Ladies and Gentleman of the Jury, Would You Impeach?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the election of the next president of the United States is tomorrow, November 3, 2020. It has been several months since the Democrats impeached the president and the Republican-controlled Senate found him not guilty. Since neither side ever really bothered to weigh what happened, it is up you, the purple and undecided voters, to serve as the real jury. So please give me your full attention as I sum up my case.
You should keep in mind how the Democrats acted when they were given the power to run the impeachment process as a clue to how they would wield power from the White House. This was the only modern impeachment not preceded by a formal investigation—you know, done by pros, with rules of evidence and legal protections. It was instead based on a select set of witnesses who first testified in secret as a kind of practice session, with curated leaks to soften you up.
That’s how you ended up with “witnesses” who had no first hand knowledge beyond the president’s now-notorious phone call, the contents of which are available online.
Then there was the public spectacle, with a new and improved smoking gun daily, along with sparkly uniforms and the media frantically describing the foreign service as if they were Lassie in pinstripes—brave, loyal, dependable, no accidents inside the house. If anyone raised a point of contention about a guy in uniform, they must hate America. You were told military people are stalwart and trustworthy (except for Mike Pompeo, who only graduated first in his class at West Point). Anything Trump believed was dismissed as a debunked conspiracy theory. But when the Dems accused him of being a Russian agent with no evidence, that required three years, falsified FBI records, and the full resources of the intelligence community to investigate. Think what that says about the Dems’ own respect for the rule of law, justice, and fairness, because if they are elected tomorrow, you’ll get more of the same.
That’s what happened. Why it had to happen is also worth your consideration. After the first two weeks of public impeachment hearings, 62 percent of independents—people like you—claimed the issue was “more important to politicians than it is to me.” When asked to rank 11 issues as top priorities, impeachment placed last among independents. And what you think matters: independents make up 38 percent of the electorate, greater than both Republicans and Democrats at 30 and 31 percent respectively.
So you as independents are the most important group, and you don’t see impeachment as a priority. Yet the Democrats have wasted the majority you helped give them in the midterms to pursue it anyway, because Russiagate failed, the Emoluments Clause failed, the 25th Amendment failed, the Stormy-Avenatti-Michael Cohen show failed, and they are afraid to let people like you vote again. “By any means necessary” meant setting aside the issues you care about to do what they care about instead.
But I promised you a look into the evidence, and as with Dorothy in Oz, it has always been with you. The actual moment when the president was to have committed his impeachable act was memorialized in the memorandum of conversation of the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Zelensky. Now, of course, many of the same people who would not accept this official government document as proof of what was said because it favors Trump accept another guy’s uncorroborated rendering of a call he supposedly overheard in a restaurant because it looks bad on Trump. But you’re smarter than that.
The July 25 memo is the only primary source in this entire case. It tells us what happened. Aside from Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was on the call and has testified (uncorroborated by anyone else on the call) that certain words and phrases he heard were missing from the memo, the so-called witnesses have only talked about what they think happened, or their opinions of what happened, or what someone else told them happened. Remember, none of the 12 impeachment hearing witnesses, including Vindman, have testified that they actually heard Trump explicitly tie security aid to an investigation. That is a big, big deal. So it is essential to this case that you be able to point to a portion of the memo that explicitly ties the security aid to an investigation, which after all is the crime the president is accused of. But you can’t do that, because it does not say that. That also is a big, big deal.
And by the way, was any aid actually withheld? Delayed is not withheld—you know that. And since no one seems to know when the Ukrainians learned of any delays, even that does not seem to have mattered. And can any of you tell me what investigations took place? Because there were none.
In sum, there were no witnesses to “the crime.” The only primary document has no explicit evidence of “the crime.” No aid was withheld and no investigations took place. A smoking gun requires there to be a dead body on the floor. Instead we have accusations backed up by suppositions. Without the media artificially keeping this all alive, you would be left wondering exactly what it is we’re still talking about.
That said, Trump did say some things on the call (“I would like you to do us a favor”), and some titter-tattle Democrats think they add up to something. So let’s talk about that.
It is always easy to forget the basics. Quid pro quo is not Latin for bribery. The president conducts foreign policy with extraordinary latitude to say what the national interest is, not the State Department and its ambassadors, no matter how smart they think they are. Foreign aid is a policy tool and is offered in return for something. As an exasperated Mick Mulvaney told us, of course there is always a quid pro quo—vote our way at the UN, let us have a military base, help us negotiate with your neighbor. Presidents often delay aid to get what they want. An investigation is not meddling. Foreign governments work with us on criminal, financial, and other investigations all the time. The Democrats asked Ukraine to investigate Trump in 2018. Providing information is not interfering in our democracy.
Now to the thing Trump asked for. Much has been made of the idea that those investigations would have benefited Trump personally and not the United States. But if you think this through, can you really claim there is no value to the people—specifically you, the undecided voters—knowing what Biden and his son were up to in Ukraine, that even asking about this is wrong? And you can’t say “there’s no evidence they did anything” because no one has really looked. If it was Ivanka instead of Hunter, you know we’d all be losing our minds.
To believe Trump attempted bribery in asking Ukraine to investigate is to claim the American people have no stake whatsoever in knowing the truth about Biden.
Almost everything a politician does is done with an eye on his candidacy and/or legacy. But while Trump might have benefited from the investigation, voters would benefit either way—Biden is clean, Biden is dirty, factor that into your choice. An investigation revealing something bad about Biden would benefit Trump as well as the voters. But you couldn’t assign a number to it, say 51 percent good for Trump and 49 percent good for the voters. What if you concluded it was 50-50? You really want to impeach over a percentage?
So you need to look not only at what was done, but whether it’s serious enough to warrant impeachment. The Constitution is vague on what exactly is an impeachable act, but we do have precedent.
Just in the last two decades, we’ve had a president who lied us into war, set up a torture program, spied on Americans, and sat on his hands while the economy crashed. No impeachment. We had a president whose military incursions into Libya, Syria, and Yemen created the worst refugee flows Europe has seen since World War II, who illegally spied on Americans (complete with a whistleblower), assassinated his own citizens by drone, and gave trillions to Wall Street while Main Street floundered. No impeachment. But an internal power struggle between careerists and political appointees over Ukraine supersized into a made-up crisis, now that is what the Founders had in mind?
That’s where I’m stuck. Because if we can’t resolve those questions, we can only conclude that this is a political hit job by a bunch of sore losers who see impeachment as a way for them to meddle in the 2020 election. Weigh that carefully, ladies and gentlemen of the real jury, as you vote tomorrow.
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.