- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2019

House Democrats boast that they have enough evidence to impeach President Trump for putting the squeeze on Ukraine to investigate a political rival, but whether his actions amount to bribery or warrant his removal from office is largely a matter of opinion.

Even legal scholars split over these questions.

The case against Mr. Trump hinges on his use of Oval Office power for his benefit, rather than for the national interest.

Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that is conducting the inquiry, said Monday that the evidence shows a bribery or extortion scheme.

He said two weeks of public hearings had revealed that Mr. Trump dangled a prized White House visit and nearly $400 million of military aid in front of the Ukraine president to entice him to launch a corruption probe targeting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter, which theoretically would help Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign.

The elder Mr. Biden is a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

“The evidence of wrongdoing and misconduct by the president that we have gathered to date is clear and hardly in dispute. What is left to us now is to decide whether this behavior is compatible with the office of the presidency, and whether the constitutional process of impeachment is warranted,” Mr. Schiff wrote in a letter to fellow House Democrats.

The inquiry, he said, is preparing a report to be delivered to the Judiciary Committee after Congress’s Thanksgiving break. The Judiciary Committee will then decide whether to draft articles of impeachment to be sent to the full House for an impeachment vote.

The quick delivery of the report to Judiciary set up a fast-track schedule for an impeachment vote before Christmas.

The question of bribery is not as straightforward as described by Mr. Schiff.

Some legal experts call it a clear-cut case of bribery or extortion.

“It’s a very simple thing, using your office to get a private gain from that official position,” said Robert A. Bianchi, a criminal trial lawyer who previously served as a county prosecutor in New Jersey. “This is the most serious impeachment case that ever came across the desk.”

It also looked like a crime to John Moscow, white-collar-crimes lawyer who spent 30 years as a prosecutor with the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

“If the U.S. tells a foreign country you must do this or we will not give you aid, that is not bribery, that is extortion,” he said. “They are both felonies. They are both impeachable.”

Others contend that personal political benefit is in the eye of the beholder and that every president engages in some sort of dealmaking and pressure plays with foreign leaders.

The problem for House Democrats is that the impeachment case depends on a broad definition of bribery, said Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar at the George Washington University.

Mr. Schiff has argued that bribery, which is cited in the Constitution as a cause for impeachment, had a much broader definition when the founders used the term.

“It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you’re offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation’s interest,” he recently told National Public Radio.

Mr. Turley said the congressman was reaching.

“Ironically, Chairman Schiff appears to be a convert to originalism in arguing that, while this does not fit the current definition of bribery, it meets the original meaning,” Mr. Turley told The Washington Times. “Fortunately for Schiff, his credentials as an advocate for a ‘living constitution’ is unblemished because he is entirely wrong about the original meaning of this term.”

He continued, “More importantly, the impeachment of a president does not require a crime but it does require clarity. Creative re-definitions of crime will only make this impeachment look opportunistic and contrived.”

In his legal blog, Mr. Turley described the Democrats’ interpretation of bribery as a “limitless definition” that would convert most of the conversations between presidents and other heads of state into potential bribery cases.

“Presidents often try to get every concession from aid in such conversations. Some of those concessions may clearly advantage a president as a political matter,” he wrote.

Sen. John N. Kennedy, Lousiana Republican, said the Democrats’ claims of a quid pro quo deal was a “red herring” because the investigation of the Bidens was not necessarily self-serving on Mr. Trump’s part.

“President Trump asked for an investigation of possible corruption by someone who happens to be a political rival. The matter, if proven, would be in the national interest,” he said on Fox News.

The impeachment case is built upon testimony from Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, that there was a quid pro quo in arranging a White House visit in exchange for the investigations.

Mr. Sondland, however, said he was not directed by Mr. Trump to make the deal but that he “presumed” that’s what the president wanted.

Several administration officials testified that Mr. Trump wanted the investigations, but none said they were instructed to make a quid pro quo deal and Mr. Sondland even said Mr. Trump was explicit that he did not want that.

The quid pro quo, a Latin term meaning a transaction of “this for that,” is the linchpin of the bribery case.

The impeachment inquiry stems from a July 25 phone call in which Mr. Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor” in investigating Mr. Biden. A whistleblower, who is believed to be a CIA official assigned to the White House, filed a complaint with the intelligence-community’s inspector-general accusing the president of abusing his power for personal gain on the call, including withholding the aid to force the investigation.

The White House in September released a rough transcript of the call that did not show a quid pro quo. Democrats argue the threat was understood and part of an ongoing pressure campaign of “shadow” foreign policy conducted by Mr. Trump’s private lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The investigation of the Bidens focused on Hunter Biden, who in 2014 landed a high-paying job on the board of Ukraine natural gas company Burisma Holdings despite having no experience in the energy field. At the time, his father was the point man for Obama White House policy in Ukraine, a country notorious for corruption, especially in the energy industry.

The elder Mr. Biden recently boasted of getting Ukraine’s chief prosecutor fired in the spring of 2016 by threatening to block a $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee. The prosecutor was widely viewed as not doing enough to combat corruption. But the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, also had looked into corruption at Burisma involving the Ukraine oligarch running the company.

Mr. Trump also wanted Kyiv to look into a missing Democratic National Committee server that was hacked by Russia during the 2016 election. An American cybersecurity company called CrowdStrike examined the server to probe the hack but then the server disappeared before it could be handed over to the FBI.

Mr. Trump subscribes to an unsubstantiated theory that the server ended up in Ukraine.

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