The debate around Trump’s impeachment can be confusing. It can seem that both sides are simply distorting things equally. But that’s also true about human-caused (actually, capitalist-caused) global warming. A skilled lawyer can throw up enough smoke that most people will be distracted from the heart of the matter. Which is exactly why it’s necessary to pay close attention, to examine the actual facts.
The Democrats finished their arguments on Friday. Let’s first review the basis of the impeachment:
Article One: Abuse of power
The first article – Article One – is for “abuse of power” through trying to get the Ukrainian government to interfere in the US elections by publicly announcing an investigation into Joe Biden and an investigation into the “Crowdstrike” theory. The latter is the claim that a company called Crowdstrike held a computer server that they had sent to Ukraine to keep away from the FBI. According to this claim, Crowdstrike had actually interfered in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton.
Is criminal act necessary for impeachment?
Part of the Democrats’ testimony revolved around refuting the idea that a president’s actions must constitute a crime in order to be subject to impeachment. They pointed out that when the US Constitution was written, there wasn’t even a federal criminal statute in existence, so how could it have been the intent of those who wrote the impeachment process into the Constitution to have meant criminal acts only? They also pointed out that several of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon did not involve criminal acts. They gave several quotes to document their case: Alan Dershowitz, one of Trump’s own lawyers in this case, is now making that claim but some years ago he had said there “doesn’t need to be a crime” for grounds for impeachment. In fact, the Republicans’ own witness in the House, Professor John Turley, testified that “It is possible to establish a case for impeachment based on a non-riminal allegation of abuse of power.” And one of Trump’s strongest supporters, Lindsay Graham, had said the same regarding Clinton’s impeachment.
Trump’s “concern” about corruption
They recounted what David Holmes, who worked at the US embassy in Ukraine, testified. Holmes had overheard a phone call between Trump and Trump’s ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland. “Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give a s— about Ukraine,” Holmes said under oath. “I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the President only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff that benefits the president,’ like the ‘Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.’”
Trump claimed that his delay in releasing the funds meant to aid Ukraine was because he wanted to be sure that Ukraine’s infamous corruption was being cleaned up. The House representatives cited testimony after testimony, evidence after evidence, that this was false. There is no record of Trump having ever said anything about that issue. It was the alleged corruption of Joe Biden that Trump was concerned with, and that concern emerged only after Biden emerged as Trump’s most likely opponent in 2020.
They recounted the history of Trump representative Rudy Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine. This included the pressure to remove then US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who had had a record of opposing the opportunist Ukrainian prosecutor general Lutsenko. (See this New Yorker article for more on Lutsenko.) Giuliani apparently felt he had been making progress in getting the former Ukrainian administration to carry out the “investigations” that Trump wanted, but then they were thrown a curve ball: Zelensky got elected on an anti-corruption platform. It would have been politically extremely difficult for him to immediately turn around and carry out a fake investigation at the insistence of Trump and Giuliani, especially since the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, could not be trusted to support this.
Quid pro quo?
An early defense of Trump’s actions was that there was no “quid pro quo”, Latin for “this for that”. Hakeem Jeffries exploded that claim. Time and again, Trump linked an official visit of Ukrainian president Zelensky to the White House to his announcing an investigation into Crowdstrike and also into Burisma/Joe Biden.
Article Two: Obstruction of congress
Most of the last day of testimony from the House representatives was devoted to explaining Article Two of the impeachment charges. That is the charge that Trump obstructed congress.
Previous impeachment proceedings
There have been four presidential impeachment proceedings in US history – those against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and the present one against Trump. In previous cases, the defendant may have fought against the demands for some particular piece of evidence, but as House representative Val Demings and others explained, Trump has been the only one to direct every single branch and agency of the government to refuse to comply with any subpoena. Even Richard Nixon complied.
Gordon Sondland wasn’t even permitted to review his own notes and records (held by the State Department) in preparation for his testimony before the House.
There was even an attempt to cover up the infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky – the same one that Trump claimed was “perfect”. Usually, a general accounting of such calls is placed on the daily White House read-outs. In this case, however, there was only a brief and incomplete record placed, one that did not include the fact of Trump’s mention of Burisma and Biden. The more complete transcript was then placed on the most highly secure server, one that is usually used for records such as those of covert operations. John Eisenberg, the National Security Council lawyer (the same one who tried to hide the fact of the whistle blower’s complaint from congress) later claimed that it was put there “by mistake”, but it still remains there.
Trump’s defenders have claimed “executive privilege” enables him to refuse to hand over documents. This refers to the right for the president to have confidential discussions with his closest advisors. Even today, the Wall St. Journal editors are making that claim. What does the refusal to allow Sondland to review his own personal notes have to do with such privilege? But the main problem with this argument is that Trump never asserted that right when he ordered all federal agencies to refuse to comply with the subpoenas.
House hearings “unfair”
Rather, Trump’s complaints were about the House process, which he claimed was “unfair” and which he called a “coup”. There were several bases for these complaints:
- One is that Trump was not allowed to call his own witnesses.
- Another was that the House hearings were held “in secret”
- Another was that Trump’s lawyers weren’t allowed to cross examine witnesses.
- Another was that Republicans weren’t allowed to fully participate.
Not a court trial
These are all based either on flat-out lies or on a misrepresentation of what the House investigation was really. It’s not like a court trial that determines guilt or innocence; it’s more similar to a Grand Jury investigation to simply determine whether there is enough evidence to even charge somebody. (In the real world, of course, Grand Juries are often used as fishing expeditions meant to incriminate and/or intimidate people. However, that’s in the real world, where the victim is not the president of the United States.) There was a reason to hold the first hearings in confidence. That reason was to prevent the witnesses from coordinating their testimony. Later, all that testimony was made public. As far as the supposed exclusion of the Republicans, that is also flat out untrue. Of the 100 something Representatives who participated in the first part of the hearings, 47 were Republicans and throughout the process they had equal ability to question the witnesses.
Republicans have been saying that the remedy to any alleged misdeeds of Trump is to vote him out of office. However, as Representative Hakeem Jeffries explained, the purpose for all these manipulations “was to cheat in the 2020 elections.” That leaves that “remedy” unavailable.
Zelensky under pressure?
Various House representatives anticipated the argument that Zelensky said that he never felt under pressure from Trump. Given the extreme importance of the US government as an ally, and given the extreme power imbalance between Ukraine and the US, of course Zelensky would say that. It’s a bit like a female prisoner who was pressured into having sex with a male guard. Of course as long as she’s in prison and the guard and his cohorts remain in charge, she might say she wasn’t pressured!
Schiff wraps up
The final speaker for the representatives for the House Democrats was Adam Schiff. He opened by explaining the importance of the charge of obstruction. If the House cannot have access to documents and witnesses, then it cannot oversee the actions of the president. This then leaves the president with unchecked powers.
Whistle blower a “traitor”
He made commented on Trump’s labelling of the whistle-blower as a spy and a traitor. “But for the whistle blower [Trump] wouldn’t have been caught, and that is an unforgivable sin [against the state], because according to the president, he is the state…. For that [action of the whistle blower] he is a spy and is guilty of treason,” Schiff commented. At the time the whistle blower’s complaint was revealed, it was attacked as being based on second hand knowledge. Those attacks are no longer made, because the complaint was proven to be “astonishingly accurate.”
Schiff then anticipated the likely arguments of Trump’s lawyers. He explained that the real basis of Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with the House investigation was his (Trump’s) claim that the procedure was “unfair”, but it’s the House itself, not the president, who can determine their own procedures. Schiff explained in that case, and he repeated regarding other arguments: “When the president says the process is unfair, what they really mean is don’t look at what the president did.” It’s the same with the arguments that Biden is corrupt or that the Democrats hate Trump.
Schiff explained that there is no evidence whatsoever, based on the record of his comments, that he was genuinely concerned with real corruption in Ukraine and that’s the reason he wouldn’t grant a formal White House visit and held back the $391 million in military aid.
Obama and Egypt aid
Schiff also anticipated the claim of the White House lawyers that that delay was no different from what Obama did regarding aid to then Egyptian president Mubarak. In that case, Egypt was undergoing a revolution at the time. Nor did Obama try to hide the delay in aid; he reported it to congress.
One of Schiff’s most memorable lines came when he anticipated the denial of quid pro quo based on the fact that Trump said there wasn’t any. “I guess that’s the end of the story,” Schiff said. “This is a well-known principle in criminal law – that if a defendant says he didn’t do it, he couldn’t have done it.” You could hear laughter from the senators at that line, but according to CNN it came only from the Democrats. The Republican senators sat “stony faced”.
Another memorable line was that regarding the release of documents and that possibly Supreme Court Supreme Court (in)Justice Roberts, who is presiding over the proceedings, could rule on whether they were relevant or not. Schiff explained that the senate could overrule Roberts. “How often can you (senators) overrule the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?” Schiff asked. “You have to admit that’s every legislator’s dream.”
Schiff also anticipated the claim that Zelensky did get the meeting with Trump that he was asking for. He (Schiff) first explained the importance of such a formal, White House meeting. It would bolster his credibility both at home in Ukraine and also regarding Putin. It’s true that Zelensky got the meeting – when they both appeared at the UN. It was kind of a “drive by meeting”, as Schiff put it. Schiff commented on the claim that ultimately Trump did release the military aid, but that only happened after his refusal to release it was exposed. “You get no pass when you get caught,” Schiff said.
Schiff’s remarks were well reasoned, based on the actual facts of the case, and powerfully delivered. However, as with the entire rest of the presentations of the House Democrats, they were based on some false assumptions. They recognized the drift towards one-man rule, also known as bonapartism. The purpose of Trump’s manipulations was “to cheat in the 2020 elections”, as Hakeem Jeffries put it. One problem is that the Republicans are already committed to “cheating” in the elections. This was what led to their victory in the gubernatorial election in Georgia in 2018. They plan to expand this in 2020. So, there is no reason at all to believe that the Republican senators will respond to appeals to conscience or to turning back the drift towards bonapartism. On the contrary, they are already committed to moving in that direction.
Democrats working within the system
As for the Democrats, they remain committed to working “within the system”. They remain committed to discouraging any actions that might increase the sense of power of the working class or might threaten confidence in the courts and other parts of the capitalist state. That’s why they opposed protests when Bush stole the 2000 presidential election from Gore. It was the same when Kemp stole the gubernatorial election from Stacy Abrams in Georgia in 2018.
Elections and the working class
Workers should have no illusions in elections. In the US, for example, access to tens of millions of dollars is all important. Not only that, but the capitalist media always slants things in the direction of the capitalist politicians, whether they be Republican or Democrat. Even just the simple ability of workers to organize themselves is severely limited by the difficulty of finding a meeting venue. But even with all this, it’s far easier for workers to organize under capitalist democracy than under one-person rule, or Bonapartism. Nor does this mean that the working class movement should not participate in such elections. On the contrary, they can be used as a platform to clarify the situation and to build an independent, working class political party.
What these hearings represent is the struggle of the mainstream of the US capitalist class to maintain their traditional form of rule – capitalist democracy, which they call “the rule of law”. They feel it’s a lot safer and more stable to rule through these means. The day may be coming when that is no longer possible, but the majority of that class doesn’t believe we have reached that day. The fact that Trump could get elected and the fact that this capitalist mainstream has been unable to get him under control shows the crisis in US society. Unfortunately, all too many socialists remain unwilling to recognize this new and (for the US) unprecedented situation. (See this article on Trump and the reluctance to recognize something fundamentally new, for example.) Workers – and especially socialists among the working class – should keep abreast of what is happening in these hearings. They give us an insight into the views and the situation of the capitalist class.
Note: This is the second part of oaklandsocialist’s continuing coverage of the Senate impeachment trials. For the first article see Impeachment matters: first 2 days of senate impeachment trial.