Noah Rothman  Democrats' 'bribery' impeachment strategy is an unforced error with sobering consequences

If impeachment fails, retrospectives on the process will wonder where it all went wrong. And the answer to that question may be obvious.
Image: House Intelligence Committee Holds Hearing On Impeachment Inquiry Of President Trump
Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, makes a closing statement during an impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 21, 2019.Andrew Harrer / Pool via Reuters
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By Noah Rothman, associate editor of COMMENTARY magazine

You don’t have to be closely following the inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump to understand the case against the president. This past week, nine current or former administration officials testified before congressional investigators. All of them, to one degree or another, have told the same story.

You don’t have to be closely following the inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump to understand the case against the president.

In the words of former national security council official Fiona Hill, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was “involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security, foreign policy.” That errand involved the strong-arming of a strategic U.S. partner and the likely leveraging of congressionally authorized assistance to tar one of the president’s domestic political rivals. As Sondland himself confessed during his testimony, he was explicitly directed by the president to compel the new Ukrainian president to create the appearance of a scandal around Joe Biden. “He had to announce the investigations,” Sondland said of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it.”

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There is a lot we do not yet know about the events leading up to the release of the whistleblower complaint to Congress on Sept. 9, at which point the president began conspicuously denying the existence of a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine. We do not, for example, know why the president issued an explicit order to the Office of Management and Budget to waylay military aid, and we probably never will if chief of staff Mick Mulvaney manages to avoid a deposition. But that would not change the facts of the case as we know them, or the unavoidable conclusion that the president did exactly what he is alleged to have done, which was to abuse his executive power for personal gain.

But if Democrats have such an airtight case against the president, that is not evident in polling or the demeanor of even persuadable Republicans. In fact, after a week of damning testimony, the Democratic position appears to be deteriorating. For that, Democrats only have themselves to blame. And if history looks back on the impeachment of Donald Trump as a failure, it will have profoundly negative consequences for the country and its political culture.

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It may be premature to judge the effectiveness of this week’s testimony based on polls that were only surveying voters for part of it, but it would be foolish to ignore the trends. And they are not good for Democrats. As FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls makes clear, the revelations involving the Ukraine scandal shifted the calculation for voters, a clear majority of whom had previously opposed impeaching the president. Almost overnight, the public warmed to the notion that Trump deserved to be censured and ejected from office.

But that seismic shift in public opinion is now reversing itself. The once sizable plurality in favor of impeachment has disappeared, and that shift is not attributable to shaky Republican voters who are stabilizing after being temporarily unnerved by the scandal. In fact, the decline is most pronounced among self-described independents. In battleground states, like Wisconsin, the numbers are far worse for Democrats.

The clarity of the case against the president laid out by the witnesses who testified this week has been muddied, but the blame for that cannot be laid at the feet of the GOP. It is Democrats who have altered and confused the charges against the president, and they did so in the effort to generate traction with voters.

As The Washington Post initially reported, the central charge Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff are levying against the president has evolved from “quid pro quo” to “bribery.” This subtle change in Democratic verbiage has some advantages, among them that this phrase is included in the Constitution in the section pertaining to offenses that may merit impeachment. But the Constitution prescribes impeachment as a remedy for an ill-defined range of corrupt activities short of “maladministration,” so the nation’s founding charter is not the obstacle here.

Thus, the term “bribery” has the more tangible benefit for Democrats: voters get it. The party reportedly conducted focus groups in key battleground districts and discovered that voters responded to “bribery” more than they did “quid pro quo” or even “extortion.” So the Latin was abandoned in favor of this more conventional act of corruption.

But regardless of the lawyerly rhetorical contortions Democrats have performed to make the charge stick, “bribery” doesn’t describe what is alleged to have occurred here. The allegation is that the president misused his authority to secure domestic political advantage, and he did so by withholding rewards Ukraine might expect if it were to, in the whistleblower’s words, “play ball.” The benefit he might have achieved from Ukraine could be construed as material in nature, but the actions in which he engaged to secure that benefit look more like blackmail than solicitation.

Regardless of the lawyerly rhetorical contortions Democrats have performed to make the charge stick, “bribery” doesn’t describe what is alleged to have occurred here.

By adopting this message, they’ve given even Republicans who are honestly skeptical of the president’s actions a reasonable way to avoid turning on their team. On this, the comments of retiring Republican Rep. Will Hurd are instructive. This week, Hurd became the first congressional Republican to issue an unqualified critique of how the president conducted himself in negotiations with his Ukrainian counterpart, calling the president’s conduct “bungling” and “misguided.” At the same time, however, he took refuge in the Democratic Party’s verbal overreach. “An impeachable offense should be compelling,” Hurd said. “I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”

Impeachment is a political process, so Democrats are obliged to secure support from voters for their desired outcome. Toward that end, poll-testing their impeachment messaging isn’t just necessary; it’s essential. The polling isn’t the problem, though Republicans would like to make it appear sordid. The problem is that Democrats have altered the charges against Trump to make the most politically salient case against Trump even at the expense of the facts of the case.

If the impeachment of Donald Trump ends in his acquittal in the Senate and re-election next November, the ultimate check on the presidency will be all but neutralized. Absent any credible deterrent, Trump will be free to indulge his most reckless impulses. In that event, posterity will regard impeachment with contempt. Retrospectives on the process will wonder where it all went wrong, and the answer to that question will be obvious.

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