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As the trial begins

Four key themes surrounding the impeachment of Donald Trump

As the trial begins

President Donald Trump listens to a question about impeachment during a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen at the World Economic Forum, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Davos, Switzerland. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump centers on whether he put undue influence on the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President and potential campaign rival Joe Biden, and whether that constitutes an impeachable offense. Reporter Harvest Prude has been covering the impeachment investigation for WORLD in The Stew. As the impeachment trial begins, here are four themes from her past reporting to keep in mind:

Pressure points

memo released on Sept. 25 by the White House shows President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July call to “do us a favor” and cooperate with U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s investigation into the origins of the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump also asked Zelensky to look into whether Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to protect his son, Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that was under investigation.

On the call, Trump never directly mentioned offering aid in exchange for Zelensky’s cooperation. But Democrats claim Trump withheld military assistance to Ukraine in exchange for personal political favors. It is unclear whether Zelensky knew that days before the call, Trump directed U.S. officials to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine. Officials have since lifted the freeze.

At a joint news conference on Sept. 25, Zelensky said he never felt any obligation to help President Donald Trump’s reelection chances as a result of what was said on the call.

“Nobody pushed me,” Zelensky said.

“In other words,” Trump added, “no pressure.”

The politics of impeachment

Adam Carrington, an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, said that Trump’s ability to weather scandals and blistering criticism comes, in part, from Americans’ lack of trust in institutions after the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s ouster.

“We don’t trust Congress, we don’t trust the presidency,” he said. “[With Nixon,] people were much more willing to see that as a betrayal and much more likely to trust Congress to correct the abuse.” Now, he noted, people don’t trust Congress to hold the executive branch accountable.

“In the best of times, impeachment is a very jarring and difficult process,” said Amy Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois. “We’re not in the best of times: [We’re in a] highly polarized, highly partisan era, where there is so much distrust of the other party.”

Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 65 seemed to foresee that when he predicted the effect of impeachment on the parties would “enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases, there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

Rather than swaying members of Congress one way or the other, the evidence in the impeachment investigation against Trump—such as the summary of his July 25 phone call with Zelensky—has turned out to be like a Rorschach test of someone’s party loyalties.

Ukraine caught in the middle

While Democrats and Republicans are locked in a partisan impeachment battle in the nation’s capital, the country at the center of the debate, Ukraine, is locked in a decadeslong fight for its survival and its future. The politicization of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine as a result of impeachment could make matters worse for an already struggling country.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in eastern Ukraine, in what would be the most direct conflict between East and West since the Cold War. The Obama administration and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia but did not offer military support or lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Over the summer, the Trump administration blocked nearly $400 million in aid earmarked to reinforce the Ukrainian military. Congress had approved the aid in its 2019 federal budget to reinforce Ukrainian forces with weapons and U.S. training and advice.

On Sept. 11, the White House reversed course and began to release the money. In between, an anonymous administration official filed a whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump, and Congress began an impeachment inquiry.

Eric Fleury, an assistant professor of government and international relations at Connecticut College, said Ukraine is “in a crippled state right now. They have the troops of a far larger foreign power and their historical oppressor knocking on their door. … So this idea of military aid, especially, is for them a question of national survival.”

He added that Ukraine symbolizes the struggle between Western and Eastern civilizations.

Michael McKoy, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College, pointed out the problems associated with partisan politics infiltrating U.S. foreign policy.

“No country wants their security with the United States to be a partisan issue,” he said. “And now the Ukraine issue has become a partisan one. And what’s bad for Ukraine is good for Russia.”

What about Biden?

The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has focused on whether the president pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. But the impeachment fury has overshadowed a logical follow-up question: Did the Bidens do something that merits investigating?

While serving in the Obama administration, Biden took over the White House’s Ukraine policy and spearheaded an anti-corruption effort. He visited the country five times and said its leaders faced two pressing issues: “Russian aggression and endemic corruption.”

Despite having no background in Ukrainian affairs, Hunter Biden joined the board of the country’s largest natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, in 2014. According to The Wall Street Journal, Burisma paid him $50,000 a month. The company likely extended the invitation to Biden, as well as other U.S. and European political and business figures, in an attempt to whitewash its image in the face of investigations into corruption, money laundering, and whether it had obtained some drilling licenses unlawfully.

Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has accused the elder Biden of shielding Burisma from investigation to benefit his son. The whistleblower report that sparked the impeachment investigation made the same claim.

Biden called on Ukraine to oust its leading prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, and threatened to withhold around $1 billion in loan guarantees if the country failed to do so. Shokin was also looking into Burisma, but observers have said the investigation had all but closed by the time Biden called for Shokin’s ouster. Shokin was widely seen as weak on corruption and even obstructed some legitimate investigations, said Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2013 to 2016.

In an October 2019 interview with ABC News, Hunter Biden admitted accepting a seat on Burisma’s board was “a mistake, in retrospect.” His father, too, has acknowledged, “The appearance looked bad. And [Hunter] acknowledged it. And that’s it. That’s all I’m going to talk about.”

American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Matthew Continetti said he believes this issue will continue to haunt Biden politically.

“It’s just a fact that Hunter Biden would not have been on the board for Burisma, not have had this investment in the company had he not been Joe Biden’s son,” he said. “That will be an issue. … [Joe] Biden has not answered these questions satisfactorily; he’s going to have to find a way to do that.”

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.

Comments

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 01/21/2020 04:15 pm

    Add to Biden's history other instances, in China and with his brother, where there has been at least the appearance of corruption.

    There is truth to the claim that Republicans tend to be more readily investigated than Democrats, driven in large part due to MSM bias and their role in bringing potential wrongdoing into the consciousness of society.

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Tue, 01/21/2020 09:00 pm

    It seems that the impeachment turns on whether Trump wanted the Bidens investigated ONLY to gain political advantage on a potential political opponent. Politicians regularly behave in order to gain political advantage, but it generally will appear as if there are other "higher" goals. For example, the investigation into Trumps possible collosion with the Russians obviously would have and was intended to gain political advantage; however, Democrats could also claim that there were "good" reasons to carry out the investigation. The same, however, could be claimed by Trump with regard to the Bidens. In fact, it is likely Trump would think he had good reasons to want the Bidens investigated independent of whether Joe Biden was a political opponent or not. 

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 01/22/2020 02:26 am

    This is a fascinating look into human nature and mass psychology.  The Democrats have spent several years accusing Trump and Kavanaugh and many others of the very things that they do, e.g. interfering with an election, colluding with Russia, quid pro quo for Ukranian favors, abuse of power, obstruction of justice.   They do this openly and no one holds them accountable.  It has not been proven that Trump did any of those things, yet he is investigated and impeached for them.  Why does the US government not hold Democrats accountable for actual crimes, but prosecutes others who have merely been accused of a crime?