November 23, 2019
Republicans are thrashing about, attempting to obscure the obvious, that Trump has committed an impeachable offense. Among other ploys, they have seized on a statement by Ambassador Sondland to prove that Trump did not propose a corrupt bargain with Ukraine. Here is Sondland’s testimony: In a September 9 telephone call, Trump said, “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy — President Zelenskiy to do the right thing, ”
Is “quid pro quo” part of Donald Trump’s usual discourse? That alone should make one suspicious that the statement was not to be taken as the truth. Add the fact that the conversation took place after the phone conversation in which Trump asked Zelinsky to give him political dirt (July 25), after the whistleblower’s initial complaint about the call was made known to the White House, and after the whistleblower’s formal complaint was filed (August 12). The Trump statement was an attempt at coverup by a man who knew he was in trouble.
As to Trump’s statement that he wanted nothing from Zelinsky, recall that, on June 12, he had said this “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent' -- oh, I think I'd want to hear it."
In various ways, some factual, some not, Trump’s defenders have argued that there can’t be an offense because Trump wasn’t successful in his attempt at extortion. A variant of that, and perhaps the ultimate fallback position was adopted by a columnist at The Washington Post, Marc Thiessen. As with other Trump defenders, consistency is not a consideration.
He complained in 2013 that the Obama administration was “conducting foreign policy by faux pas,” that its actions regarding Syria were “driven not by deliberate strategy but by slips of the tongue. . . There is no plan, no coherence to anything this administration is doing on Syria." Incompetence was something to be avoided, condemned. That was then; now presidential incompetence is a good thing, for it provides a defense is against impeachment.
Thiessen quoted another Trump apologist, Lindsey Graham: “What I can tell you about the Trump policy towards the Ukraine is that it was incoherent. . . . They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.” Thiessen added: “Graham may be right. Wednesday’s [November 13] impeachment hearing certainly provided no new evidence that Trump had a coherent strategy to use U.S. security assistance, and the prospect of a presidential meeting, to get Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.” Apparently a scheme is not improper unless artfully designed and adroitly carried out.
The testimony thus far, according to Thiessen, presumes “that the president knew what he wanted. It’s not clear he did. His handling of Ukraine seemed less the execution of an intelligible plan than a chaotic mishmash of constantly changing urges and demands.” Does that relieve him of responsibility? According to the Thiessen theory, yes: “[I]t looks as though the entire Ukraine debacle may be the result less of intent than incompetence. And unfortunately for Democrats, incompetence is not an impeachable offense.” We might reasonably ask whether one incompetent to carry out so elementary a scheme as conditioning aid on a favor might be incompetent to be president.
Not only is incompetence not a defense to impeachment, it is a ground for it. That should be obvious: a president who cannot discharge his duties is a danger to the country. Consider the condition of the executive departments, where ignorance, bias, self-dealing, conflict of interest and denial of scientific fact are rampant. The President has a duty to prevent such corruption. He has the power of appointment and removal, and bears a corresponding obligation to see that his subordinates discharge their duties. That is not a radical notion.
James Madison said this in a debate in the first Congress about executive power: “I think it is absolutely necessary that the President should have the power of removing [subordinates] from office; it will make him responsible for their conduct, and subject him to impeachment himself, if he . . . neglect to superintend their conduct, so as to check their excesses.”
It is understandable that House Democrats have focused on the Ukraine conversations because they present a clear dereliction of duty. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Trump’s time in office has been a workshop in impeachable dereliction. Obstruction, both of the Russian-interference investigations and the present hearings, is another instance. As it is unlikely that Trump will be removed from office by the Senate, it is important, for 2020, to make a broader case for unfitness to the voting public.
87. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trumps-no-quid-pro-quo-call-open-to- interpretation/2019/11/21/0300795e-0c23-11ea-8054-289aef6e38a3_story.html
89. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/marc-thiessen-obamas-unbelievably-small- presidency/ 2013/09/16/e01838ca-1ed3-11e3-94a2-6c66b668ea55_story.html
91. Impeachment: Selected Materials, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 1973, p.11