Issue Report: Impeachment of Trump over Ukraine

Should President Trump be impeached for his Ukraine dealings?

An impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump began after a whistleblower alleged that President Trump abused the power of the presidency by secretly pressuring the president of Ukraine to undertake investigations to damage political-opponent Joe Biden and help Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. Much of the debate surrounds the transcript of a call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. In this call, President Trump arguably indicated that certain aid and potentially a white house meeting may be conditioned on Ukraine conducting certain investigations, including of Ukrainian-company Burisma. The allegation is that Trump was trying to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s son, who sat on the board of Burisma, and potentially damage Joe Biden’s political prospects in the 2020 election against Trump. Testimony from witnesses have indicated that Trump and top government officials may have aimed to pressure the leaders of Ukraine and other foreign nations to publicly announce investigations, including of Burisma and implicitly the Bidens. Central questions in the debate include: What does the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelenskyy indicate as far a direct conditioning of aid and a White House meeting to a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens?; What do subsequent conversations and witnesses indicate or corroborate regarding the conditioning of aid or a White House meeting to a statement of an investigation?; Did any conditioning constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, bribery, or extortion as required for impeachment?; Was Trump’s intent to damage his political rival Joe Biden? Is it possible aid and a meeting was withheld over an honest effort to protect American interests against Ukrainian corruption, corrupt Americans dealing in Ukraine, or related to 2016 election interference? The debate surrounding these and other questions and whether Trump should be impeached for his dealings with Ukraine are covered below.

Zelenskyy call: Does transcript of Trump-Zelenskyy call show impeachable offense?

Transcript shows conditioning of aid on Biden investigation

The transcript of the call between Trump and President Zelenskyy shows discussion of aid, conditioning of continued aid on the favor of an investigation into the Bidens. Trump says “the United States has been very very good to Ukraine…” President Zelenskyy agrees: “…the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine… I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” President Trump immediately responds to that request for continued support by conditioning that support on doing a favor: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” And includes the ask to investigate the Bidens: “The other thing, There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”


Listeners interepreted aid/meeting as conditioned on investigation

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the White House’s National Security Council, listened in on the Trump-Zelensky call. He later testified that based on the “vast” power disparity between the two leaders, Trump’s request would have been interpreted as “a demand” and that Zelensky would need to “fulfill this particular prerequisite in order to get the meeting.”

No clear evidence Trump intended to weaken Joe Biden politically

"The case against impeaching Trump," CNN, November 12, 2019:

“Limited insight into Trump’s state of mind. To prove that Trump is guilty, Democrats will need to show that he had corrupt intentions when he directed his diplomats to work with Giuliani and when he asked for the “favor” from Zelensky. Nobody has testified that Trump explicitly told them he was pushing the quid pro quo because he wanted to weaken Biden’s campaign or boost his own chances of getting reelected. Trump’s defenders have said witnesses who confirmed the quid pro quo were giving their own “opinions” or making “presumptions.” Two of those witnesses, Taylor and Vindman, never spoke to Trump. “I don’t know what was in the President’s mind,” Taylor said during his closed-door deposition.”

Trump may have intended to investigate legitimate corruption

"The case against impeaching Trump," CNN, November 12, 2019:

“One possibility is that Trump genuinely believes the discredited theories he and Giuliani have been promoting. That means Trump was acting in good faith when he asked Zelensky to check whether Ukraine framed Russian hackers, even though the US government firmly believes the Russian military was responsible. The Justice Department is reviewing the origins of the Russia investigation, and Mulvaney said Trump just wanted Zelensky to “cooperate” with that review. Trump was “clearly irritated by the 2016 election” and has “heard stories for a long time” about supposed Ukrainian meddling to help Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, said former Rep. Bill McCollum, who was one of the GOP House managers for Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. “Trump is very bright, but he doesn’t read a lot, and buys into a lot of conspiracy theories,” McCollum said. “Some of those theories could be correct, and he wants to find out what really happened in 2016. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. Is that in the national interest, or is it purely political? That’s the rub. It’ll be difficult for the Democrats to separate those two.””

Investigating Bidens could be in legitimate national interest

Investigating Joe Biden’s son and Joe Biden himself for, allegedly, trying to stop the prosecution of his son for conflicts related to his involvement with Burisma could be in the national security interest of the country. Such an investigation need not be for mere political advantage, but rather as a means to root out corruption.

Bribery: Did President Trump engage in bribery?

Trump's withholding of aid for personal favor was bribery

Neal Katyal, "Impeaching Trump Is Imperative to Preserving Our Democracy," Time, November 7, 2019

“He’s also guilty of a second paradigmatic impeachable offense: bribery. And all of the evidence we need to prove Trump partook in quid pro quo (“something for something”) exchanges is in the edited summary of the phone call released by his own White House–in which our Commander in Chief offers up Javelin antitank missiles and a White House meeting in exchange for the “favor” of Ukraine’s opening investigations into Biden and the 2016 election. Trump Administration officials have testified that the President also held back $391 million in security assistance from Ukraine, which Congress had already appropriated, as part of his effort to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation of Biden. Most strikingly, Trump ambassador Gordon Sondland, a donor whom the President has referred to as “a great American,” reversed his testimony this month and told Congress there was a quid pro quo.”

Quid pro quo illegal when for personal not state gain

Neal Katyal, "Impeaching Trump Is Imperative to Preserving Our Democracy," Time, November 7, 2019

“Of course, quid pro quo arrangements are aboveboard when the President is asking for a favor on behalf of the people. If, for instance, Trump asked England to share intelligence on a terrorist organization with the CIA in exchange for U.S. intelligence, that would be allowed. The problem arises when the President asks a foreign power for a personal favor–one that doesn’t align with the interests of those he represents. Because when a President abdicates his duty witnessed by another country, he leaves himself vulnerable to blackmail.”

Founders defined bribery broadly to include acts like Trump's

Ben Berwick, Justin Florence, John Langford, "The Constitution Says ‘Bribery’ Is Impeachable. What Does That Mean?" Lawfare, October 3, 2019:

“the Founders had a broader conception of bribery than what’s in the criminal code. Their understanding was derived from English law, under which bribery was understood as an officeholder’s abuse of the power of an office to obtain a private benefit rather than for the public interest. This definition not only encompasses Trump’s conduct—it practically defines it.”

Trump's actions meet even modern statutory standard for bribery

Ben Berwick, Justin Florence, John Langford, "The Constitution Says ‘Bribery’ Is Impeachable. What Does That Mean?" Lawfare, October 3, 2019:

“In fact, Trump’s conduct almost certainly satisfies the modern statutory standard for bribery. As Randall Eliason has explained, a quid pro quo “need not be stated in express terms; corrupt actors are seldom so clumsy, and the law may not be evaded through winks and nods.” We have little doubt that a prosecutor would be able to establish a quid pro quo based on what was said on the call and the surrounding facts and context. (As an aside, Trump’s conduct also likely qualifies as extortion. As James Lindgren has explained at length, historically there has been a substantial overlap between the concepts of extortion and bribery, and around the time of the Founding, the terms were often used to describe the same conduct.)”

Ukraine ultimately received the military aid

"The case against impeaching Trump," CNN, November 12, 2019:

“Republicans will have political cover to vote against Trump’s impeachment, or to acquit him in the Senate, because they can say Ukraine ultimately got the money, and Trump got nothing. The White House released the congressionally appropriated $391 million aid package on September 11, after news reports revealed the unexplained holdup and after getting tipped off about the whistleblower complaint. Zelensky never bowed to Trump’s demands, though it now appears he was reluctantly willing to, based on the call summary and press reports.”

Zelenskyy unaware aid was on hold, couldn't be bribery

Jonathan Turley, "The Legal Case for Impeachment," NPR, November 14, 2019:

“the Republicans noted that and established a timeline of their own. And the most important, in my view, was that it’s clear that the Ukraine did not know about the hold on the aid until around August 29, when a political article ran. And Taylor pretty much confirmed that by saying that as soon as that article ran talking about the hold, he got a virtually immediate call from the Ukraine. Now, the aid was released only about 10 or 11 days after that. So the question for a lot of people is going to be, how significant, really, is that? They didn’t really know about the quid pro quo, if there was one. And more importantly, the aid got to them. And so the argument is sort of like – you know, in Watergate, they made it into the office. You know, they actually did a criminal act.”

High-Crimes and Misdemeanors: Did Trump commit high-crimes and misdemeanors?

Trump breached public trust by using office for personal gain

Neal Katyal, "Impeaching Trump Is Imperative to Preserving Our Democracy," Time, November 7, 2019

“there is no choice but to impeach and remove Trump: because he was willing to undermine our democracy to help his prospects of re-election; because he has stated, unapologetically, that he would do it again; and most important, because he wielded the powers of his office for personal benefit instead of for the benefit of the people. And a President like that–a President who puts himself over his country–is exactly the kind of Commander in Chief our founders included impeachment in our Constitution to remove.”

Trump invited Ukraine interference into US democratic process

Neal Katyal, "Impeaching Trump Is Imperative to Preserving Our Democracy," Time, November 7, 2019

“Trump’s first abuse of trust is the one our founders feared most: inviting a foreign power to interfere with our democracy. As George Washington said in his farewell address: “Foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” James Madison, meanwhile, proposed including impeachment in the Constitution for the explicit purpose of ensuring that no President could “betray his trust to foreign powers.”

Framer's designed impeachment for Ukraine-type situation

“The Ukraine situation encapsulates almost exactly what impeachment was created to address,” said CNN legal analyst Michael Gerhardt, who was called as a nonpartisan expert witness on impeachment during the Clinton hearings. “When the Framers talked about impeachable offenses, they mentioned the President engaging in a corrupt relationship with a foreign power.”

Trump's actions over Ukraine show hostility toward democratic norms

Stephen Walt, "The realist case for impeachment," Foreign Policy, September 27, 2019

“Trump isn’t a dictator (though he might like to be), but he has consistently shown a deep hostility toward the core institutions that make democracy work. He denounces journalists with the Stalinist phrase “enemies of the people,” directs his aides to ignore lawful congressional subpoenas, and now hints that the whistleblower who reported his malfeasance was “close to a spy” and might deserve execution. This worldview is well suited to a dysfunctional dictatorship, but not to a republic whose decisions about war and peace could affect the lives of millions of people.”

Trump was too incompetent to form a quid pro quo

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, made this argument last week, when he said Trump’s policy toward Ukraine was “incoherent” and that The Trump administration was therefore “incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”

Trump sought legitimate investigation of Ukrainian corruption

Andrew McCarthy, "Fiona Hill (and Dems) ignore the serious evidence of Ukrainian 2016 meddling," New York Post, November 21, 2019:

“there is a second theory of Ukrainian collusion in the 2016 election. The second theory has nothing to do with Russia. It is supported by significant evidence. It includes public professions of support for Clinton and opposition to Trump by Ukrainian officials. It includes acknowledgments by Ukrainian investigators that their Obama administration counterparts encouraged them to investigate Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Bolstering this theory is the fact that Ukrainian officials leaked information damaging to Manafort (a ledger of payments, possibly fabricated) that forced Manafort’s ouster from the Trump campaign, triggering waves of negative publicity for the campaign. A Ukrainian court, in late 2018, concluded that two Ukrainian officials meddled in the election. And in 2018 House testimony, Nellie Ohr — who worked for Fusion GPS, the Clinton campaign opposition research firm that produced the lurid and discredited Steele dossier — conceded that a pro-Clinton Ukrainian legislator was a Fusion informant. When Republicans and most Trump supporters refer to evidence of Ukrainian collusion in the 2016 election, it is this collusion theory that they are speaking about. This theory is in no way mutually exclusive with the finding that Russia hacked the DNC accounts — it has nothing to do with the hacking.”

Testimony: What do testimonies show?

Diplomat testimony corroborates conditoning of aid on investigation

“The devastating testimony corroborated evidence of bribery uncovered in the inquiry and that the president abused power and violated his oath by threatening to withhold military aid and a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into his political rival,” Nancy Pelosi said on November 12 at her weekly news conference.

Taylor testimony indicates Trump fixated on investigating bidens

In his testimony Wednesday, Taylor quoted the embassy staffer saying that after he overheard Trump inquire about “the investigations” on a phone call with Sondland, he heard Sondland tell the president “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” The aide also said Sondland later described Trump as more interested in “the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing,” than Ukraine policy, Taylor testified.

Most all testimony corroborates conditioning of aid on investigation

Zack Beauchamp, "Tuesdays impeachment hearings were a disaster for Republicans," Vox, November 19, 2019

“All four of the witnesses confirmed key parts of the overall case against the president — that he twisted US foreign policy into a tool of his reelection campaign by using military aid in an effort force Ukraine into opening an investigation into the Biden family. In one particularly striking example, Volker — one of the GOP witnesses — amended his earlier closed-door deposition to clarify that the administration’s behavior was shadier than he had previously thought. Meanwhile, the Republicans on the intelligence committee, from ranking member Devin Nunes on down, did not present a consistent and compelling counternarrative. They did little to contest the facts, preferring instead to attack the media, the whistleblower whose complaint kicked off this saga, or the witnesses themselves. The day underscored the fundamental fact of the situation: Trump did what Democrats are accusing him of doing. The only issue is whether congressional Republicans are willing to punish him for it.”

Testimony offers only second-hand information for impeachment

“Their understanding, which is the foundation of the case for the Democrats, was based on secondhand information,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Thursday.

Sondland: What about the Sondland call and testimony?

Sondland-Trump call a smoking gun on bribery

“The call’s content is even more stunning than the circumstances in which it unfolded — within earshot of diners and staff in a city and on a phone system penetrated by Russian intelligence — because Trump was heard asking Sondland if Ukraine was ready to launch the political probes he demanded. Sondland responded yes, adding that President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass.” Four months later, this may be Democrat’s smoking phone call: evidence that the President personally directed a scheme to manipulate foreign policy to pressure Kiev to investigate his political opponents, including Joe Biden.”

Sondland testified that aid conditioned on investigations

Sondland testified to Congress that there was a “quid pro quo” in “conditioning” aid to investigations and said he told Pence on Sept. 1 before a meeting with Zelensky that “I had concerns that the delay in [military] aid [to Ukraine] had become tied to the issue of investigations.” He further testified that it was his personal belief that aid was conditioned on the investigations, although he said Trump never explicitly said that such a condition existed. In other words, he testified that it was his belief that aid was implicitly conditioned on the investigations. He further said, “it was abundantly clear to everyone that there was a link [between aid and the investigations].” This knowledge extended to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, Rudy Giuliani and others. He further indicated that the condition was that President Zelenskyy himself make a public statement of an investigation into the Bidens, implicitly to maximize political impacts.

Sondland only "presumed" quid pro quo, never heard it from Trump

Sondland testified that he never heard himself from Trump that the President was conditioning aid or a meeting on Ukraine announcing an investigation into the Bidens.

Sondland presumed quid pro quo, but for appropriate investigations

Sondland did testify that there was a quid pro quo, but legitimate quid pro quo’s occur all the time in US foreign policy. The question is whether the investigations Trump was seeking were legitimate or not. And, in this case, it is possible the investigations were all legitimate, centered around the 2016 elections and potential corruption involving the son of an American politician.

Sondland shared evidence Trump "wanted nothing from Ukraine"

President Donald Trump said following the Sondland hearing: “I’m going to go very quickly, just a quick comment on what is going on in terms of testimony with Ambassador Sondland. I just noticed one thing that means it is all over. “What do you want from Ukraine?” he asks me. “What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories,” this is Ambassador Sondland speaking to me, just happened. And then I turned off the television… “What do you want? What do you want?” It was a very short and abrupt conversation he had with me, he said I was not in a good mood. (I’m always in a good mood, so I don’t know what that is.) He just said, now he’s talking about what my response was. He’s going “What do you want? What do you want? I hear all these theories. What do you want?” Here’s my response that he just gave. Ready? You have the cameras rolling? “I want nothing.” That’s what I want from Ukraine. That’s what I said. “I want nothing.” I said it twice…”

Frozen aid: What does the freezing of aid demonstrate?

The fact that aid was frozen indicates conditioning of aid

Military aid was, in fact, frozen during the time that no investigation into the Bidens had been launched. Only after the whistleblower came forward was the aid unfrozen.

Initial Ukrainian unawareness that aid was frozen is unimportant

Zack Beauchamp, "Tuesday’s impeachment hearings were a disaster for Republicans," Vox, November 19, 2019

“Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), for example, got the witnesses to say that the Ukrainians did not seem aware at first that aid was being withheld, suggesting this means there could not have been a quid pro quo exchange between aid and investigations. This line of question is deeply misleading: Once the Ukrainians were made aware of the aid being withheld, it quickly became clear to them that it was being blocked as part of a quid pro quo for a Biden investigation. What’s more, aid wasn’t the only thing: There was also a clear offer of a White House visit, which Zelensky very much wanted, in exchange for investigations.”

Zelenskyy unaware aid was on hold or conditional for some time

Jonathan Turley, "The Legal Case for Impeachment," NPR, November 14, 2019:

“the Republicans noted that and established a timeline of their own. And the most important, in my view, was that it’s clear that the Ukraine did not know about the hold on the aid until around August 29, when a political article ran. And Taylor pretty much confirmed that by saying that as soon as that article ran talking about the hold, he got a virtually immediate call from the Ukraine. Now, the aid was released only about 10 or 11 days after that. So the question for a lot of people is going to be, how significant, really, is that? They didn’t really know about the quid pro quo, if there was one. And more importantly, the aid got to them. And so the argument is sort of like – you know, in Watergate, they made it into the office. You know, they actually did a criminal act.”

The aid was delivered ultimately; no harm no foul

The aid was ultimately delivered to Ukraine without any public announcement of an investigation, so ultimately no quid pro quo occurred.

Political objectives: Did Trump have political objectives or policy objectives?

Request to make announcements public indicates political goals

Marshall Cohen, "The case for impeaching Trump," CNN, November 12, 2019

“Diplomats appointed by Trump later told Ukrainian officials that Zelensky needed to publicly announce the probes, which is very rarely done in legitimate criminal investigations. This strongly suggests the plan was designed to maximize political damage to Biden’s presidential campaign and was not motivated a by a sincere effort to root out corruption, as Trump claimed.”

Trump's goal was to investigate Biden corruption, not political rival

Mark Hemingway, "Obama administration knew Hunter Biden was shady, witness admits," New York Post, November 15, 2019

“Of all the supposedly shocking revelations that have emerged from the impeachment hearings this week, here’s one that the Democrats in Congress hope you don’t hear about: The Obama White House knew that Hunter Biden’s extremely lucrative appointment to the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, which occurred the month after his father was named the administration’s “point person” on Ukraine, reeked of corruption — and they didn’t do anything about it.”

State visit: Was white house visit conditioned on investigation?

Trump conditioned White House visit on Ukraine investiging Bidens

Volker texted Yermak right before Trump called Zelensky. He said: “Heard from White House — assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck! See you tomorrow.”

While aid was ultimately delivered, White House visit was not

While some defenders of Trump claim that the aid was ultimately delivered, so “no harm no foul”, a White House visit was not granted as the condition on Ukraine to announce an investigation was not met.

Process: Has the process been fair?

The process of the inquiry has been fatally flawed

"The case against impeaching Trump," CNN, November 12, 2019

“Trump and congressional Republicans have complained about the process from the very beginning, and they’re likely to continue raising these procedural concerns until the bitter end. Trump tweeted on Sunday that his “due process” rights were being trampled. Primary among their concerns is the fact that Trump’s lawyers don’t have a guaranteed role in the private depositions and public hearings, which means his legal team can’t cross-examine witnesses. Republicans are also upset that they don’t have unilateral power to issue subpoenas. “They are going to say that the process was not designed to get to the truth,” Garber said, noting that Clinton’s lawyers were given the right to participate in his impeachment proceedings.”

Politics: Should he be impeached as a political matter?

Pursue Trump impeachment on principle regardless of result

Robin Abcarian, "Six arguments against impeaching Trump — and why they are dead wrong," Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2019

“[Opponents of impeachment say:] The Republican-dominated Senate will never vote to convict him, and, as a result he will not be forced out of office. So what? This argument presumes that there is only one possible outcome for a legitimate impeachment: removal. Not so. The American people deserve answers, regardless of where they lead. Trump has engaged in what appears to be an abuse of power. Impeachment hearings — witnesses, evidence, testimony — will shine a light on how he may have co-opted his position as the most powerful man in the world for personal gain. They will also tell us who helped him along the way. Who, for instance, were the White House officials who were “deeply disturbed” by the president’s conduct, according to the whistleblower complaint, but tried to hide it rather than expose it?”

Impeachment denies voters chance to determine Trump's fate

Jonah Goldberg, "The Case Against Impeaching President Trump," NPR, October 7, 2019:

“I think it is a prudential question about whether or not it is worth putting the country through this when an election is so close. The impeachment clause was first created primarily as a check on runaway tyranny before they had term limits. And we’ve never had an elected president in his first term in this situation. And so I think it’s eminently impeachable. There’s plenty of stuff Donald Trump has done that it’s impeachable. The question is whether it’s worth doing, particularly if you don’t think he’s going to be removed by the Senate.”

Impeachment in House will be followed by acquittal in Senate

Jonah Goldberg, "The Case Against Impeaching President Trump," NPR, October 7, 2019:

“if I were a Democrat and I knew that you weren’t going to flip at least 20 Senate Republicans, do you want to impeach the president and then have him not convicted in the Senate, removed in the Senate, and him take away from that vindication and exoneration? And then if it makes his chances of getting reelected stronger, is that worth doing for your own political priorities? And that’s an interesting question.”

Democrats want to impeach Trump to overturn election

Jonah Goldberg, "The Case Against Impeaching President Trump," NPR, October 7, 2019:

“I think the Democrats have behaved very badly. They burnt a lot of trust in capital by talking about wanting to impeach him from Day 1. So they’ve lost – they have a cry wolf problem. “