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Pelosi is Blowing Smoke, But Where’s the Fire?

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media on Thursday October 17, 2019 .(Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Thursday Nancy Pelosi is holding a vote to reaffirm her impeachment inquisitiveness. It was theater; everyone knows the hyper-politicized Democratic House will impeach. It’s a weak case, but that doesn’t matter. A partisan Senate (who will also see a weak case but that doesn’t matter) won’t convict. America will leave a steaming mound of democracy aside the road and reflect forever which side stepped in it after we’re done arguing who won in November 2020. 

We’ll have forgotten by then about the evidence, so it’s worth a look while still fresh. Absent any really big surprises, we know the narrative now.

Forget the whistleblower. He had no first hand knowledge of a “high crime and misdemeanor,” just an opinion about a phone call he wasn’t party to. Yet even after DOJ ruled the whistleblower revealed no criminal act, Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry.

Trump then released the memorandum of conversation between himself and Ukrainian president Zelensky. This is the U.S. government’s record of what was said and as such will form near 100 percent of what Dems will use to impeach. After all, it is the only primary document in the case. Yet despite its short length, some five pages, many people want to characterize what it says instead of just reading the thing. So follow along if you like.

The call was a routine congratulatory message to Zelensky on his election, diplomatic chit chat. We’re on page three before the first bit of possible significance comes. Here it is in its entirety:

The President: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance. But they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.

Zelensky gives a generally positive reply.

Trump again:

Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney·General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great. The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.

To impeach, one must conclude from the text above that a) Trump asking for information, however far-fetched, on possible foreign interference in the 2016 election was wrong (and then explain why the Dems conducted a three year investigation of the same); b) Trump asking for an investigation into whether then-Vice President and perhaps soon President Biden used his office for personal gain is of no interest to the people of the United States, even if that same information were also of interest to Trump (and account for Dems asking in 2018 the Ukraine to cooperate to dig up dirt on Trump, and allowing that a Ukrainian investigation would supposedly exonerate Biden); c) that Trump made clear to Zelensky aid was contingent on these investigations and; d) explain why the aid paid out soon after the call without any investigation.

The base problem is Trump never said he was withholding aid in the July 25 call. The earliest tick the Ukrainians knew the aid was being delayed was “early August” and even that is based on anonymous media sources who somehow have not been found to testify. Official U.S. and Ukrainian officials instead say knowledge the funds were held up didn’t get to the Ukrainians until late August, shortly before they were released.

Monday brought the news that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman planned to tell impeachment investigators Wednesday that the July 25 transcript given to Congress omitted Trump’s appeals to Zelensky to investigate Biden. He was reportedly on the call, had twice “registered internal objections about how Mr. Trump and his inner circle were treating Ukraine, out of what he called a ‘sense of duty,’” according to a New York Times report.

Such omissions (if they are real and there is no evidence besides Vindman’s own statement) add or detract nothing from the core questions at the heart of this impeachment: did Trump withhold aid in return for a Ukrainian investigation, and was seeking such an investigation solely a personal political goal or something of interest to the United States?

It is important to go back to what we do know, that the aid was ultimately delivered, and that correlation is not causation. This was the big gap in Russiagate; because A happened before B, Democrats rushed to claim A caused B, and thus collusion!

That leads to a second base problem. Nothing happened. Trump never asked the attorney general to contact Zelensky. It is unclear who if anyone Guiliani spoke with, but either way the Ukrainians never investigated anything. This impeachment will be the first in American history without any underlying actual crime taking place on the ground. Democrats seek to impeach Trump for talking about something, and never doing something, that itself may not be a real offense anyway. If you hear echoes of Russiagate, obstructing something that wasn’t actually obstructed, you have sharp ears.

When you have a smoking gun you usually don’t need to keep searching for evidence. Knowing the weakness in their case, it is telling Dems are engaged in a process of finding someone to claim Trump’s policy was to (not) withhold aid to force the Ukraine to do something they never did.

They tried Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who stated, under oath and in a leaked text from the time of the original call, there was no such quid pro quo.

The Dems then produced a series of angry people to testify they had been sidelined out of the decision making process and thus knew very little first hand. The noisiest witness, Ambassador William Taylor, made it clear he was cut out of the White House’s back channel for Ukrainian policy, and only knew what insiders told him second hand. His other knowledge of the supposed quid pro quo came when he heard “a [unnamed] staff person from the Office of Management and Budget say that there was a hold on security assistance to Ukraine but could not say why. Toward the end of an otherwise normal meeting, a voice on the call—the [unnamed] person was off-screen—said that she was from OMB and that her boss had instructed her not to approve any additional spending of security assistance for Ukraine until further notice.”

Taylor went on even to impeach himself a little, admitting he had no evidence aid was connected to investigation. He testified National Security Council Senior Director Fiona Hill and NSC Director of European Affairs Alex Vindman “reassured me that they were not aware of any official change in U.S. policy toward Ukraine, OMB’s announcement notwithstanding.”

Taylor never spoke to the president or to the secretary of state. Despite his title Taylor was not a player. His testimony was just his opinion. Deep Throat that is not.

What else? The media found a way to word-trick Ambassador Sondland’s attorney into saying what his client described in testimony “amounted to” a quid pro quo, possibly thinking they could use a client’s own lawyer’s re-characterization of testimony to impeach.

Again, there are no documents or policy papers to support the claim the policy was aid for investigation.

A slam dunk currently rests on John Bolton, a life-long conservative nearing the end of his public life. They hope he will testify such that the last lines of his biography will be “the man who more than any other individual helped elect Elizabeth Warren.” Sorry, Bolton, like Flynn, Manafort, and Cohen, is not your Fredo.

Unlike with Nixon and Clinton, the House is not building on an existing law enforcement investigation. That was supposed to be Mueller. Instead, the “investigation” is jerry-rigged in real-time consisting of a stage-managed parade of credentialed hostile witnesses interpreting what Trump said. It is like a room full of critics impeaching Bob Dylan out of the Hall of Fame by telling us what his lyrics really mean to him. Opinions are not evidence.

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.

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