Volker Shows The Importance Of Formal Impeachment Inquiry
Ten days ago, Pelosi and House Democrats finally formally announced an impeachment inquiry. That decision was largely driven by the whistleblower’s report that the Trump administration was essentially using congressionally authorized funds and other foreign policy levers to extort the Ukrainian government into investigating Joe Biden and his son, exonerating the Russians in the hacking of the 2016 election, and setting the predicate for a Manafort pardon.
In those ten days, Democrats have managed to interview almost as many important fact witnesses to Trump’s potentially impeachable crimes as they have in the prior nine months since they gained control of the House. In those nine months, Michael Cohen and Corey Lewandowski were the only significant fact witnesses who were questioned in a public hearing. Cohen confirmed that Trump had engaged in a felony campaign finance violation and suggested that Trump had regularly committed tax, insurance, and bank fraud. Lewandowski not only confirmed the details of one of the ten instances of obstruction of justice detailed by Robert Mueller but also showed the contempt for the American people by declaring that he had no obligation to deal truthfully with the media. The only other significant public witness was Robert Mueller who refused to go anywhere beyond what his report had already concluded, whereupon the Democrats left town for a month.
Kurt Volker was knee deep in the effort to extort the Ukrainians for Trump’s political benefit. From the texts he himself provided, he was instrumental in trying to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Burisma and the 2016 election meddling in return for a meeting at the White House for President Zelensky. Yet, having engaged in what he clearly must have realized were impeachable offenses, Volker is now willing to come forward, admit his role in the affair, and cooperate with the Intelligence Committee, providing it with a trove of evidence. Being an experienced diplomat, I hardly think that Volker suddenly had a bout of conscience. Rather, I submit, he saw which the political winds were blowing. A serious and formal impeachment proceeding provided him with the political and bureaucratic cover to come clean, turning himself from a potential villain into at least a man who had a conscience.
Volker’s testimony was followed up by the intelligence community’s Inspector General, Michael Atkinson, who, along with the whistleblower will go down as the heroes of this story. He reinforced the fact that the whistleblower’s complaints were serious and credible. Next week, the Committee will hear from Ambassador Bill Taylor, who desperately tried to create a paper record of the quid pro quo with Ukraine as it was occurring. As with Volker, the formal impeachment inquiry provides a much easier path for testifying about what he knows and providing documentation and evidence about the whole affair. Ambassador Gordon Sondland has also agreed to testify to the Committee, apparently ignoring Secretary of State Pompeo’s threat to block State officials from testifying. Unlike Volker and Taylor, Sondland is a political appointee, having gotten his job by laundering his $1 million donation to the Trump inauguration through four of his own companies. Sondland apparently had direct contact with the White House, if not Trump, during this attempted shakedown, and appears to have tried to create his own paper trail denying any quid pro quo after the administration become aware of the whistleblower’s complaint. In addition, GOP Senator Ron Johnson claims that Sondland told him directly about the quid pro quo and that it involved the withholding of military aid the Congress had authorized. While it remains to be seen how Sondland will testify, the fact that he has disregarded the protection that Pompeo offered and is willingly testifying at least seems to indicate that he too, like Volker, wants to get in front of this story and knows that a formal impeachment proceeding offers his some degree of political protection.
Meanwhile, the administration seems to leaking like a sieve, even more than usual. Details and concerns about Trump’s phone calls with other leaders have emerged. We are learning more about how Attorney General Barr tried to quash the whistleblower’s report and the associated criminal referral from the CIA. Details about the involvement Pence, Pompeo, and even Perry are coming out. All this is not just a coincidence or just the normal dysfunction of the Trump administration. At least some of this leaking is driven by the same motivations that drove Volker and Taylor, namely that the formal impeachment inquiry provides the political protection to do the right thing.
In addition, in just these short ten days, support for impeachment among the electorate has dramatically increased. A new Economist/YouGov poll shows support for impeachment at 50% compared to 39%, basically the Trump base, who oppose. Remarkably, the support for conviction in the Senate is almost identical. That compares with numbers that convincingly opposed impeachment before the formal inquiry began.
But what has really driven this sudden shift in public opinion? After all, it had already been well reported that Trump and Giuliani have been trying to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Perhaps it is the fact that the whistleblower exposed the details of that effort that had been secret. Perhaps it is the fact that taxpayer funds were being used to extort a foreign government for the President’s personal political benefit. Perhaps it is simply because this is a “new” scandal. But, from a broader perspective, Ukrainegate is basically no different from what we know about Trump’s actions in 2016. Asking China and Ukraine to investigate the Bidens on the White House lawn is no different than “Russia, if you’re listening”, in a campaign speech in 2016. And, while extorting a foreign government by withholding military aid and bribing that government with the promise of a White House meeting is clearly more egregious than providing the Russians with private polling data, the crown jewels of any campaign, so that the Russians could then micro-target their hacking and propaganda, the end result of both actions is the same impeachable offense, namely enlisting a foreign government to interfere in a US election on Trump’s behalf.
No, the biggest difference between today and just a few months ago is that Democrats have started a formal impeachment inquiry. Earlier this summer, there was another whistleblower who claimed that at least one Treasury Department official was interfering with the IRS’ statutory requirement to audit the President’s taxes. Democrats reacted to that whistleblower with what was as close to silence as you could get and the story basically faded away. Democrats reaction to the Ukraine whistleblower was entirely different and has finally seemingly cracked the wall of protection surrounding the President.
Starting a formal impeachment inquiry is a serious step and, accordingly, the public has finally taken Trump’s impeachable crimes seriously. In addition, that inquiry finally provides the political and diplomatic cover that will allow witnesses like Volker and Taylor to come forward. And as more and more witnesses come forward, it will become a snowball effect, with others coming forward with more information and evidence, perhaps involving other potential impeachable offenses. And, eventually, this process will force Republicans to finally decide if there is anything that will separate them from Trump.