It turns out impeachment, as Clare Malone writes at 538.com, is really a public relation operation about politicians trying to sell the public on their version of events that can be interpreted in more than one way. The founders set it up that way, leaving “high crimes and misdemeanors” intentionally vague. So how are the two sides selling it? As with most aspects of political life in the polarized America we now inhabit, what shakes out is two completely different universes. I’m going to be intrepid here for a minute, and try to take us on safari to both.
First, the Undisputed Facts (this will be short)
Yes, there are a few facts that are not in dispute, and that’s a good place to start.
On July 25, President Trump had a call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. During the call, Trump Zelensky said Ukraine is “almost ready” to purchase much needed Javelin missile systems, to which Trump responded “I need a favor, though” — and then outlining two investigations he seeks, one into possible Ukrainian help to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and one into the Bidens, Joe and Hunter. Text message exchanges between Trump officials and advisors to Zelensky later revealed that the Trump administration was in negotiations to secure the investigations, with Ukraine seeking an official visit to the White Houses at a time when the US was not yet willing to commit to a visit, and was holding back both the visit and $400 million in military aid that had been approved a year earlier.
An Ever-Expanding Cast of Very Colorful Characters
An expanding case of characters has emerged, worthy of any Netflix mini-series. Aside from the well known starter kit of President Donald Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and the usual cast of Congressional and Cabinet combatants, the impeachment drama has given more than a dozen new figures who animate the drama, including:
- The Ukrainians: The nexus with Ukraine begins with Giuliani being approached by two Ukrainian-born Americans Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman who introduced Giuliani to the then-general prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko and Lutsenko’s predecessor Viktor Shokin in 2018. Lutsenko saw the writing on the wall that then-President Petro Poroshenko was going down in defeat to the unlikely comedian-turned politician Volodymyr Zelensky, leaving Lutsenko vulnerable to being replaced. Lutsenko saw an alliance with the Trump administration as a good way to save his job, and to this end he dangled the BIden/Burisma stroy, and the 2016 election story. As this played out, other Ukrainians would enter the fray including Presidential advisor Andrey Yermak, politician journalist Serhii Leshchenko, diplomat Andrey Telizhenko. On October 10, Parnas and Frumen were arrested trying to leave the US on charges of conspiracy and campaign finance violations, and a day later it was reported by the New York Times and others that Rudy Giuliani himself is under investigation for his ties to Parnas and Fruman.
- The Americans: On the American side, those outside the usual familar inhabitants of Congress and Trump’s orbit who would emerge included the whistleblower himself/herself, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, US Ambassador to the EU (and Trump’s personal envoy, it seems, to Ukraine) Gordon Sondland, fired Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Charge d’affaires Bill Taylor, State Department DAS George Kent, and State department Inspector General Steve Linick.
The View From the Democratic Universe
The dems see Trump’s action as absolutely clear and absolutely wrong. The President’s actions on July 25 were clear: he solicited the President of a Ukraine to “dig up dirt” on poltiical rival Joe Biden. In doing so, he broke the campaign finance law simply in the asking — and the egregiousness of the transgression was only heightened by the withholding of military aid and a visit to the White House, acts that constituted, in the dem worldview, nothing less than extortion, blackmail, or at the very least a corrept quid pro quo. Confirmed by the transcript itself, released by a White House who seemed to not quite grasp how the transcript would incriminate Trump in the eyes of Dems and others, this version of reality would quickly be established. It is a version of reality that, aside from dems, is also in tune with the views of most non-partisan career government officials.
Nancy Pelosi: “The president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
The View From the Republican Universe
The Republican universe looks at the same set of facts and says waitaminute, who says Trump asking Zelensky to mount the investigations was a partisan political act. US Presidents all the time pressure foreign country’s to clean up corruption; they all the time use aid as an inducement for desired behavior. What Trump did was no different from what Presidents have always done. He wasn’t out to get Joe Biden, he was out to bet Ukraine to step up and clean up its act as far as corruption is concerned. Moreover, they say, there was no quid pro quo, what are you dems talking about?
From there, the Republican version leaps to something along the lines of, dems are trying to disenfranchise the American people by undoing the will of the people, as expressed in the 2016 election, by undemocratically using impeachment as a mechanism to attempt a partisan coup attent. Trump did nothing wrong, or at a minimum did nothing impeachable. This is about ruthless, hyperpartisan dems trying to thwart the democratic process.
To cement it’s narrative, on October 8, the White House counsel wrote back to congressional Democrats’ document subpoenas with an elaborate, eight-page long “hell no” and middle finger to the dems. The letter called the impeachment “constitutionally illegitimate,” and said the White House flat refuses to cooperate. Re the infamous July 25 call, the letter says: “The record clearly established that the call was completely appropriate and that there is no basis for your inquiry.”
Who’s Winning the Messaging War
Polling shows that in the early rollout of the two messaging campaigns, the dems have staked an early lead. Support for the impeachment inquiry surged by ten points, as did support for “impeachment and removal.” The following tracking chart of all polls from 538 shows the trend clearly:
For now, the Democrats’ arguments are convincing more voters than Republicans’. But the October 8 letter’s impact is not yet fully registered in the polls. That letter thunderously challenged the legitimacy of the impeachment and, perhaps more importantly, introduced a “fairness” argument that has at least the potential to slow down dem momentum and cause problems for the dems. The basic question “why not do a vote like they did with Nixon and Clinton” seems like a call to fairness, and dems to date have not developed a persuasive answer as to why they refuse to do so. “Because we don’t have to” is not a winning argument, nor is “Because we don’t want our reps from sensitive districts to have to go on the record” is also not a winning argument. A third argument could be “we don’t have to because it was the repubs who changed the rules since the last impeachment so that the majority has greater powers, so live with what you created, repubs.” But even that may not work.
But while the dems may be vulnerable to stalled momentum over the fairness issue, on the other side we have the almost daily explosion of new revelations that seem to point to an ever-widening circle of corrupt behavior. President Trump has been put on his back foot for sure by the arrest of Parnas and Fruman, and the emerging status of Giuliani as the subject of FBI investigation. These revelations and plot twists may be enough to keep dem momentum and allow the pro-impeachment tally to continue growing.
My Take: Why It’s More Than a Spectacle
I will close this by offering a personal perspective. Yes, I’m committed to chronicling all of this factually and fairly. But I believe it’s possible to be fact-based, while also being committed to certain principles. A few paragraphs up I wrote this: “It [the Dem unvierse] is a version of reality that, aside from dems, is also in tune with the views of most non-partisan career government officials.”
That’s where I come down on this. Not because I’m a dem. Yes, I’ve voted dem consistently in recent years but it wasn’t always that way. I’ve voted Republican at least twice, and during the time I was a CIA officer I viewed myself as genuinely apolotical. As Marie Yovanovitch so eloquently put it: “Like all foreign service officers…I have understood that oath as a commitment to serve on a non-partisan basis, to advance the Foreign Policy determined by the incumbent President, and to work at all times to strengthen our national security and promote our national interests.”
Yovanovitch said something else that resonates:
I have proudly promoted and served American interests as the representative of the American people and six different presidents over the last three decades. Throughout that time, I — like my colleagues at the State Department — have always believed that we enjoyed a sacred trust with our government. . .
That basic understanding no longer hold. Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within.
Stale Department leadership, with Congress, needs to take action now to defend this great institution, and its thousands of loyal and effective employees. \Ve need to rebuild diplomacy as the first resort to advance America’s interests and the front line of America’s defense. I fear that not doing so ·will harm our nation’s interest, perhaps irreparably.
That harm will come not just through the inevitable and
continuing resignation and loss of many of this nation’s most loyal and talented public servants. It also , will come when those diplomats who soldier on and do their best to represent our nation face partners abroad ,who question whether the ambassador truly speaks for the President and can be counted upon as a reliable partner. The harm will come when private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good.
The harm will come when bad actors in countries beyond Ukraine see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system. In such circumstances, the only interests that will be served will be those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia, that spread chaos and attack the institutions and norms that the US helped create and which we benefited from for the last 75 years.
That “sacred trust” is something I felt in my time with the government, and is something that I feel is truly threatened by this President. I sincerely believe that the Republican Universe’s interpretation of these events amounts to willfully believing what is plainly a cover story — that Trump is sincerely interested in quelling corruption, rather than getting partisan help from abroad to bring down an opponent who leads him in every poll. No rational person, looking at the facts and interpreting them sincerely, could come to the conclusion that the Trump spin is real. To buy into that spin requires willing suspension of disbelief and a commitment to political narrative over objective fact.
That said — I renew my commitment to present facts as facts, and to label opinion as opinion. Onward.