Did Trump do anything wrong?

Tomorrow, the Senate will acquit President Trump. There’s a good chance that more Democrats will vote to acquit than Republicans will vote to convict. In fact, there’s a good chance that no Republican Senator will vote to convict.

These outcomes would be a defeat for the Democrats. However, the impeachment will still be worth it for the Dems if it helps them in November — e.g., by enabling them to pick off a few of the GOP Senators who vote to acquit.

The reason for the likely unanimity among Republican Senators is this: many have concluded that, although Trump was wrong to have used aid to Ukraine as a means of inducing that country to investigate the Bidens (or announce an investigation), the wrongdoing doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Lamar Alexander called Trump’s conduct “inappropriate.” Ben Sasse told reporters that “Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.” Charles Grassley, Richard Burr, Susan Collins, Joni Ernst, Rob Portman, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and Pat Toomey have publicly made comments similar to Alexander’s.

Lisa Murkowski has gone further. She called Trump’s behavior “shameful and wrong.” However, she will vote to acquit.

Murkowski may be overstating things by saying “shameful.” However, I agree with the basic line these Senators are taking.

Trump’s attorneys have argued that Trump didn’t do anything wrong by linking U.S. aid to Ukraine (for a time) with an investigation of the Bidens. They say that the Bidens acted corruptly, and that their corruption needed to be investigated. In this view of things, Trump was promoting the national interest in fighting corruption, rather than trying to promote his own political fortunes.

I find this argument unpersuasive for two related reasons. First, to say that the Bidens needed to be investigated is not to say that Ukraine needed to investigate them. If Joe Biden committed an offense by using the threat of an aid cutoff to advance his family’s economic interests, that’s a matter for the U.S. to investigate — just as the allegation that Trump used the same threat to advance his political interests was a matter for the U.S. to investigate (though not via impeachment).

The Bidens did not violate Ukrainian law. It’s not illegal for a Ukrainian company to place an unqualified person on its board in the hope of gaining influence with his father. It’s not against Ukrainian law for a U.S. official to withhold foreign aid for any reason, good or bad.

Ukraine ought not investigate Trump for withholding military aid for political reasons and it ought not investigate Biden for doing the same thing for economic reasons. Ukraine shouldn’t be pressured to investigate any American official who hasn’t violated Ukrainian law, and such pressure certainly shouldn’t take the form of withholding aid used to combat Russian aggression.

If anyone should be investigating alleged corruption by the Bidens, it’s the U.S. President Trump had Rudy Giuliani look into the matter, but hasn’t launched an official investigation. He told Ukraine’s president that Attorney General Barr would be investigating, but Barr says Trump has never given him such an assignment.

Trump’s unwillingness to launch an investigation undercuts the argument that such an investigation is needed to serve the U.S. national interest and that our Ukraine policy should hinge on that country’s willingness to investigate the Bidens.

Second, it appears from the evidence (specifically, Gordon Sondland’s unrebutted testimony) that, as crunch time approached, Trump’s demand was that Ukraine announce an investigation, rather than actually investigate.

From the perspective of Trump’s political interests — but not from the perspective of uncovering corruption — this lesser demand made sense. Trump could use Ukraine’s announcement against Joe Biden. He could claim that Biden was under investigation by another country for corruption.

Indeed, an announcement might be preferable to a real investigation. An investigation, unless Trump used threats to dictate its outcome, would likely have cleared the Bidens of any violation of Ukrainian law. A pending investigation would leave the Bidens under a cloud.

In any case, the fact that Trump was demanding only an announcement further undercuts the claim that Trump actually wanted to get to the bottom of possible corruption by the Bidens. If that’s what he wanted, he would have (1) had the U.S. investigate or, at a minimum, (2) insisted on a Ukrainian investigation, as opposed to just a general announcement.

Therefore, I think Senators like Grassley, Rubio, Portman, Ernst, and Sasse are correct in rejecting the argument that Trump did nothing wrong here. They are also correct in concluding that the wrongdoing does not give rise to an impeachable offense. I don’t think it comes close to doing so.

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