trump’s statements are sincere and shouldn’t be met with presidential abuse and derision. Trump always acts like he’s one of his own surrogates and, in this case, has often sounded like one of his anonymous supporters on Twitter.
The truth is that, absent some radical change in the dynamic, the House is inevitably going to impeach Trump and the Senate is inevitably going to acquit him. What we’re essentially arguing about is how this impeachment and acquittal will be regarded in the run-up to 2020 by independents and persuadable voters. The president — if he’s capable of it — should pitch his defense to those voters, with the understanding that, from his perspective, the best revenge would be making himself the first president to be impeached and reelected.