It’s democracy — not Trump — that’s on trial on Capitol Hill

Public impeachment hearings have begun in Washington, but nothing has changed. The Ukraine “rebound” scandal simply follows from the Russia collusion probe as the latest front in a smoothly operating, taxpayer-funded, propaganda war of political intimidation: an attempt not only to undermine President Trump, but also to demoralize and break the will of those who voted for him.

Democrats, trying to “move on” from the disastrous testimony of Robert Mueller, offer us a new cadre of government-insider witnesses, most of whose evidence would be laughed out of any courtroom in America.

For his part, Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor provided the House Intelligence Committee a textbook version of multiple hearsay. Taylor testified to what a member of his staff said to him about what the president said to the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland: “Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden which [Trump attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for [in Ukraine].”

And what of Ambassador Sondland? This is a person who suddenly altered his testimony on the apparent, central point of the whole inquiry. While Sondland previously denied knowledge of a link between military aid to Ukraine and demands for anti-corruption investigations, now he conveniently recalls speaking to a Ukrainian official about just such a quid pro quo.

Impeachment is supposed to be a grave, constitutional undertaking. In any reasonable scenario, or under conditions of actual, responsible government, hearsay “evidence” like Taylor’s, or shifting testimony like Sondland’s, could never be grounds to remove a duly elected president.

But let us assume, simply for the sake of argument, that there was, in fact, a quid pro quo as Democrats contend. Let us assume that military aid to Ukraine was withheld — and, crucially, that Ukraine knew it was being withheld — until such time as the Ukrainian government investigated Hunter Biden’s dealings in the country. Would this be a prima facie crime? No. To the contrary, it could be argued that it is both legitimate and appropriate for the president, as a fiduciary officer of the United States — a guardian of taxpayer money — to assure that recipients of aid are not engaged in corrupt actions, particularly when those actions may be linked to American officials.

Absent “smoking gun” proof of a corrupt motive — say, a memo in which the president forthrightly calls for Ukraine to become an opposition-research arm of his campaign, compensated by military aid — there is simply no criminal offense. There was, however, at least some cause to examine the Bidens’ actions. We know that Hunter made large sums on the board of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings. Joe Biden has bragged publicly about his role in the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating Burisma.

If presidents are not “above the law,” or above scrutiny when apparent conflicts of interest exist, then neither are former vice presidents, presidential candidates or the children who trade on their names.

But none of this is about facts, truth or due process of law. The impeachment charade — like the rest of the anti-Trump, establishment effort to overturn the results of an election — is instead a case study in raw power politics and ruthless, relentless bullying. Nor is it only the left that benefits. Elements of the establishment, neocon right stand to gain advantage, too. As John R. Bradley argues in The Spectator, “[W]ith the threat of impeachment hanging over his head, Trump cannot afford to alienate [military] hawks,” some of whom sit in the Senate and might decide his fate in an impeachment trial. Hence, one wing of the establishment picks up where the other leaves off: Calls for impeachment on the left give hawks on the right leverage to force Trump’s hand.

Who loses in this dynamic? Who is demoralized? The people who voted for the outsider — the voters who demanded, among other things, the extraction of America’s troops from foreign theaters of conflict.

Congressional Democrats are not solemnly upholding the Constitution. They are conducting psychological warfare under the pretext of law. They want the president and his supporters — those who dared challenge the permanent, elite government class — to know they can never win. Stand with us, the message goes, “get on the right side of history,” or suffer the consequences, just like the president you supported. That is not good faith, adversarial politics. That is, more properly speaking, a form of political oppression.

Watching the impeachment hearings, or reading about them, all Americans should realize: whatever they may think of Donald Trump, more than the fate of a particular president now hangs in the balance. It is democracy that is on trial on Capitol Hill.

Augustus Howard is a research associate at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and a JD from Duke University School of Law. He has also served as a law clerk on the United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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