The marathon of testimony in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry this week confirmed that the Ukraine affair, like so many earlier subplots in the era of President Trump, boils down to two big questions:
What do the president’s words mean? Can the president do what he did?
The answers to those questions have been a partisan inkblot test since Trump exploded onto the political scene, and now they are burning again as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats decide how they’ll move ahead in a showdown over impeachment.
The overall facts of the case now are well established: Trump sought concessions this year from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In exchange for engagement and about $391 million in military assistance, Zelenskiy — and not an aide such as his prosecutor-general — had to announce investigations that Trump thought might help him in the 2020 election, witnesses said.
The White House froze aid for a period of weeks this year and ultimately released it. Zelenskiy never made a public statement about investigations.
Findings of the inquiry
Members of Congress and the witnesses did not agree about whether they heard Trump make a request of Zelenskiy politely — or whether Trump twisted the arm of a weaker counterpart with the expectation that his words would be taken as a demand.
Witnesses and investigators also did not agree whether Trump had explicitly directed the aides — since dubbed “the three amigos” for Ukraine — that they were required to submit to the tasking of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Or whether what Trump did was, in so many words, shrug and say — Ukraine? If you guys wanna do some stuff, you can talk to Rudy.
Likewise, neither lawmakers nor the witnesses agreed whether Trump should have pursued this policy in the first place.
The United States has paused or stopped assistance for foreign countries before to exact concessions, as witnesses detailed on Wednesday evening.
Even so, Democrats led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., say the story amounts to “bribery,” because he said Trump conditioned official acts on reciprocal actions that would benefit him politically.
“My colleagues seem to think unless the president says the magic words, ‘I hereby bribed the Ukrainians,’ that there’s no evidence of bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors,” Schiff said.
“But let’s look to the best evidence of what is in the president’s head. What is his intent? What is the reason behind the hold on the meeting and on the aid?”
Republicans said the case was hearsay, argued Democrats have no credibility after the Russia investigation, and emphasized that “corruption” in Ukraine is very real.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Trump was being a careful steward of taxpayer dollars, keeping them out of the hands of a new regime in Ukraine until he and aides could take its measure — and releasing the money only when satisfied that doing so would further U.S. long-term strategic interests.
“President Trump wants to see — with all of these other things that are of concern to him — he wants to see if this new guy is actually, as I like to say, the real deal — a real reformer and actually going to deal with the corruption problem,” Jordan said of Zelenskiy.
Code words and “corruption”
Fighting corruption has been a longstanding American priority for Ukraine — but the Defense Department and other agencies certified earlier in the year, before the White House froze the aid, that Kyiv had done sufficient work to merit it.
And Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a top Ukraine specialist within the National Security Council, testified on Tuesday that he included points about anti-corruption in materials given to Trump ahead of both his phone calls with Zelenskiy.
Trump, however, didn’t mention corruption in either conversation, according to witnesses who listened in.
What he did say was “Biden,” because he wanted Zelenskiy to investigate what Republicans allege may have been improper activity involving former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who was paid by a Ukrainian company.
The Bidens haven’t been accused of breaking the law, but each time Democrats have used their majority to convene a discussion about Ukraine in Congress, it has presented an opening for minority Republicans to restate allegations about Joe and Hunter Biden.
His excellency the ambassador
And Trump didn’t say “Biden” when he spoke to a key intermediary in this story, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Sondland, a donor and political sponsor of the president, is one of the few witnesses who could speak to Trump directly. He said he didn’t put the picture together until later on and realize that “Burisma,” a word he did recognize as referring to the company that paid Hunter Biden, actually was code for Biden.
Although Sondland remembered Trump asking about investigations when they talked on the phone July 26, in a later call, Sondland said he asked Trump an open-ended question: What do you want from Ukraine?
“I want nothing,” Trump confirmed on Wednesday that he responded — he read from handwritten notes when he talked to reporters. “No quid pro quo.”
Sondland conveyed that to his colleagues and, a few days later, the White House released the Ukraine assistance on Sept. 11.
The matter of “bribery”
Skeptical Democrats said that discussion had to be placed in the context of the broader saga. The White House had become aware about inquiries about the halted Ukraine aid and Trump knew the game was up, they argue.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., compared Trump to someone who has been pulled over for speeding and immediately tells the police officer: “I didn’t rob the bank. I didn’t rob the bank,” Swalwell said on Thursday.
For Republicans, Sondland’s evidence underscored that there is no case here.
There is no “attempted robbery” metaphor appropriate in impeachment, they argue — Trump was not “caught,” per Trump’s defenders. He vindicated himself in the conversation with Sondland and with the release of the assistance. Zelenskiy didn’t announce an investigation.
None of the Republican members on the Intelligence Committee appeared convinced by an impeachment case. One potential crossover, Texas Rep. Will Hurd, made clear on Thursday that he wasn’t sold.
Others scoffed at what they called a waste of time.
“Is that it, really?” asked Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, on Thursday. “You’re going to impeach and remove a president — for this?”
Stewart said he thinks it’s good news that if House Democrats move ahead with articles of impeachment, that would trigger a Senate trial in which Republicans can use their majority to protect Trump from what Stewart called a scurrilous process.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated to reporters this week that he’ll convene that trial as required by the Constitution, but he believes it’s “inconceivable” that the sufficient 20 Republicans would break ranks with Trump and vote to remove the president.
“We aren’t finished yet”
Democrats can do that arithmetic the same as anyone else, which means the close of the open hearings this week puts them at a crossroads.
Pelosi and her lieutenants have taken care to state that they don’t consider impeachment to be a foregone conclusion.
So one question raised by Schiff’s series of hearings is whether Pelosi now might try to climb down in view of the dead end in the Senate — or whether the impeachment train now simply has too much momentum to stop.
Schiff said at the outset of his hearings that he believes Trump’s actions might leave the House with no choice but to impeach, because that’s all it can do. If what results isn’t removal but a message to presidents about what Democrats considered unacceptable here, the work was worth doing, Schiff suggested.
Pelosi, meanwhile, insisted to reporters separately that, on Thursday at least, she hadn’t decided what next moves to discuss with the committees of jurisdiction and didn’t know what course they’ll set.
“We’ll see,” she said. “We aren’t finished yet.”