Impeachment is a constitutional procedure that should be reserved only for extraordinary times with the most extreme examples of abuse of power by a president. That is why, in our country's history, only two presidents have been impeached.
But this is one of those times.
The evidence of wrongdoing by President Trump is overwhelming. The impeachment inquiry has been conducted so far in a sober, responsible way. As Wednesday's hearing made clear, the witnesses are credible and clear, and the story they tell is alarming. All members of Congress are now compelled to listen to the witnesses and independently determine whether the president's conduct warrants impeachment.
Mr. Trump used the immense powers of the American presidency to pressure an ally to open investigations that would help him personally. That much is clear just from the call memo of the July 25 conversation between President Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Any American who has not read the call memo should do so, because it is as shocking today to realize that Mr. Trump said the jaw-dropping phrase, "I would like you to do us a favor," as it was the day it was released. He followed that by expressing his desire for Ukraine to investigate the 2016 election and the Bidens. That is sufficient in itself to prove unacceptable wrongdoing by the president.
But today's testimony made clear that it goes much further. Two respected public servants — Ambassador William Taylor, an experienced diplomat and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, the State Department official overseeing European and Eurasian affairs — testified that the president and his personal attorney sought politically motivated investigations by the Ukrainian government into former Vice President Joseph Biden and allegations concerning the 2016 election (the latter references an unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukrainians, not Russians, were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and the Ukrainians framed the Russian government to make it look like that country was working with Mr. Trump's presidential campaign).
Mr. Kent testified that the undercutting of dedicated career foreign service officers in Ukraine did great damage to our national security. Mr. Taylor testified that, from his experiences over several months, he developed a clear understanding that, at the direction of the president, nearly $400 million in taxpayer funded military aid and the powerful optics of a White House meeting were conditioned on a public announcement of investigations personally helpful to Mr. Trump's re-election efforts.
Like Mr. Kent, Mr. Taylor also said that the president's interference in our support of Ukraine for political purposes was deeply damaging to national security. Furthermore, he emphasized the potentially deadly costs of the delay in military support: Ukraine's conflict with Russia has resulted in 14,000 casualties, and "more die each week" in fighting in the eastern part of the country.
Pressuring a foreign power to investigate a political rival is, alone, a potentially impeachable offense. But Mr. Trump's effort to condition needed military and diplomatic aid on investigations helpful to his personal political interests may also constitute bribery as contemplated by the Constitution for the purpose of impeachment. It also likely violates criminal laws, including the federal bribery statute.
The president's allies in the House tried to distract from the devastating facts against him, but they do not hold up to even the briefest scrutiny.The claim that there could not have been serious wrongdoing because military aid to Ukraine was ultimately released and Ukraine did not begin the requested investigations is laughable. The aid was released only after Congress discovered it had been held up and began angrily asking about it and as the scandal was emerging. The reported statements of senior Ukrainian officials also indicate that Ukraine's government had reluctantly decided to publicly announce these political investigations and was rescued only by this scandal's public emergence.
As important, today Mr. Taylor revealed stunning new information. He said that a staff member of his witnessed Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, call Mr. Trump the day after his call with Mr. Zelensky and that the staff member heard Mr. Trump ask Mr. Sondland about the status of "the investigations" — which witnesses have testified was shorthand for inquiries into the Bidens and the origins of the investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Taylor testified that his staff member heard Mr. Sondland say Ukraine was moving forward on those investigations and that Mr. Sondland said that the president "cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for."
Similarly, President Zelensky's statement that he did not feel pressured by Mr. Trump is hardly a silver bullet, given that he made it while seated next to the president at the United Nations. In fact, the evidence as a whole showed that the pressure worked and that Ukraine's efforts to avoid getting embroiled in politicized investigations pushed by Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, were unsuccessful, and that Russia stands to potentially benefit from the interruption of United States-Ukraine relations (through, for example, a break in security support).
Critically, Mr. Zelensky still has not received a White House meeting.
Finally, efforts to dismiss or smear witnesses testifying at the hearings ring hollow. Some of these witnesses' testimony is firsthand, others is secondhand, as you would expect from anyone with knowledge of a piece of a multipart story. But their motivations are unimpeachable, their statements are clear, and when taken together, the account they have provided is devastating.Members of Congress must listen closely to what these witnesses are saying: President Trump used the power of his office to pressure a struggling ally to conduct investigations for his own personal, political benefit.
They will face a vote as consequential to American democracy as any they have taken. The testimony spoken in these hearings, and the facts outlined by these witnesses, must be their only guide when they take that vote.
Not to do so is to allow the president to succeed in damaging our democracy.
Noah Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This appeared in the New York Times, November 13, 2019.
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