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OP-ED: The only thing that isn’t in dispute on impeachment is the facts

Jon Healey
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
U.S. Representatives James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis),  Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) at the House Judiciary Committee Impeachment Inquiry Hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/TNS)

Republicans and Democrats disagree on just about every point being made during the impeachment inquiry triggered by President Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Yet on the central facts of the case, there is essentially no dispute.

That’s why the process is hurtling forward at a velocity that seems remarkable to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday at the behest of the committee’s Republicans. Turley insisted that it was the fastest presidential impeachment ever, which may certainly be true, given the small sample size.

Unlike President Nixon and Watergate, however, there’s little mystery to unravel here, thanks to Trump releasing a reconstructed transcript of the call. The document shows Trump accusing a top political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, of doing something nefarious in Ukraine and asking Zelenskiy to investigate.

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That, right there, is enough for some Democrats. Since the release of the White House call record, though, the House Intelligence Committee has gathered undisputed testimony that: the White House put a hold on vital security aid to Ukraine after federal agencies confirmed that Ukraine had met the anti-corruption conditions Congress had set; Trump directed Zelenskiy and several American diplomats to talk to Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who had been waging a monthslong campaign in public and private to persuade Ukraine to investigate Biden; Giuliani told U.S. diplomats that Ukraine needed to announce an investigation that could damage Biden in order to obtain a White House meeting the Ukrainians desperately wanted; at least two of those diplomats conveyed some version of this message to Ukrainian leaders; and Zelenskiy was poised to announce that investigation and one other that Trump had sought during an interview on CNN in September, only to cancel after the White House released its hold on the aid.

There are missing pieces to the story, thanks to Trump’s insistence that no one from the administration testify (an admonition that was defied only by a few people, but not by the ones closest to Trump’s decision-making process). Those pieces concern why things happened, however, not what happened.

And on that point, neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress appear to be persuadable.

Republicans look at Trump seeking investigations from a foreign ally that would be particularly helpful to his reelection prospects while withholding aid and symbolic support the ally coveted, and they happily ascribe motives that were not at all apparent in the reconstructed transcript. He had a long-standing concern about federal dollars being spent corruptly in Ukraine! He doesn’t like foreign aid, period! He wants Europe to pick up more of the tab!

Democrats look at the same behavior and see someone misusing the powers of his office for personal gain, just as they believe he’s done time and time again (G-7 at the Doral, anyone?). They don’t believe anything Trump says about his motives — nor should they, given the president’s track record. And they see the GOP arguments as ex post facto rationalization.

The Intelligence Committee gathered plenty of testimony to try to resolve the “why” question by examining the instructions that Trump and others close to him gave to this country’s emissaries to Ukraine. This is the circumstantial evidence part of the case, and some of that testimony supports the GOP’s take. More of it, however, supports the Democrats’ interpretation.

Again, the people with the best view of Trump’s motives have declined to testify per Trump’s demand. Even if they did, though, how credible would they be? Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney already confirmed that the security aid was withheld because Trump wanted an investigation (into a conspiracy theory regarding Ukraine’s role in 2016 election meddling), only to retract the admission hours later.

Republicans complain that the outcome of this process is preordained, and to an extent it has been since a whistleblower brought Trump’s call with Zelenskiy to the House Democrats’ attention. The remaining issue for the House is whether what Trump indisputably did rises to the level of an impeachable offense. It’s worth vigorously debating, but judging from Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats and Republicans have their minds made up on that as well.

— Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times’ deputy editorial page editor.