by Robert Romano
“This week, the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. Therefore, today, I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry. I’m directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella.”
That was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing on Sept. 24 that she is about to embroil the nation in the impeachment of President Donald Trump on allegations, without evidence, that the President pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July by threatening to withhold foreign military aid unless former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, were investigated for pressuring Ukraine by threatening to withhold $1 billion of loan guarantees if Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was not fired in 2016.
There’s just a few problems with Pelosi’s allegations, right out of the gate.
President Trump has denied that he threatened military aid at all unless the Bidens were investigated in the phone call. “No, I didn’t,” Trump said on Sept. 23 while at the Unite Nations in response to the question from a reporter, adding, “Everybody’s looking for that call, and keep going the way you’re going because when you see the call you’re going to be very surprised.”
Trump has since on Sept. 24 ordered the transcript of the call to be declassified and released unredacted. UPDATE, 10:40 a.m.: The White House has released the transcript of the July 25 call, wherein President Trump congratulated Zelensky on his election victory. Zelensky thanked Trump for U.S. assistance to Ukraine. Trump and Zelensky both criticized Europe for not providing more. And Trump requested legal assistance from Ukraine for Attorney General William Barr’s investigation into the Russia witch hunt and into Joe Biden’s pressure on Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor in return for loan guarantees, which Zelensky granted. No pressure or coercion appeared in the call, and Zelensky appeared eager to help Trump.
Although media outlets widely reported that Trump “admitted” to pressuring Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in return for military aid in the July phone call, which Pelosi picked up on, what Trump actually said to reporters on Sept. 22 was that he criticized Biden’s role in corruption in Ukraine to Zelensky: “We had a great conversation. The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely [about] corruption — all of the corruption taking place — was largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating the corruption already in the Ukraine.”
Trump noted that Zelensky was elected on a platform to address corruption in Ukraine, adding, “Ukraine’s got a lot of problems, the new president is saying he’s going to be able to rid the country of corruption and I said that would be a great thing.”
Further, Ukraine says there was no pressure. “I know what the conversation was about and I think there was no pressure,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said in an interview with Hromadske on Sept. 21, adding, “This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on many questions, sometimes requiring serious answers.”
Finally, the military aid to Ukraine has already been released on Sept. 11, and lawmakers are expected to extend it again in the continuing resolution expected to be adopted in Congress soon for Fiscal Year 2020. The aid was temporarily delayed on July 18 pending a review by the State Department and Defense Department, which was completed.
That delay came amid a wider freeze of foreign aid in August by the Office of Management and Budget that had been unspent, so-called unobligated balances, that would be released pending review. That review was completed in a matter of days and funds were released.
Under 2 U.S.C. Section 684 or 2 U.S.C. Section 681, the Impoundment Control Act, the President has the power to propose deferring funds on a temporary basis or rescinding them altogether. That is to say nothing of the President’s Article II executive powers to conduct foreign affairs including to negotiate with foreign leaders, which is the President’s sole province. The reviews of funding conducted here are not unusual and certainly consistent with the President’s legal and constitutional authority, and the freezes put into effect by the Office of Management and Budget fall well within that range.
Again, the aid in question has already been released, rendering any legal objection moot.
President Trump said on Sept. 24 of temporarily withholding but ultimately releasing the aid, “As far as withholding funds, those funds were paid. But my complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine.”
None of that is against the law. The President, whether Trump in 2019 or Obama in 2016, has the power to temporarily withhold foreign aid as he engages in negotiations with foreign leaders, propose rescissions and certainly to have a conversation with the Ukrainian president. So what if the administration reviewed U.S. foreign aid packages? So what if the President is leveraging Europe to pay more? So what if he mentioned Biden to Zelensky? He’s allowed to do that under the law. That’s a high crime? Unbelievable.
Who do Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats work for? Financial institutions in Europe who don’t want to foot the bill for their own defense? Organizations that oppose legitimate proposals to cut foreign aid to non-friendly countries? Pelosi and members of Congress may not like President Trump’s foreign policy, but his pursuing that policy is not an impeachable offense, it is his job under Article II.
But where Pelosi alleges Trump had a corrupt motive for doing so — without even having seen the transcript yet — Biden for his part in the 2016 affair clearly had a conflict of interests.
Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations in Jan. 2018 he threatened then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko with the $1 billion of loan guarantees on firing Shokin until he caved: “I said, ‘You’re not getting the billion.’ I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ …Well, son of a bitch, he got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
Shokin at the time was investigating natural gas firm Burisma Holdings for corruption, and on which Hunter Biden served on the Board of Directors, as reported by The Hill’s John Solomon in April. Shokin told Solomon that he had “specific plans” for the investigation including “interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden.”
Solomon reported that Biden was aware Burisma was under investigation when he pressured Poroshenko: “U.S. and Ukrainian authorities both told me Biden and his office clearly had to know about the general prosecutor’s probe of Burisma and his son’s role. They noted that: Hunter Biden’s appointment to the board was widely reported in American media; The U.S. Embassy in Kiev that coordinated Biden’s work in the country repeatedly and publicly discussed the general prosecutor’s case against Burisma; Great Britain took very public action against Burisma while Joe Biden was working with that government on Ukraine issues; Biden’s office was quoted, on the record, acknowledging Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma in a New York Times article about the general prosecutor’s Burisma case that appeared four months before Biden forced the firing of Shokin. The vice president’s office suggested in that article that Hunter Biden was a lawyer free to pursue his own private business deals.”
Trump’s impeachable offense, in Pelosi’s eyes, was merely mentioning Biden’s blatant conflict of interests when Biden urged the firing of the Ukrainian prosecutor who says he was investigating the company Biden’s son worked for and threatened U.S. foreign aid, which was already public information, in his conversation with Zelensky. Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning blasted Pelosi’s impeachment announcement in a statement, saying, “Only Nancy Pelosi could learn Vice President Joe Biden engaged in a blatant abuse of power in Ukraine to protect his son from potential prosecution and decide that it is grounds to impeach President Trump for denouncing such corruption even if Americans are involved.”
Indeed, only Nancy Pelosi. And only in America. But after 2016, the phony Russian witch hunt in which the President was falsely accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of being a Russian agent, none of it is really surprising anymore.
There is a lot at stake. The U.S. backed the overthrow of Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014 — where Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was apparently caught on tape helping to organize the coup — which immediately preceded Russia’s backing the secession of Crimea from Ukraine. This failed U.S. intervention destabilized the region, risking a wider war between the U.S. and Russia.
Now, President Trump wants to mend fences with Ukraine and diffuse the ongoing civil war there following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Military aid to Ukraine has been given throughout the Trump administration. In 2019, it was reviewed and then granted again, which with a new president in Ukraine was a perfectly reasonable — and cautious — way to approach the issue. Trump has also attempted to foster improved relations with Russia and has in the past called for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia — which are unquestionably in U.S. interests as nuclear war poses an existential threat to humanity.
Which, by the way, is the President’s job.
Besides being a potential hotspot where war between the U.S. and Russia could break out corruption in Ukraine, fueled by Russian and American interests, makes conflict there that much more dangerous as U.S. financial interests have become entangled there.
But we only get one president at a time. If Biden wants the job, he has to get elected first, and before then he needs to account for his actions in Ukraine to the American people in order to assure them he is fit for the job. Trump didn’t tell Zelensky anything about Biden that he didn’t already know, but it will certainly be news for voters in the Democratic primaries as Biden falls in the polls in New Hampshire.
In 2016, Trump blasted the Obama administration’s conduct in Ukraine and warned that the nation was risking war. The President is allowed to pursue that policy, and he’s allowed to criticize his predecessors’ failures. If there was misconduct during the Obama years, let it be known, and do better next time.
Like it or not, it is President Trump’s job right now is to keep the peace in Ukraine. Thank goodness he is not itching for a war. We need to be careful and prudent in our approach and attempt to diffuse any potential conflict. But if Trump is impeached by the House in a blind frenzy for trying to avoid an unnecessary war with Russia over Ukraine, and improving relations in that region that Obama and Biden clearly wrecked, it might very well cause one.
– – –
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.