Impeachment and Amnesia

President Donald Trump and guests celebrate acquittal in the U.S. Senate impeachment trial in the East Room of the White House, February 6, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

When it comes to executive excess, Trump lacks remorse and Democrats lack self-awareness.

‘If this had happened to President Obama, a lot of people would have been in jail by now.” So went President Trump’s morning-after remarks, following the GOP-controlled Senate’s acquittal vote, the denouement of the Democrat-controlled House’s approval of two thin-gruel articles of impeachment.

To say the president is defiant, that he is without remorse, understates the matter.

In a midweek speech explaining her not-guilty vote, Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) maintained that the president had “learned his lesson.” By week’s end, she sheepishly allowed that her assessment had been “aspirational” — Collins’ aspiration, that is, not Trump’s.

The president would not pretend to be either sorry or grateful for his reprieve. This is a big part of what ardent Trump supporters love about their man. Alas, it is just as big a part of why the president’s approval numbers languish in the 40s when they ought to be in the 60s, with a humming economy, record low unemployment, and the nation at relative peace.

President Clinton was not sorry either — not really. As shown by his occasional outbursts in recent years, he internalized the storyline that he was the victim, not the villain, of the Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment. But 21 years ago, his peerless political instincts told him, a just-acquitted sitting president, that it was important to feign contrition. He apologized to the American people, conceding that his misdeeds were shameful and had put the country and the Congress through a painful ordeal.

Clinton never gave an inch on the question of whether his actions had been impeachable. But he knew he should at least admit that they were wrong. Of course, the media-Democrat complex that saved Clinton acknowledges no such distinctions in Trump’s case.

As for the incumbent president, it is not in his DNA to admit anything. This, inevitably, is fuel for his opposition’s hysterical claim that he is, and remains, a clear and present threat to the integrity of the 2020 election. If he will not acknowledge or cannot apprehend the wrong he has done, they say, why should anyone be confident that he won’t do it again?

There’s the rub. The president may or may not believe that his dealings with the Ukrainian government were “perfect.” But he is never going to make an admission that would instantly be reframed as a confession to the Democrats’ delusional version of what it all means. Nor is he going to dignify Washington’s two-tiered system, in which his venial sins draw the hellfire while his opponents’ transgressions are insulated from criticism, let alone expulsion.

Let’s see if we can’t navigate between perfect and impeachable. What wrong did he do? Well, an American president should never encourage, much less pressure, a foreign government to investigate an American citizen for possible violations of that foreign country’s laws.

That’s basic. In the matter of Ukraine, the American citizens in question included a top political rival of the president; that makes matters worse, but it is not the main point. We have a federal government, in large part, to protect Americans from foreign aggression and intimidation. And indeed, when an American citizen is harassed or arrested overseas, the State Department commonly intervenes on the American’s behalf, regardless of whether the American is guilty, to ensure that our citizens’ rights under foreign and international law are being respected.

Notwithstanding the insistence of Trump defenders, it is no answer to say that the Bidens appear to have been involved in suspicious activities. That detail is relevant mainly because Democrats made it relevant: The president’s chief tormentor, Representative Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), falsely represented to the country that Trump coerced Ukraine to “make up dirt” about Joe Biden. That would have been materially worse than what Trump actually did. It was fair game, then, for the president’s defense to emphasize that there are obvious indicia of corrupt self-dealing by the Bidens, and that Schiff would not need to exaggerate Trump’s misconduct if he had a viable impeachment case.

All that said, though, if there were solid grounds to believe the Bidens broke any American laws, the FBI would be investigating and the president’s request for Ukrainian assistance would have been at the behest of the Trump Justice Department. That is not what happened. The Justice Department did not ask the president to intervene with Ukraine regarding the Bidens, and the FBI is being cagey about whether it has done, or been asked to do, any investigating. The fact that the president has the constitutional power to ask a foreign regime to investigate an American citizen, even if his Justice Department does not suspect that U.S. laws have been broken, does not mean it is appropriate for the president to do that. The Constitution gives presidents raw power to do all sorts of things they should not do.

That does not mean the Bidens should be immune from criticism. Politicians write the laws so, unsurprisingly, a lot of the sleazy things they do are not illegal. But legal or not, Biden sleaze would be a legitimate campaign issue (if Biden were to win his party’s nomination) — the cashing in on political influence, the insouciance about conflicts of interest, Biden’s bragging about his withholding of vital aid to extort Ukraine (while Democrats clutch their pearls over Trump’s withholding of vital aid to extort Ukraine).

Bottom line: Incumbent officials are not supposed to seek foreign law-enforcement assistance for domestic political purposes, only to aid ongoing American law-enforcement investigations. If DOJ had had a Biden probe, there would have been nothing wrong with Trump’s asking Ukraine to assist. That happens all the time. It’s why we have a mutual legal assistance treaty with Ukraine, as we do with many other countries. That, however, is very different from asking Ukraine to investigate Americans for violating Ukrainian law.

Trump partisans counter that there is nothing wrong with a president’s demanding that corruption be rooted out by countries receiving U.S. foreign aid, and that Ukraine is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Generally speaking, those things are true. In this specific case, however, the president did not make an overarching request that Ukraine investigate corruption. The Defense Department had already done that, as U.S. law requires.

Instead, the president homed in on the Bidens, and the Bidens only. If, as the Trump defense says, the president is truly worried about Ukrainian corruption, why would he want to sic its notoriously corrupt law-enforcement system on anyone, much less an American. Wouldn’t our government first want to be satisfied that Ukraine had cleaned up its own house?

So, yes, this was far from “perfect.” Still, on these facts, for Democrats and Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah) to treat what President Trump did as a hanging offense was ridiculous.

Ukraine’s criminal-justice system is so infamously corrupt that Biden would not have been hurt even if there had been an investigation — especially once it became clear that Trump’s own Justice Department did not suspect Biden of violating American law. More to the point, Trump did not persist in the demand for a Ukrainian probe, and Ukraine got its defense aid. Schiff’s suggestion that the brief, barely noticed delay in transmitting the aid caused harm of any kind to Ukraine’s self-defense was only slightly less laughable than his whopper that Trump somehow imperiled American national security. No matter how you judge the president’s intentions, nothing of consequence actually happened — and that is what matters most. Regardless of whether Romney buys the Democrats’ “sky is falling” rhetoric, it is utter nonsense . . . just another verse in the “sky is falling” soundtrack they have been playing since November 8, 2016.

And we haven’t even addressed the “pot calling the kettle black” problem.

Do Democrats really think the president and his supporters, or any fair-minded Americans for that matter, are not going to notice that the “how dare you invite foreign interference in our elections” storyline has been concocted by the party that recruited a foreign spy to dig up high-level Russian-government dirt on Trump? Dirt that was often absurd on its face? Dirt that could easily have been discredited if the Obama-era FBI had chosen to investigate it, and yet was mendaciously supplied under oath to the FISA court again and again?

Did Democrats figure we’d all quietly abide their puling about “foreign interference in our elections” after the Obama administration collaborated with foreign intelligence services to run informants at Trump campaign officials . . . and then withheld from the FISA court the exculpatory evidence those contacts generated? Did Democrats think we’d forget that even the now-sainted Fiona Hill acknowledges that Ukrainian officials labored to wound Trump’s campaign? And that they did so while Democrats were collaborating with Kyiv to target Paul Manafort? Do Democrats suppose it has slipped our minds that they wove a collusion fairy tale against Trump out of unverifiable foreign-intelligence streams, and demanded the appointment of a special counsel to pursue the fairy tale even as it was palpably collapsing — seven months after the Obama administration began seeking FISA court warrants under false pretenses?

And obstruction? We’re going to be lectured to about obstruction by the people who defended to the hilt Hillary Clinton’s private email server? You remember: The destruction of tens of thousands of emails despite congressional preservation demands, the hammers and Bleach Bit, the serial lying about not hoarding classified information and not withholding official-business emails from the State Department. The sealing and burial of the Clinton–Obama emails, and the studious purging of any reference to President Obama in the description of Clinton’s misconduct.

Democrats may have suppressed their memory of the IRS scandal, the Benghazi scandal, and the Fast and Furious scandal — the first involving abuse of power in order to interfere in the 2012 election; the last two involving cover-ups after American officials were killed. But rest assured, this convenient case of amnesia is not contagious.

Whatever you think of Ukraine, it doesn’t hold a candle to this record.

Impeachment is a political remedy. It is not just a matter of what may be legally, ethically, or morally wrong; it is a matter of how a particular wrong stacks up against current norms. Sorry but Democrats do not get to blow up the norms and then tell us that President Trump has to be impeached and removed over a comparative trifle.

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