Six months ago Donald Trump was going to be impeached over the Mueller Report. His critics were certain of it—he had colluded with Russian interference in the 2016 election, or at least he the act of covering it up appeared impeachable. They thought that once Robert Mueller released his report, Trump would be finished.
And then Mueller delivered the report—without a recommendation to impeach. For weeks, anti-Trump commentators tried to interpret and spin the report in such a way to keep the possibility of impeachment alive. When that failed, they pinned their hopes on the prosecutors of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Now they were sure to have the goods—they would indict Trump for his payoffs to mistresses like Stormy Daniels. That was a violation of campaign-finance laws, somehow, wasn’t it?
But no, it wasn’t. The court did not charge Trump with anything: not with sex-related payoffs as esoteric campaign-finance violations, not with any financial crimes of any kind. Nothing.
Even before Mueller and his great dud of a report, there was the Emoluments Clause. Remember that one? Trump was going down because foreign dignitaries liked to stay at his hotels, and that amounted to the sort of emoluments forbidden by the Constitution. Impeachable offense!
That one was a dud too. Then there was the woman who claimed that in a changing room in Bergdorf Goodman one day in the 1980s, Trump . . . Well, her story didn’t do the trick either, though it created a predictable media sensation for about a week.
The snap reaction of supposedly serious media figures and political analysts to each of these episodes, and a few others besides, has been premature and badly premised. They lept to conclusions out of Trump-hating zeal. And now they’re doing it again, this time over the assumption that the Trump acted improperly in talking to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky about the curious business dealings Joe Biden’s son had in the country. This time, Nancy Pelosi, under intense pressure from her party’s most furious activists, has said she’ll open an impeachment inquiry.
This is it—the big one. It’s happening. Or rather, it’s happening again. Absolutely no one overheated about this latest scandal seems to have learned anything at all from every other time “the Resistance” has been wrong.
Here’s the first problem: even if Trump did everything his enemies say he did, and for the reasons they say he did, what law did he break? In all the impeachment hype over the last few days, this basic question somehow gets glossed over. Reason’s Jacob Sullum went in search of an answer, and what he came up with, after talking to a variety of legal thinkers, was—well, maybe there was some kind of novel, esoteric, squint-and-you-might-see-it campaign-finance violation here. The other possibilities for criminal wrongdoing in this case would be laughable, if they weren’t so obviously a symptom of people losing their minds—William Weld, for example, thinks Trump committed treason and should be executed. Andrew Napolitano, a notable anti-Trump voice among Fox News contributors, thinks the president is guilty of bribery because he talked about U.S. aid to Ukraine in the same conversation with Zelensky where they talked about the Biden case. Quid pro quo is what Trump’s critics charge—but Sullum, who is no Trump fan, points out that “federal bribery statute applies to U.S. officials, not foreign officials” being bribed. As for a campaign-finance infraction, Sullum notes that “if information counted as a campaign contribution, then any American who shared a potentially damaging tip about a political candidate with that candidate's opponent would be subject to the limits imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act.” Information shared by a foreign leader is not a campaign-finance contribution in any literal sense of the term.
But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one—Trump does not have to have committed a crime, or even be plausibly suspected of having done so, in order to be impeached. But just how credible is an impeachment proceeding going to be if it doesn’t involve allegations of criminal conduct? At least when Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about fellatio, there was perjury involved. That still did not get the Republicans impeaching him anywhere close to winning their gambit. They suffered a drubbing in the midterm elections immediately before impeachment, and their own sexual hypocrisies, brought to light by a pornographer’s bounty money, threw the GOP’s House leadership into turmoil. The danger for Democrats now in going after Trump over Ukraine is that doing so will similarly cast a spotlight on their hypocrisies, starting with the remarkably lucrative international relationships Hunter Biden has somehow cultivated. They wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that his father was a senator and vice president, would they? No treason, maybe, and no crime—but if you seek the spirit of bribery, here’s a ready place to start.
Hunter Biden, a young man with no known experience in the oil business, was invited to join the board of a Ukrainian oligarch’s oil company in 2014, a service for which he reportedly received compensation to the tune of $50,000 a month. I know it’s far-fetched, but if, just for a moment, we imagine that Hunter Biden does not have the skills of the sort that a Ukrainian oil company needs badly enough to purchase for $600,000 per year, then what could possibly have prompted a generous oligarch to lavish such sums on this lucky American?
Since before Trump was elected president, his foes have insisted that him and his children are corrupt. These accusations have not infrequently involved the Trump family’s ties to foreign business interests. Is it really the case that sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander, too—that supposedly skeptical, concerned citizens don’t think there’s anything fishy about the Biden family’s business interests abroad? Joe Biden himself, it bears noting, has boasted on camera about his ability to get Ukrainian prosecutors fired. As The Nation reported last May:
In March 2016, then-Vice President Biden successfully strong-armed Ukraine to fire prosecutor general Viktor Shokin. Biden, who flew into Kiev dangling the promise of a $1 billion loan guarantee, told former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko the loan wouldn’t be authorized unless Shokin was ousted.
Here’s how Biden himself recounted it: “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch. He got fired.”
At the time, Shokin was allegedly investigating corruption at Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, happened to sit on Burisma’s board, a lucrative position which was netting him millions of dollars.
In other words, Biden has admitted to doing the very thing of which Trump is accused: using U.S. aid money as leverage to bend Ukrainian officials to his will. Not only is it not illegal to do that, it appears to be standard practice. Ukraine is an outstandingly corrupt country, as well as one in an extremely hazardous strategic position next door to Russia. The Ukrainians want American arms and money, and Congress is inclined to give it to them. Who could guess that Ukraine might be the kind of place where questionable deals happen? At least a few ounces of the outrage directed at Trump ought to go into asking just what it is that America is getting into by pumping aid into such a country. That’s a question that should be asked, of course, about foreign aid in general—and it’s the kind of question that goes unasked while the media pursues overeager dreams of impeachment.
But if Trump committed no crime and his behavior was no different from Joe Biden’s (or rather less bullying than Biden), then there is still the matter of context and motive. What Trump did that went beyond all decency, to the point of warranting impeachment, his critics say, is to have asked a foreign power to interfere with a domestic political opponent. This was unconscionable even if—or even though—the Bidens are grifters, and grifters who use their considerable political clout to shut down critical inquiries.
(Remember, Joe Biden reacted with fury when he was asked about his son’s business dealings as part of being vetted for becoming Barack Obama’s running mate: as the New York Times, “campaign researchers uncovered potential public relations problems stemming from Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, including complications from his lobbying work and indications of marital, legal and substance-abuse problems. . . . . When an Obama campaign official flagged the issue, Mr. Biden grew angry and warned, “Keep my family out of this.”
But Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do: no one can say he didn’t campaign clearly and loudly in 2016 against the grifting of Hillary Clinton and other politicians like her. “Lock her up!” was the demand of the crowds at his campaign rallies. Trump and his supporters consider the Clintons and Bidens to be outright crooks. This is surely not what the country’s center-left media think, but anyone commenting on Ukraine and impeachment ought to understand where the other side is coming from—and the other side is not just Trump, but millions of Americans who think that the way politicians like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden operate is fundamentally wrong. They believe this just as strongly as the elite believes that Trump’s way of behaving is wrong.