When witnesses begin testifying publicly in the House impeachment inquiry this week, two issues will predominate:
1) The Shakedown: whether Trump tried to get Ukraine to investigate his political opponents — former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
2) The Cover-Up: whether Trump interfered with Congress’ investigation into The Shakedown.
Here’s a framework for organizing the testimony as you hear it.
#1: What was The Shakedown?
Trump wanted Ukraine to announce publicly its pursuit of two investigations:
- Baseless claims relating to Biden and his son Hunter, who was a board member of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Earlier probes found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
- False claims that the Democratic National Committee conspired with Ukrainians to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election. Vladimir Putin promotes that right-wing conspiracy theory because it contradicts the unanimous conclusion of the US intelligence community that Putin directed what special counsel Robert Mueller called a “sweeping and systematic” attack to help Trump win.
#2: Who were Trump’s henchmen?
Rudy Giuliani was the point person for The Shakedown. His influence became apparent when he orchestrated the ouster of the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
- Since mid-2018, Giuliani’s recently indicted associates — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — had been targeting Yovanovitch in an effort to facilitate their own corrupt deal involving a Ukrainian oil company.
- In 2019, then-general prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who had vowed revenge against Yovanovitch for her outspoken anti-corruption view, provided Giuliani with false information about her so that he would spread it.
- Operating as Trump’s personal attorney, Giuliani carried out a “campaign of lies” culminating in Yovanovitch’s May 2019 dismissal. Trump specifically disparaged her in his July 25 call with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
On Nov. 13, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent will testify about this episode publicly. Yovanovitch will testify on Nov. 15.
Although not involved in the Yovanovitch episode, two more key players in The Shakedown were acting chief of staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. We turn to them next.
#3: What was Trump’s leverage?
For years, bipartisan support for Ukraine — a former Soviet satellite — has been a matter of US national security.
- After Zelensky defeated Ukraine’s incumbent president Petro Poroshenko on April 21, 2019, he wanted a personal visit with Trump. A public display of support from America’s president was an essential element of the fledgling democracy’s survival against Russian aggression.
- Trump also controlled the disbursement of almost $400 million in vital military aid that Congress had authorized to help fund Ukraine’s defense in its five-year war with Russia.
#4: How did The Shakedown unfold?
- While Giuliani and Sondland pushed for Trump’s desired investigations, Trump delayed the personal meeting that Zelensky desperately sought.
- By July 3: Trump ordered Mulvaney to place a hold on US military aid to Ukraine. The Defense Department later determined that providing the funds was in America’s national security interests and that the hold was illegal.
- July 25: Trump told Zelensky that he wanted the investigations: “[T]he United States has been very, very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine… I would like you to do us a favor though…” Career diplomats listening to the call were alarmed and went to a White House lawyer who buried the transcript in a secret server.
- July-September: Giuliani and Sondland kept the heat on Zelensky. But in late August, word of Trump’s hold became public and Congress was in an uproar. Still uncertain of the outcome and desperately needing the US aid, Zelensky planned a Sept. 13 appearance on CNN to announce the investigations that Trump demanded.
- Sept. 9: The inspector general for the US intelligence community informed Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) that a whistleblower had filed an “urgent” and “credible” complaint relating to intelligence activity.
- Sept. 10: Schiff demanded that the acting CIA director provide a copy of the whistleblower complaint.
- Sept. 11: Trump released the hold and Zelensky cancelled his scheduled CNN appearance.
Trump’s July 25 call is a single scene in The Shakedown. On Nov. 13, acting Ambassador William Taylor will testify publicly to its surrounding context. So will Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.
#5: What’s The Cover-Up?
On Sept. 25, Trump released the White House summary memorandum of his July 25 call with Zelensky. When the problems it created for him became apparent, Trump began a pattern of obstruction that continues.
- Oct. 1: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defied a congressional subpoena for documents and rejected the House’s request for testimony from five present or former State Department employees, including Yovanovitch, Kent, and Sondland.
- Oct. 8: Trump’s White House counsel announced that Trump and his administration would not participate in the House impeachment inquiry. No documents, no witnesses, nothing.
- Oct. 8 through Nov. 8: Several present and former officials defied Trump’s edict and confirmed every claim in the whistleblower’s complaint. Trump resorted to witness intimidation and character assassination.
#6: Is Trump’s conduct impeachable?
The US Constitution specifies the standard for impeachment: “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That includes these crimes:
- The Shakedown involved both sides of the same legal coin: bribery (“if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”) and extortion (“if you don’t scratch my back, I’ll break yours”). The Shakedown failed only because the whistleblower’s complaint surfaced and Trump was caught red-handed. Patriotic citizens then ignored his directive to stonewall. But even if Zelensky had refused to comply, Trump’s attempt alone is a crime.
- The Cover-Up is obstruction of Congress’ effort to investigate The Shakedown.
- Potential campaign finance law violations for soliciting contributions from foreign nationals also lurk in the background.
But proof of criminal conduct is not a prerequisite to impeachment because the President is held to a higher standard. For example, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon for “violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Initially, Trump said his July 25, 2019 call with Zelensky was “perfect.” Now he wants it all to go away.
- Oct. 24: Trump and his GOP defenders attacked what they called a “secret” House impeachment hearing process, even though Republican members of Congress had participated actively in those hearings.
- Nov. 8: After the House voted to hold public hearings, Trump said those hearings shouldn’t happen.
Without facts to support any substantive defense, congressional Republicans are now testing two arguments. One throws Giuliani, Mulvaney, and Sondland under the bus as rogue players in The Shakedown. It won’t fly.
The other GOP position admits that what Trump did was wrong, but not illegal or impeachable. Eventually, only the “not impeachable” piece will survive. But if Trump’s conduct isn’t impeachable, what is?
Steven J. Harper is a regular contributor to News & Guts and the creator/curator of the Trump-Russia Timeline. He’s an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He blogs at The Belly of the Beast. Follow him on Twitter (@StevenJHarper1).