Volodymyr Zelensky and Donald Trump
Credit: Presidential Office of Ukrain

If you haven’t had an opportunity to read the whistleblower report that was released to the public on Thursday morning, I strongly encourage you to take the time to do that today. I also request that you share it within your social networks, as I think it is important that as many people as possible get their facts in this case directly from the primary sources rather than filtered through their preferred news outlets. The report is the best entry point to understanding why the president will be impeached and also for judging whether this is justified and should lead to conviction and removal from office.

I say “entry point,” because it is not by itself sufficient to understand all the important facets and considerations at play. The whistleblower was not in a position to know all the facts. But he knew enough to understand that President Trump was running an operation involving Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr. The operation involved the enlistment of both sympathetic and coerced Ukrainian officials to lend credence to and help promulgate false conspiracy theories related both to the 2016 election and to Joe Biden, one of his likely opponents in the 2020 election.

Ever since Donald Trump became the chief proponent of the allegation that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, we have known that he has both a fondness and a weakness for implausible conspiracy theories. It is not always possible to know when Trump is acting with knowing cynicism and when he has genuinely fallen for a bogus story. It’s conceivable that part of his defense in this case is that he is simply an idiot who believes theories that are intended for simple rubes.

Be that as it may, the president has long suspected that even as Russia acted to help his campaign, there were people in Ukraine working to help Hillary Clinton. In itself, this is not implausible. A reasonable example is the August 2016 disclosure of a notebook detailing Ukrainian government payments to Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. This led to Manafort’s swift dismissal, and to no end of headaches from Trump thereafter.

Given Trump’s ostentatious embrace of Vladimir Putin throughout his campaign, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that many people in Ukraine did not want to see him elected. If the Clinton campaign were to have colluded with those people, that would have been as potentially problematic as any collusion the Trump campaign conducted with Russians. Trump would very much like to prove that something along these lines occurred, and this isn’t by itself a corrupt act. The problems arise from how Trump hopes to make a connection.

For one thing, Trump has by no means limited his efforts to seeking information about potential Ukrainian assistance to the Clinton campaign. From the beginning, he has combined this with a forward-looking plan to damage Joe Biden with an eye to the 2020 campaign.

If Trump had a reasonable suspicion that Biden had committed corrupt acts while serving as vice-president, the reasonable thing to do would be to refer it to the FBI. What he has done instead is deeply troubling. It ties in with his effort to retroactively undermine the legitimacy of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump has authorized John Dunham to lead an investigation into how the FBI came to initiate a counterintelligence investigation on his campaign in 2016, the New York Times reports. Since Ukraine could be part of the explanation for that, issues related to Ukraine’s activities in 2016 fall under the purview of his inquiry:

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said that the official named to review the origins of the counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Trump’s campaign, John H. Durham, is looking into the role of Ukraine, among other countries. “While the attorney general [William Barr] has yet to contact Ukraine in connection with this investigation, certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government have volunteered information to Mr. Durham, which he is evaluating,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Now, what needs to be understood here is that the whistleblower report clearly says that Rudy Giuliani was put to work by the president to make contact with Ukrainians, including current and former officials of their government, and that this had apparently resulted in tangible results. This is detailed in Section IV of the complaint, under the heading “Circumstances leading up to the 25 July Presidential call.”

In particular, in March 2019, articles penned by Ukrainians who been in contact with Giuliani began appearing in The Hill alleging that the Head of the Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine along with a member of parliament had conspired with DNC and officials in the U.S. embassy in Kiev to interfere in the 2016 election. They also claimed that Joe Biden had forced Ukraine to fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in order to quash an investigation of his son Hunter. These were the two basic lines of inquiry Trump later asked President Zelensky to explore during their July 25 phone call as a condition of getting further military aid. These allegations were not true, although it’s possible that Trump did not understand that Giuliani was creating the stories on his behalf.

What’s clearer is that Trump had a clear plan to push these stories and that it included withholding military assistance to Ukraine as a leverage point. It was one thing to successfully plant misinformation in The Hill but far move valuable to get official statements from the new government in Kiev.

On both of these points, Trump crossed over from conducting unethical dirty tricks to committing impeachable offenses. Directly soliciting help from a foreign power to help you damage a likely political opponent is a violation of campaign finance law and also the type of thing that warrants removal from office on general principle. Doing so in a coercive manner by imperiling that country’s national security is also a removable offense.

I also believe that deliberately feeding John Durham misinformation that will undermine his investigation of the FBI counterintelligence investigation of the president’s 2016 campaign is a criminal offense.

Some of what Trump has done could have been done in a legal way that would be far less problematic. He could asked for Ukrainian cooperation in Durham’s investigation rather than asking them to work with Rudy Giuliani and William Barr. He could have had the FBI look into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. But taking those kinds of actions would have been somewhat perilous in the best of circumstances, and it’s never okay to ask for an investigation and then seek to deliver misinformation to the investigators.

The president’s supporters will argue that he had the right to investigate possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 campaign, and that’s true. He just went about it in the wrong way, especially by sending Giuliani out to manufacture fake evidence for the cause. The president’s supporters will argue that it’s valid to examine possible corruption on the part of a former vice-president irrespective of whether he’s a rival candidate for office. This depends on the credibility and seriousness of the allegations, and should be handled with the utmost care. In this case, there was no credibility to the allegations–Giuliani was ginning up them–and absolutely no care was taken to avoid conflicts of interest.

The most egregious act here is clearly the decision to withhold aid from Ukraine. This was done entirely unilaterally by the president and mystified officials responsible for Ukraine at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. It was done with no regard for the security implications for Ukraine. It’s sole purpose was to exercise leverage over the new government in Kiev in furtherance of a corrupt plan to lend credence to several conspiracy theories that would confuse and misinform the American electorate.

As we debate whether Trump should be convicted and removed from office, we need to keep in mind that there is some limited merit to what his defenders argue, but that their arguments ultimately do not hold water because this wasn’t a good faith effort to protect our elections or root out corruption. It was simply an effort to create and substantiate bogus claims that would help Trump win reelection. It was nothing more than that.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com