Trump-Ukraine impeachment made simple: Smear Biden and you’ll get your military aid

As Congress moves into the public phase of its Ukraine investigation, the scandal has become more clear rather than more complex. Every witness confirms a straightforward storyline with remarkable consistency: President Donald Trump placed America’s national security at risk by abusing the power of his office for personal gain.

The good news so far for American democracy is that America’s public servants are protecting the rule of law and the national interest. The bad news is that their chief opponent is the Republican Party.

It is heartening to realize that so many government officials, all sworn servants of the Constitution, raised objections to Trump’s schemes. The president’s sycophants, proceeding from a warped theory of executive branch omnipotence, believe that these subordinates should have saluted smartly and moved out when the commander in chief made a decision.

Instead, those officials asked whether what they were being told to do was even legal. (Deputy Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, for example, questioned whether the Office of Management and Budget had the authority to hold up the aid.) In a system of government by the rule of law, in which government employees take an oath to defend the Constitution rather than any one political leader, this is the correct response. The question of “what the president wants” should always be subordinate to the more important question of what the law allows.

Trump vs. America on Ukraine policy 

Even former national security adviser John Bolton visibly reacted on hearing of Trump’s attempt to squeeze the Ukrainians, because whatever one might think about Bolton’s views, he has also been around Washington a long time and he likely knows trouble when he hears it. Tim Morrison, Bolton’s deputy and hardly someone who could be identified as a “Never Trumper,” testified only that he didn’t think there was anything “illegal” afoot in Trump’s communications with Ukraine. That is how people in Washington speak when they know something is wrong but are not themselves lawyers and can thus later claim that their view on legality was just an opinion.

Trump’s defenders angrily reply that it is the president, not his bureaucrats, who defines the “national interest” in foreign affairs. But Trump’s apologists never explain when or why he changed America’s policy on Ukraine. As far as anyone can tell, the United States is still a friend to Ukraine and an opponent of Russia’s invasion of the country. Cooper at Defense, Fiona Hill and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman at the National Security Council, George Kent at the State Department, and others were acting not only on what they thought were legal barriers to Trump’s orders but also in accordance — at least in theory — with U.S. policy.

The largest House hearing room in Washington on Nov. 12, 2019, a day before the first public session on the Trump impeachment begins there.

So which is it? Were the bureaucrats running rogue ops, or was Trump incoherently countermanding his own administration’s policy?

One could make the cowardly argument that Trump wasn’t really involved at all, and instead argue that the whole business was cooked up by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani who, in cahoots with millionaire doofus-turned-Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Acting Director of Everything Mick Mulvaney, supposedly launched some sort of plot to help Trump by proving that the Ukrainians framed the Russians for interfering in the 2016 election.

Trump admitted Ukraine shakedown 

This is a theory getting a test drive in Washington, and it’s so stupid that it almost works. The Ukraine arms-for-smearing-Joe Biden plan is both so utterly needless and yet astonishingly risky at the same time, one can only imagine it coming from three guys in a booth at the Hay-Adams Hotel after too many Old Fashioneds.

Yet it makes no sense to hang out three designated sin-eaters for the administration, not least because Trump himself has admitted, proudly, to shaking down the Ukrainians, repeatedly and in writing. 

Going public:Impeachment hearings are Democrats’ last, best chance to show how Trump endangers America

The excuses and alternate theories of the case have mostly fallen by the wayside. The president wanted a foreign country — a friend and ally in the fight against Russian aggression — to smear an American citizen for personal political gain. It’s that simple.

These facts have proved no detriment to the Republican Party in its efforts to define impeachability down. Not a single Republican voted to investigate the Ukraine mess, not even some of the retiring members who have had enough and have already blown the canopy to eject from the burning GOP. There might be some defections in the Senate at the last minute, if Democrats craft the articles of impeachment deftly enough, but it would be unwise to invest too much hope in Republican rectitude at this late date. 

Haley throws in with Trump

Even Republicans who could have stayed quiet have decided to see whether they can harvest some political capital by defending Trump. Most notable here is a former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who dramatically equated impeachment to the death penalty and excused Trump from political execution because the military aid, in the end, was finally delivered.

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Almost certainly as part of her future campaign to be Trump’s political heir, Haley also revealed that she wanted no part of a cabal with former chief of staff John Kelly and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to keep Trump from doing the kinds of things he’s about to be impeached for doing. It is a mystery why Haley thinks this makes her look anything but awful, since she is admitting both to being silent about a plot within the White House to restrain Trump (which will, and should, infuriate Trump loyalists) while also admitting that for two years, she concealed the concerns of two administration “adults” that the president of the United States was dangerous (which can, and should, infuriate any patriotic American).

This, then, is the lay of the land as we move into the public phase of the fourth impeachment process in American history. The president is manifestly guilty of multiple offenses against the Constitution, up to and including a betrayal of his oath as commander in chief to keep the country safe. The Republican Party does not care one whit either about the Constitution or national security. And Haley would very much like you to know that she will say and do whatever it takes to be elected to national office.

Our constitutional crisis continues. We will know in a matter of months whether we can overcome this moment — and the opportunists who have brought us to it.

Tom Nichols is a national security expert, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise.” Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom

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