Disregard all the dramatic accusations in and around the whistleblower’s complaint; they’re just guff. This entire impeachment brouhaha hinges on Donald Trump’s own words in the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president. Is he demanding foreign interference in the 2020 election? Or is he asking an ally to run down unethical actions by a man who might become president (here’s a 2018 letter from the Dems asking Ukraine to help them investigate Trump to compare it to)? Or is it mostly just Trump running his mouth off in a rambling, often disconnected, stream-of-consciousness phone call that means very little?
If you read Trump’s words as impeachable, you are asking to impeach on something that was talked about but never happened. Ukraine never handed over dirt on Biden. Trump never even asked Attorney General Bob Barr to contact Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani may or may not have had meetings with someone but no one is claiming that anything of substance happened in them. There is no evidence military aid was withheld in return for anything. If nothing happened, then nothing happened. You need a body on the ground for a smoking gun to matter.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice had already adjudicated the whistleblower complaint before the thing was leaked to the Washington Post. The original complaint was passed from the Intelligence Community Inspector General to the DOJ, which determined there was no crime and closed the case. Officials found that the transcript did not show that Trump had violated campaign finance laws by soliciting a thing of value, such as the investigation, from a foreign national. Even as Democrats bleat about how corrupt the DOJ is, at some point during any impeachment, they will need to make clear what evidence they have that finds crime where DOJ did not. No one is above the law, sure, but which law exactly are we talking about here?
Trump is apparently no better at cover-ups than he is at extortion. He got no dirt on Biden even as Ukraine pocketed its aid money (Ukraine, in fact, knew nothing about the aid being frozen while Trump supposedly was shaking them down), and his so-called cover-up concluded with him releasing in unprecedented fashion both the complaint and the transcript. For a cover-up to even begin, you have to have something to cover, and a phone call that led nowhere doesn’t need to be covered up. In fact, it’s on the internet right now.
But the complaint says that the transcript was moved from one secure computer server inside the White House to an even more secure server. That’s a cover-up! Not discussed is that Congress had no more access to the first server than the second. Exactly who was blocked from seeing the transcript when it was on the more secure system who would have had access to it otherwise? It seems the main person who suddenly couldn’t grab the transcript was the whistleblower. To make all this work, Democrats either have to argue for less cybersecurity or impeach for over-classification. And of course, the Obama administration also stored records of select presidential phone calls on the exact same server.
Bottom line: Trump asked the Ukrainian president to take calls from Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani to talk about corruption, a bilateral issue since the Obama administration with or without Hunter Biden. There was no quid pro quo. Maybe a good scolding is deserved, but sloppy statesmanship is not high crimes and misdemeanors.
Something else is wrong. The whistleblower is a member of the intel community (the New York Times says CIA), but the text does not read the way government people write. It sounds instead like an op-ed, a mediocre journalist “connecting the dots,” a Maddow exclusive combining anonymous sources with dramatic conclusions. Sure, maybe the whistleblower had help writing it, but that’s not the point. The point is that the complaint was written for the media. It was written to be leaked. It wasn’t even about an intelligence matter. Maybe that’s why the DOJ quickly rejected its accusations, and why both the Times and the Huffington Post praised the writing, commenting on how much clearer the complaint was than Mueller’s legalese.
And that’s a problem. A whistleblower complaint is meant to point out violations of law in the language of prosecutors. It is legalese. A complaint requires data and references. The evidence I needed to explain waste in Iraq’s reconstruction ended up at over 230 published pages. Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers originally ran into multiple volumes to prove that the government lied about Vietnam. Ed Snowden needed terabytes of data to demonstrate NSA illegality.
If the whistleblower really is an analyst, he is not a very good one. He mixes second-hand sources with public ones to mimic a weary Dem narrative of foreign election help much like the Steele Dossier. The complainant witnessed nothing himself and produced no primary documents. The sourcing is as vague as “more than half a dozen officials have informed me of various facts.” No law is cited because none applied; the whistleblower simply recorded his interpretation into bullet points, like the punchlines from Russiagate no one laughed at.
The whistleblower’s expected testimony will be played as high drama but actually it is meaningless; he has an opinion but his accusations were made without hearing the call or reading the transcript. At least he’s in good company: Nancy Pelosi also declared her support for impeachment before she’d heard the call or seen the transcript.
Here’s where things stand. After three years of trying to keep Trump from assuming office, then cycling through ways to throw him out, this plops onto the field. If an impeachment vote comes, it will literally be with Trump having only a few months left in his term. This is no longer about overturning 2016; it is about circumventing 2020, fear by the Democrats of what will happen if they let the deplorables vote again. Is the Dem slate that weak? They are acting as if they have nothing to lose by trying impeachment.
Pity Nancy Pelosi, who tried to hold back her colleagues. Now instead of answering the needs of constituents, Democrats will instead exploit their majority in the House to hold hearings that will likely lead to a show vote that would have embarrassed Stalin. History will remember Pelosi as the mom who, after putting up with the kids’ tantrums for hours, finally gave in only a few blocks from home. She’ll regret spoiling dinner over a hefty glass of white wine, but what could she do: they just wouldn’t shut up and her nerves were shot. Have you had to listen to AOC complain from the back seat for two hours in traffic?
The last thing Joe Biden needed was more baggage. It’ll take awhile for him to realize it, but he’s done, doomed by kompromat never actually found. Impeachment will so dominate the media that no one will listen to whatever the other primary Dems have to say. Kamala Harris in the midst of all this was so desperate for attention she was still trying to drum up support for impeaching Brett Kavanaugh. Elizabeth Warren will emerge as the nominee. Goodbye then to all the minor Dems, see you in 2024, perhaps running against Mike Pence after Trump’s second term.
The case is weak, though with their House majority, that might not stop the Dems from impeaching a president just months ahead of an election based on a partisan interpretation of a few words to a minor world leader. Impeachment didn’t even come up in the last Democratic debate, yet heading into the early caucuses, the faces of the party will be Adam Schiff and the agita-driven Hillary. Democrats are taking that road instead of talking about jobs, health care, immigration, or any of the other issues voters do care about.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.