To get Ukraine to make that announcement, Trump is alleged to have leveraged official acts of the U.S. government. Specifically: the withholding of military and security aid and the refusal to finalize a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The article of impeachment alleges that this abuse of power put national security at risk and undermined U.S. elections. It also suggests that this fits with a pattern demonstrated in Trump’s interactions with Russia, as when he asked Moscow to release emails stolen from Hillary Clinton in July 2016.
How strong is the case? The evidence presented during the impeachment inquiry makes clear that Trump did ask Ukraine for two investigations. One would focus on Biden and his son Hunter, who served for a period on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. The other investigation Trump sought elevated an obscure, obviously false conspiracy theory in which Ukraine was somehow to blame for falsely accusing Russia of interfering in the 2016 election.
In other conversations between Trump intermediaries and Ukraine, that request evolved into seeking a broader investigation of 2016 election interference by Ukraine, though that premise, too, is unfounded — and it’s not what Trump asked. The investigation of Biden was similarly reconfigured into a more-defensible investigation of Burisma, which had alleged issues with corruption, and corruption more broadly. Trump, however, showed little concern about corruption before the emergence of the Ukraine issue.
The reason Trump’s requests were reshaped into broader issues (interference and corruption) was to argue that the president wasn’t actually seeking to benefit himself but instead U.S. national interests. Trump, for example, has claimed that his request that Zelensky do “us” a favor — by investigating the Ukraine conspiracy theory — was his asking on behalf of the country.
Read the Transcripts! “us” is a reference to USA, not me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2019
Trump’s specific requests were narrowly tailored, though, focused only on Biden and on this theory about 2016 and Russia. To the Democrats’ point, those narrow requests offered obvious benefits to Trump and no apparent benefit to the United States.
Damage to Biden, the candidate who has been leading in Democratic primary polling, has an obvious benefit to Trump, particularly if all that happened was the announcement of an investigation. Uncovering wrongdoing by him or his son (of which there’s no strong evidence) would offer at best a modest benefit to the country — particularly compared with a robust investigation into corruption broadly.
Determining that Ukraine somehow helped blame Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016 would offer no benefit to the United States at all. Russia’s culpability has been established through other means. Such a determination — which again has no known basis in reality — would instead solely allow Trump to disparage the Russia probe as biased, aiding his political rhetoric.
To get those investigations, the article of impeachment alleges, Trump used the aid and the promise of the meeting. The latter is much more robustly demonstrated, with testimony from a government official that there was an explicit quid pro quo leveraging the meeting for the investigations, and documentary evidence tying Trump to a specific meeting-for-probes ask to a Zelensky aide immediately before the July 25 call. There’s no serious question that the United States was slow to finalize a meeting because the administration was waiting for Ukraine to finalize its end of the deal.
The aid question is murkier. There’s no evidence that Trump ordered the aid to be withheld specifically to use it as leverage, though he may have done so once it had already been stopped. Instead, testimony indicates that Trump ordered it to be held after seeing news reports about the scale of the military assistance, in keeping with his general antipathy toward giving American money to non-Americans.
There was a moment when the aid was specifically tied to the demand for investigations: During a meeting with the same Zelensky aide in Warsaw in early September, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said, he made that connection. (His assertion was corroborated by other witnesses who became aware of Sondland’s demand contemporaneously.) But Sondland said he just assumed that was the reason for the aid being held, since no other reason was offered.
It may not have mattered. David Holmes, a political official in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, testified that Ukraine probably made the same assumption, meaning the aid was leverage simply by virtue of it being held while Ukraine was aware of the outstanding request for investigations.
The broader question, though, is whether these actions rise to the level of a “high crime or misdemeanor,” the standard for impeachment set in the Constitution. The dirty secret of impeachment is that, barring perhaps an explicit admission of guilt, the standard is subjective — and getting partisan politicians to share a subjective standard is a challenge.
The Democrats argue that the damage done to the electoral system (by virtue of Trump trying to get Ukraine to put its thumb on the scale) and to national security (by virtue of weakening Ukraine’s international position) makes Trump’s actions more severe. That all this mirrors his actions in 2016 in regard to Russia, they argue, shows a pattern of behavior that will continue. So far, those arguments haven’t proved convincing to Republicans — or at least, they haven’t proved sufficient to shift the political calculus undergirding views of impeachment.
What it says: The second article addresses obstruction of Congress. It argues that Trump crossed a constitutional boundary by deciding how he would comply with the House impeachment inquiry, in effect shifting that power away from the legislative branch and into the executive.
This obstruction was manifested in Trump ordering government officials and agencies to offer neither testimony nor documentation requested by investigators. In doing so, the article says, the president “assumed to himself functions and judgments” necessary for the House to exercise a power that it exclusively holds: impeachment; he aimed to “nullify” the “constitutional safeguard” of impeachment and, the article alleges, to cover up his misconduct.
Another parallel is drawn here to the Russia probe. Then, too, Trump was accused of standing in the way of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The article of impeachment again argues that Trump can be expected to continue this pattern and therefore to “remain a threat to the Constitution if allowed to remain in office.”
How strong is the case? There’s no question that Trump sought to prevent administration officials from testifying. Several letters sent from the White House counsel to Capitol Hill make that clear.
The question, instead, is the extent to which legislators find that behavior acceptable. The interesting aspect of this article of impeachment is that it asks members of the House to weigh in on the extent to which their own power should be secured. In that sense it differs from the first article, which is predicated on testimony obtained in the inquiry. The second article is a more of a judgment call, asking representatives if they will accept Trump’s hampering their ability to execute their constitutional duties.
We’ve seen occasions in the past when Republicans on Capitol Hill have objected to actions taken by Trump that conflict with the will of Congress. Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats earlier this year in an effort to override a Trump veto. Congress has passed resolutions on broad bipartisan votes that run contrary to the president’s stated position.
The stakes — and the politics — here are quite different. Republican voters care very much about the push to impeach Trump, and most share his view that the effort is illegitimate and biased. Those who hold that view probably also accept that Trump’s refusal to comply was a finger not in the eye of the Constitution but, instead, in the eye of Democrats.
That distinction crystallizes the decision for Republicans in the House and the Senate. Which is more important: their assessment of Trump’s actions and approach, or their voters’ assessment? So far, the clear winner seems to be the latter — to Trump’s political benefit.