(Bloomberg) -- “Read the transcript!”
That’s the rallying cry of President Donald Trump and supporters who say he did nothing wrong in the Ukraine impeachment saga.
Democrats countered that the White House readout of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president offers strong evidence of his guilt. The key line they point to is this: “I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump tells President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
With Trump set for trial starting Tuesday in the Senate after his impeachment in the House, that 16-minute call is Exhibit A for both the president and his opponents.
Weeks of House testimony underscored that many of Trump’s aides and envoys were disturbed by the call and broader administration efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden, including by withholding almost $400 million in assistance the ally desperately wanted to counter Russian aggression. Fiona Hill, the top National Security Council adviser on Russia at the time, said her boss, John Bolton, called the effort a “drug deal.”
But the House proceedings didn’t answer all the questions about what happened. And even though the president blocked key witnesses from testifying and defied a subpoena for Ukraine-related documents, new allegations and evidence keep emerging.
The impeachment debate ultimately revolves around whether the president’s request was an abuse of power -- co-opting a foreign power for political purposes -- or just an indelicate effort to get an ally to tackle corruption. Just this week, a nonpartisan congressional oversight agency ruled the aid freeze was illegal, a finding the White House immediately rejected.
Here’s what’s still unknown going into the impeachment trial:
Is there a ‘smoking gun’?
Despite testimony from 17 witnesses in both private and public hearings, there’s still no ironclad proof that Trump personally ordered the aid to Ukraine withheld -- and an Oval Office meeting sought by Zelenkskiy unscheduled -- until the Ukrainian leader committed to the Biden investigation.
Officials who could speak to that issue -- acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Bolton -- effectively refused to testify in the House impeachment hearings. Bolton now suggests he’d be open to testifying in the Senate, but Trump has said he’ll claim executive privilege if his former aide tries.
The accusation of a quid pro quo was actually bolstered by Mulvaney, who told reporters pressing him about the Ukraine allegations that, yes, the president was using foreign policy to pursue his domestic political needs.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said. “And I have news for everybody. Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Mulvaney later said his comments were taken out of context, but the damage was done.
Will new evidence be admissible?
House Democrats chose not to challenge Trump’s refusal to allow key witnesses to testify, which could have tied up the impeachment process in the courts for months. Instead, they made the White House refusal to cooperate the core of the second article of impeachment referred to the Senate, calling it obstruction of Congress.
But even as House Democrats were preparing to ceremoniously march those two articles of impeachment over to the Senate, information damaging to the president continued to emerge.
Among the most explosive new revelations are claims by Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was running a parallel U.S. foreign policy when it came to Ukraine. With Parnas’s help, Giuliani pressed for months to get Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, ousted.
“President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night. “I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.”
The president says he doesn’t know Parnas, dismissing a series of photos of the two of them together as just the typical glad-handing all political leaders go through at public events.
What is U.S. policy toward Ukraine now, and who controls it?
One of the most revelatory themes of the impeachment trial was how Giuliani, claiming he was acting with Trump’s authority, wrested U.S. policy toward Ukraine away from the career diplomats and political appointees who were nominally in charge of it.
Giuliani has shown no sign of backing down from his pursuit of Biden, and his attacks on Ambassador Yovanovitch: Soon after the impeachment hearings ended in the House, he flew back to Ukraine to press ahead with what he said were new lines of investigation.
And while Pompeo insists he’s proud of U.S. policy and its focus on a strong partnership with Ukraine, the president’s own convictions haven’t changed a bit.
“The tragedy is the president has not changed his view,” said Mark David Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “If anything, he’s dug in further.”
How much did Russia know about -- and fuel -- Trump’s efforts?
Intelligence experts were aghast when Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, revealed in his testimony that he had called Trump on an unsecured mobile phone line from a cafe in Kyiv. The conversation was loud enough for others at the table to listen in. And that was just one of several phone calls he made to the president discussing their strategy toward Ukraine.
It’s highly likely Russia was tracking those calls -- as well as the many communications from Giuliani and his own associates -- and looking for an advantage in its standoff with Ukraine.
“You have Rudy on an open line, Sondland on an open line,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Russia must have been abundantly aware of how the Americans were cutting the Ukrainians free.”
In addition to the unsupported allegation that Biden intervened in Ukraine to prevent a corruption investigation of his son -- who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company -- Giuliani and Trump have entertained a conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help Democrat Hillary Clinton. That’s the reverse of the finding by U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled to help Trump.
It’s also widely accepted that Russians helped sow U.S. divisions over matters like race and gun violence heading into the 2016 campaign. Did they do the same with Trump and Ukraine looking ahead to 2020?
How will it end?
Impeachment supporters would need 67 votes in the Senate to convict Trump, which almost certainly won’t happen. No Republican in the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, and while some in the Senate may agree to allow new witnesses like Bolton to testify, the threshold for convicting Trump for what the Constitution calls “high crimes and misdemeanors” is high.
Regardless, Democrats say it’s their duty to carry forward, and they seem to hope that the case against Trump will help sway voters in November.
“No president should be getting away with what the president, President Trump, has been getting away with,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who oversaw Trump’s impeachment, said Thursday after the articles against him were delivered to the Senate. The trial starts Tuesday.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at email@example.com, ;Kevin Whitelaw at firstname.lastname@example.org, Larry Liebert
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