It was a week that began with President Donald Trump appearing to face no possibility of being impeached. It ended with impeachment appearing to be assured.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a drill. This is your democracy, once again facing a constitutional crisis that will test the ability of our institutions to endure.
While some see a partisan dispute that seems to have run amok, others see a great opportunity for ordinary people to take a stand for – brace yourselves – ethics in government, or something close to it.
Leah Greenberg of the Indivisible Project stated a widely held sentiment to the Guardian: “This is what the ‘blue wave’ fought for,” she said, “accountability for Trump’s crimes.”
And if anything drove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats over the brink, it was the dubious deals of their unifying foe, President Donald Trump.
This was a week in which Trump suddenly appeared to risk losing a key constituency: those Americans who don’t like to see their president hold up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, allocated by Congress, in order to pressure Ukraine’s president into digging up dirt on a political rival back home in America.
That was the conspiracy revealed by an unnamed intelligence official who quickly became known simply as “the whistleblower.”
This saga started gaining the public’s attention with reports on CNN and in The Washington Post that Trump ordered a hold on millions in military aid to Ukraine.
He did so roughly one week before he had a curious phone conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which was first reported by The Washington Post.
Under pressure to show some accountability, the White House released a memo detailing contents of the July phone call, in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani have worked diligently to stir up suspicions about both Hunter and his Democratic presidential candidate father’s conduct in Ukraine, not coincidentally as Joe Biden was leading Trump in many opinion
polls ahead of the 2020 election.
Hunter Biden has denied any wrongdoing, and there is no evidence he was involved in any lawbreaking in his work in Ukraine with the country’s largest private gas company. But the old controversy is a great nothing burger for Trump to exploit. After all, Trump is the man who entered the political scene by promoting the bogus theory that Barack Obama wasn’t really born in the United States. Doesn’t Trump wish.
Team Trump apparently released the rough transcript memo of the call in the hope that it would make Team Trump look good. It didn’t.
It then released the whistleblower’s complaint, which makes a big two-part allegation: One, that Trump used his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and, two, that the White House tried to cover up the paper trail.
Before the release of the call memo, Trump’s team had tried to claim there was no explicit quid pro quo between the two presidents. But the transcripts read like a script for a mob shakedown in “The Untouchables.”
Step one: The setup. Early in the call Trump signaled impatience with Ukraine, to which the West has sent military aid so Ukraine could defend itself after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.
The United States has been “very good” to the country, Trump said, but he “wouldn’t say” that Ukraine has been “reciprocal” to the United States. The tone was not subtle. Trump wanted something from Ukraine.
And Zelenskiy wanted something too. His big ask: More Javelin missiles, a defensive anti-tank system that can help even up the odds in Ukraine’s clashes with their larger neighbor. Trump agreed, sort of.
Then step two: “I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump responded memorably, “because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” Trump appeared to be asking for assistance in investigating the Russian end of the 2016 election interference scandals.
Heads of state routinely strike deals. It’s part of the job. The potential problem is not in the deal but in such other questions as who benefits and why.
Trump continued his request. He asked Zelenskiy to expect a call from Giuliani.
“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” said Trump. “Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that.”
Right. “A lot of people” want to find out a lot of things about Trump, too. Impeachment is a risky move for the Democrats but if our system can’t hold its leaders accountable, what good is it?
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.