RAMESH THAKUR. The establishment strikes back at the deplorables. Part 3: Impeachment

The whistleblower’s complaint, made on 12 August, was based entirely on hearsay. The existing guidelines had said in bold, underlined, all-caps: ‘FIRST-HAND INFORMATION REQUIRED’. After receiving the complaint, the intelligence community inspector-general (ICIG) revised the internal guidance to permit evidence that was not first-hand.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to the media at the Capitol Building 24 September to announce a formal impeachment inquiry. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sean Davis, co-founder of the conservative site The Federalist, explains:

Because the complaint did not allege wrongdoing against a member of the intelligence community (the president of the United States is an elected constitutional officer, not an employee of a statutory agency), did not allege wrongdoing with regard to an intelligence activity (a phone call between two elected world leaders is basic diplomacy, not the execution of a statutorily required intelligence activity), and relied primarily on hearsay rather than first-hand evidence, both the director of national intelligence (DNI) and the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel determined that the anti-Trump complaint was not an “urgent concern” under the law and was therefore not required to be transmitted to the relevant congressional committees.

The ICIG release of 30 September appears self-contradictory. On the one hand, the ‘Complainant’s Letter acknowledged that the Complainant was not a direct witness to the President’s July 25, 2019, telephone call with the Ukrainian President’. On the other, the ICIG ‘determined that the Complainant had … direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct’. Accordingly, the ICIG on its own and after revising its internal guidance and policies regarding first-hand evidence decided the complaint did qualify as an ‘urgent concern’ and forwarded the anti-Trump complaint to Congress, which then launched a formal impeachment inquiry.

In evaluating this development, it’s worth keeping in mind two key questions:

  1. Did Joe Biden, or his family, profit from his position as VP? Is that a legitimate question? If so, should it be ruled out of order now simply because Biden is a candidate for the Democratic nomination? With the mainstream media having proven remarkably uncurious, Trump has used the authority of his office to try and prod an inquiry. Characteristically , far from retreating, the pugnaciousTrump  escalated by  openly asking China too to investigate the murky politician-businessman nexus between father and son in dealings with China.
  2. If crucial information concerning the Biden dealings and who was trying to do what in 2016, why, and at whose behest, can only be obtained by foreign governments investigating shady dealings at their end, should that be avoided or is the president permitted – if not duty-bound – to seek their assistance? Conversely, if a smoking gun is discovered and Congress needs evidence from Ukrainian authorities, there seems nothing wrong in seeking it just because it would implicate Trump as the majority party’s political opponent. When key records and witnesses in any inquiry are located in a foreign country outside the legal jurisdiction of the FBI and the Justice Department, requesting help from that country is warranted, appropriate and a responsible course of action by the president as much as by Congress.
US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a meeting in New York on 25 September 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The red line with respect to both questions is a quid pro quo of US economic aid or military assistance. The detailed parsing of Trump’s phone conversation with Ukraine’s new President Volodymr Zelensky on 25 July has been wilfully partisan. The tone and tenor of the conversation is, for Trump, surprisingly amicable. Zelensky has clearly absorbed the lesson that the way to work Trump is to flatter him, including saying he wants to ‘drain the swamp here in our country’. Bear in mind too that Trump has proven to be remarkably promiscuous in his use of the English language.

Moreover, subsequent statements from the Justice Department were unambiguous in saying that Trump did not follow up by asking his Attorney General William Barr to contact Ukrainian authorities about investigating Biden or on any other matter, and that Barr has not communicated with Ukraine at all. But a team from Justice, led by US Attorney John Durham, is investigating several countries, including Ukraine, over their possible role in the counter-intelligence efforts against the Trump election campaign in 2016.

In the Zelensky call, Trump does indeed ask for a favour. But the very next sentence and the rest of that paragraph makes it crystal clear, with no shade of ambiguity, that the favour is to get to the bottom of the role played by CrowdStrike, in the belief that the server is said to have ended up in Ukraine. There is no explicit or implied threat of withholding US aid if this not done. The vast amount of US assistance is mentioned in the previous paragraph, but in the context of the familiar Trump complaint that the Europeans and Germany are not doing enough. And in response, Zelensky is the first to bring up the name of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. In response to that in turn, Trump says there is talk that Biden stopped the prosecution of Burisma because of his son’s position in the company and bragged about it. So Trump would like Zelensky to cooperate with Attorney-General Barr.

In the course of a marathon 14-hour press conference on 10 October, Zelensky didn’t just insist he had not been blackmailed in the 25 July  conversation; in fact he was not aware at the time that US military aid had been delayed and learnt of this only a month later. This was confirmed by Kurt Volker, the former special representative for Ukraine: only in late August had he raised the topic of Biden; it did not come up during the aid negotiations. It’s difficult to establish a quid pro quo relationship when the party supposedly providing the quo was unaware of the quid in the first place. As a New York Times report concluded: ‘If that was the intended message, Mr. Zelensky does not seem to have received it’. Barring a redacted portion showing otherwise, this is not going to pass the test of evidence of extortion or coercion.

Valentyn Nalyvaichenko is a Ukrainian MP who served as head of the Security Service (their FBI) 2006–10 and 2014–15. He writes in the Wall Street Journal (10/10):

Serious allegations have been made in the U.S. and Ukraine, including that Ukrainian government officials and organizations assisted Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and that Burisma, a major Ukrainian gas company, hired Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, for cynical purposes. Regardless of the implications of these charges within American politics, Ukraine has a responsibility to investigate them completely and transparently….
There is no way to know if crimes were committed unless the Ukrainian government investigates all allegations properly and transparently.

Political fallout

The early public opinion polls confirm the deeply partisan reading of the complicated and tangled knot of the Ukrainian threads and the confused political situation. A CNN poll breaks 47-45 for impeachment, with 55% of Democrats supportive and 66% of Republicans opposed. A Quinnipiac survey is tied 47-47 on impeachment, with Democrats 90-5 for, and Republicans 92-7 against. The share of respondents rating Trump honest went up from 30 to 37, his approval rating up from 29 to 35. Importantly, in a PBS Newshour poll published on 28 September, independents opposed impeachment by 50-44.

The public will find it much easier to see a lot of money was involved in deals done with Ukrainian and Chinese companies and individuals; Biden’s son was enriched handsomely from these deals while his father was VP; beyond being his father’s son, Hunter had little to commend him for his shot at big money. All this being perfectly legal will deepen revulsion at the fetid Washington swamp. This is why regardless of the political damage to Trump between now and next year’s election, the Biden candidacy may be sunk and the Democratic brand could suffer collateral damage.

President Trump, ‘surely one of the most controversial and sinning of presidents, may also be the most sinned against’, writes Holman W. Jenkins. It is in his nature to hit back hard with a punch to the face. Trump may emerge fatally damaged or politically strengthened with a rejuvenated and remotivated base at the end of the impeachment fracas; we shall have to wait and see.


Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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5 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. The establishment strikes back at the deplorables. Part 3: Impeachment

  1. Peter Martin says:

    Ramesh, old mate….

    I can see where you’re coming from.

    I would like you to do us a favour, though….

    Just check that you know the meaning of the word “solicit” as used the legislation relevant to impeachment investigations. Last time I looked, that word does not require the existence of “quid pro quo” (a term used as relevant to bribery laws: an interesting confusion). Does it or does it not apply to a request for a favor, or do you have a wildly different dictionary?

    Soliciting would certainly cover the use of words like “I would like a favour, though” when used in just about any context I can think of in the English language. Perhaps you can give another context or have another dictionary?

    The IG points out that the form for lodging a whistleblower complaint was changed in May 2018 — a full 9 months before the President’s phone call and 10 months before whistleblower lodged a complaint. Are you suggesting now that the IG was psychic and somehow knew what the President was going to say, 9 months in advance? Most of us have the impression that not even his immediate staff have any idea what he’s going to say 30 seconds in advance of him saying it.

    Except maybe: “Book me for a round at Mar-a-Lago.”


    FACT 1: Trump asked for, a favour, soliciting it from the Ukrainian President.
    FACT 2: As the text indicates to most of us, and was feared in advance by US officials preparing for the call, a major purpose of the call was soliciting political favours. That’s on the face of the record.
    FACT 2: The whistleblower legislation does not require whistleblowers to have first hand or direct evidence.
    FACT 3: In any event, the IG satisfied himself that some direct evidence was provided as well as indirect evidence.
    FACT 4: We know now that the indirect evidence of the phone call was reliable.
    FACT 5: The form used by the IG for complaints was changed to avoid any wrong implication that direct evidence was a requirement for a complaint and that form change was made in May 2018.
    FACT 6: The President made his phone call in July 2019.
    FACT 7: The whistleblower made his complaint in August 2019.
    FACT 8: Time travel had not been invented before May 2018 and still hasn’t been.
    FACT 9: Indirect evidence of the phone call led to inquiries which in turn produced direct evidence — without which you and I would not be discussing the contents.
    FACT 10: Inquiries into alleged malpractice often start with indirect evidence which is chased up to reveal direct evidence. This is what investigations are meant to do. Sometimes they even lead to revelations about criminal matters not previously known to be connected to the original allegations. And guess what?

    I won’t bother with the rest of this farrago of misstatements and untruths.

    Suffice it to say many of us here are grateful there are still some sources of more reliable information in the US and elsewhere which make it possible, even at the distance of thousands of miles, to know a pile of misleading claptrap when we see it.

    • Ramesh Thakur Ramesh Thakur says:

      Peter, old friend…
      As you note, we can all read a range of news accounts and come to our own conclusions. I’m afraid the major US media (and some others in the Anglosphere) shot their credibility with me in their coverage of the Kosovo war, then the Iraq war, and some stories to do with India (excluding Kashmir for this purpose, on which their coverage is better than the Indian media’s). So I try to compensate by reading widely, but not just the Anglosphere media. Based on that, just two comments by way of rejoinder.
      Firstly, I’ve read the public version of the notes of the Trump-Zelensky phone call, and the accounts of the Hunter Biden business while Biden Sr was VP. I’m afraid I don’t share the conclusion that one is an impeachable offence but with the other there’s no impropriety. With Biden now running for president, looking into these more thoroughly is imperative. I think it is even more important to try and get to the full story behind the Russia collusion inquiry. Perhaps you think this is not important, or we know enough already.
      Second, based on statements and actions since the last presidential election result, it seems to me that The Democrats, Republicans and the White House are all motivated primarily by partisan considerations: and the consequences of that for America and the world does bother me. If you believe the impeachment move is not primarily partisan, you are less cynical than I am about politics and politicians. I would have preferred to avoid the distraction of an impeachment this close to the next election, and focus instead on that as the less problematic path to ridding America and the world of this cringe-inducing embarrassment of a president.

  2. Don Macrae says:

    Nonsense. What ‘parsing’ of that phone conversation was required? Talk of aid and ‘do me a favour’ in the same conversation not enough?

    • Ramesh Thakur Ramesh Thakur says:

      The problem with and evidence of partisan readings is the tendency to look at a similar set of facts and circumstances, but rationalise the behaviour of ‘our’ side while condemning that of the ‘other’ side. As an independent analyst, I prefer to go with the evidence and my own reasoning, seasoned with experience.
      Your logic would see Joe Biden convicted as charged by Trump and his supporters. In Biden’s own words to the Council on Foreign Relations on 23 January 2018: ‘I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. I said, you’re not getting the billion. … 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’. See: https://www.cfr.org/event/foreign-affairs-issue-launch-former-vice-president-joe-biden
      That’s aid, demand and threat all in one conversation. The consensus opinion to date is that Hunter Biden’s position with the Ukrainian company Burisma had nothing to do with Biden’s position on Shokin’s ouster. Western leaders and institutions were collectively calling for Shokin’s removal because he was soft on corruption. I share this consensus. But by your logic, I should not.

      • Don Macrae says:

        The problem of course was not asking for a favour per se, it was the nature of the favour. Straw man, silly.

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