I hear a lot of pundits and analysts insisting that the Democrats have finally decided to move on impeachment because the Ukraine scandal is so easy to understand. They also insist that all the earlier evidence of Donald Trump's lawbreaking, such as the 10 obstruction of justice charges in the Mueller report and the ongoing violations of the emoluments clause, should be set aside as articles of impeachment because they are simply too confusing. That is nonsense. It's the same story.
It's true that the notorious phone call and the testimony of the parties in the Ukraine scandal show a simple quid pro quo. But all the Rudy Giuliani shenanigans with people whose names most of us can't easily pronounce and Russian mobsters and secret meetings in exotic world capitals is just as crazy as the Russia investigation. It even features some of the same players, such as former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The reason the Ukraine scandal finally pushed the Democrats to open an impeachment inquiry isn't that it's unique. It's because of how closely it mirrors what we already know about Trump and Russia in 2016.
Immediately after Attorney General William Barr released his misleading letter describing the Mueller report, Trump and his fixer Rudy Giuliani went back to work doing exactly what Trump had been suspected of doing all along: inviting foreign interference in an American presidential election. This time Trump and his accomplices had the full force of the U.S. government to bargain with and they just went for it. When the whistleblower came forward, it was as if the Democrats and much of the public collectively said, "You've got to be kidding — he did it again?"
If anything, this Ukraine business makes it clear that the suspicions raised but unproven in the first volume of the Mueller report were likely true, and that the president's repeated obstruction of justice during the Mueller probe was remarkably effective. Working with a foreign government to smear an opponent is by now a patented Trump strategy.
What we know about the bombshell testimony delivered on Tuesday by the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, has brought the Trump method into sharp focus. According to Taylor's opening statement, which reportedly drew gasps from people in the room, Trump was at the very center of this crude plot to strong-arm Ukraine's new president into smearing former Vice President Joe Biden and doing his best to exonerate the Russians for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.
Taylor began his dramatic recitation of his tenure in Kyiv by revealing that he was personally asked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to return to his former job in Ukraine (where he had served from 2006 to 2009) after former ambassador Marie Yovanovich was forced out by Giuliani and Trump. What happened after that is shocking, even for those who already knew the outlines of the story.
If there was any doubt that Trump demanded a quid pro quo in that notorious phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Taylor put that to rest. He started his job at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv — technically as interim chargé d'affaires — in June of this year and immediately found that Ukraine policy was running on two tracks, one of them official and the other "highly irregular." That one was led by Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, with the assistance of U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who actually called themselves "the Three Amigos.")
At first they seemed to be heading in the same direction but by July Taylor knew that something was up. Zelensky was desperate for a meeting with Trump, preferably at the White House, and Taylor learned that it was "conditioned on the investigations of Burisma [the company that employed Hunter Biden] and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections."
Taylor added important new information about that demand:
Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, “everything” was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky “in a public box” by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.
Taylor was told that Trump believed "President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself."
That has the ring of truth, doesn't it? After all, Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey largely because the latter refused to make a public statement saying that the president was not under investigation. It is standard operating procedure for Trump to demand such blatant acts of submission. It makes you wonder how many other people have buckled under similar pressure.
As it became obvious that Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid in exchange for these public statements and bogus investigations, Taylor became even more alarmed. He said that both Sondland and Volcker at different times explained that "when a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check." From Taylor's opening statement:
I argued to both that the explanation made no sense: the Ukrainians did not “owe” President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was “crazy,” as I had said in my text message to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker on September 9.
Taylor backed up the testimony of former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, who has testified that former national security adviser John Bolton didn't want anything to do with what he called Giuliani's "drug deal" and opposed the phone call between Trump and Zelensky because it would be "a disaster." Bolton told Taylor to inform Pompeo of his concerns, which he did, in a detailed cable. He never heard back.
Taylor's testimony, combined with that of all the others who were involved in Ukraine policy last summer, shows that after successfully obstructing the Mueller investigation and rendering the prosecutors unable to find enough evidence to prove a conspiracy in 2016, Trump believed he could get away with anything. The frightening part is that if it hadn't been for the as-yet-unidentified whistleblower, he very likely would have.
We know that Trump currently has his attorney general running all over the world looking for evidence outside the usual law enforcement channels to prove the Russia investigation never should have happened. How many other "irregular" projects do you suppose he's been running? I suspect the answer lies in that super-secret vault with all the other phone calls nobody is allowed to see.