In search of political theater, on Tuesday night December 17th, I went to Parcel 5 for the “Nobody is Above the Law” rally, one of hundreds nationwide calling for Congress to hold President Trump accountable for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to look into his political opponent Joe Biden.
Maybe 200 gathered on the eve of the House impeachment vote, carrying signs, honking horns and juggling flames. The event felt less like a political rally than a Winter Fest reverie but without roasting marshmallows and ice-carving demonstrations — but possibly some spiked eggnog.
Actually, the evening had the flavor of a pep rally: raucous fans cavorting in the light snowfall cheering their team heading to a game it was sure to win. And did, handily, 230 – 197 – 1 – 3 (yes, no, present, not voting).
Unfortunately, if the House impeachment vote was basically a foregone conclusion, so too is the Senate impeachment trial.
I can’t imagine any revelations that could sway twenty Senate Republicans to vote for removal. If witnesses are called, Bolton’s testimony will be either the dramatic peak or anticlimactic. My sense is Bolton will offer teasing half answers framed much like a trailer for his upcoming podcasts and book.
Perhaps it is not too soon to play that favorite pundit parlor game: the alternative scenario. Here’s mine.
KEY MOMENTS IN THE TIME LINE
Early September 2019; Ukranian President Zelensky makes an appointment to appear on CNN, where he plans to make the desired statement.
Sept. 10; House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., demands to see the whistle blower complaint.
Sept. 11; Office of Management and Budget releases the Ukraine aid.
Sept. 13; Zelensky cancels his CNN interview.
In my alternative history, the whistle blower does NOT come forward when he or she did. Hence, on September 10th, Schiff does NOT demand to see the whistle blower complaint (which in my scenario is still unrevealed).
As we now know, in early September pressure was mounting for Zelenksky to make a public announcement of investigations. According to Ambassador William Taylor, on September 8th Zelenksy agreed to the CNN interview.
In my scenario, under pressure from Congress (still unaware of the whistle blower), on September 11th, Trump orders the Ukraine aid released.
Crucially, in my scenario, on September 13th Zelensky DOES announce investigations, using the exact language suggested by Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine:
We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.
The “quid pro quo” is completed.
In reality, Zelensky did NOT make that or any statement. We don’t know exactly why Zelensky cancelled the CNN interview. Perhaps Trump requested the cancellation, not wanting inflame the controversy.
A November 7th, 2019 New York Times article, Ukraine’s Zelensky Bowed to Trump’s Demands, Until Luck Spared Him, persuasively reports that Zelensky feared an announcement would alienate Democrats, imperiling the bipartisan support for Ukrainian military assistance. The article suggests the cancellation was a stroke of good luck for Zelensky. I argue that it was also Trump who got lucky.¹
In my scenario — in the wake of the announcement — the whistle blower NOW blows the whistle. Others — Taylor, Sondland, Yovanovitch — come forward, claiming the timing of the aid and the announcement is no coincidence, simply the culmination of the July 25th phone call and the resulting pressure in the months following.
Suddenly, Trump loses one exculpatory argument advanced by his defenders: “No Harm, No Foul.” That is, Ukraine got its aid; Zelensky made no announcement. So play on. The basketball analogy may be specious but holds power. A contemplated “quid pro quo” — one aborted if it even existed — is different than a realized conspiracy.
In reality, Democrats claim Trump only released the aid because the whistle blow busted him. In my scenario, Trump’s realized scheme contains the seed of his own destruction: there was a foul and there was harm.
In “Running Covert Propaganda Against Americans Is Illegal. Trump Tried It Anyway. The whistleblower stopped a covert psychological operation against the American public dead in its tracks” (11/07/19), Asha Rangappa, Yale University lecturer and former FBI special agent, points out that the White House plot to manipulate the Ukrainian president into making statements to CNN secretly dictated by Trump’s aides might well have been illegal.
The 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act, prohibits the U.S. government from using covert actions — which include propaganda — to “influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.
In my scenario, the whistle blower does NOT stop the scheme dead in its tracks.
Smelling blood, the new revelations impel the Democrats into action. If Rangappa is correct, the Democrats now have an underlying crime to add to abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Impeachment flies through the House, winning votes from swing district Republican congressman. The articles are to be sent to the Senate as Trump and his allies attempt some futile dodges. Trump offers a lame apology; the Congressional Republicans plead for the lesser punishment of censure.
Known for his assiduous note taking, Bolton hold a press conference where he presents handwritten notes from conversations with Trump, including the memorable lines: “Can you do us a favor? Sign off on this and I’ll bomb Iran.”
Censure is rejected; public opinion moves strongly against Trump.
Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham — wiping off crocodile tears — tell Trump the gig is up.
Trump resigns, flying to Trump Towers Istanbul where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan comforts him.
The Democrats nominate Pete Buttigieg to oppose President Pence, pitting a gay man against a believer in homosexual conversion therapy. The election looks like another nail biter. However, because Trump resigned and not removed and barred from future office, he mounts a third party rump candidacy, siphoning votes from Pence. President Buttigieg is inaugurated. America has its first First Lad.
¹ In an unpublished November, 21st, 2019 letter to USA Today, I elaborated on the Trump-got-lucky proposition. I argued that Ukranian investigation would backfire politically.
Throughout the impeachment inquiry, we hear allegations that President Trump tried to leverage military aid and a White House visit for his personal political benefit. It is gospel that Trump would be bolstered and a potential rival tarnished if Trump got what he sought: investigations into purported Ukranian interference in the 2016 election and alleged corruption of Joe Biden and his son Hunter in connection with Burisma.
But would such investigations actually have benefited Trump? The preposterous conspiracy theory countenanced by Trump that the DNC server is stored in Ukraine would be further debunked. Trump’s penchant for baseless claims would be publicly exposed and used as Democratic fodder. Claims that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election would evaporate – only more pointedly pointing the finger at Russia. And only more fodder for criticism of Trump’s chummy relationship with Putin and his semi-acceptance of Putin’s claim that Russia was not the interfering nation.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that either Biden did anything illegal. Yet another investigation would uncover only more vindication for the Bidens, a vindication that could very well help Biden’s presidential campaign. Trump may have been lucky that Zelensky never publicly committed to investigations – and lucky the investigation never took place.