By overseeing a narrowly scoped impeachment inquiry, House Democrats have been able compile a detailed factual record of a single corrupt scheme for which there is smoking gun evidence, and abundant corroboration.
They have been reluctant to widen the scope of the inquiry because capturing public attention and holding it for weeks on end is difficult, particularly in the Trump era. Indeed, President Trump has escaped accountability for an astonishing number of scandals by exploiting this very difficulty—the sheer volume of his unacceptable behavior has overwhelmed the public’s capacity to fully grapple with any single outrage.
The magic of impeachment is its ability to neutralize this strategy. It’s the only tool available to House Democrats that’s remotely capable of muting the cacophony Trump creates every day and replacing it with something else. Yet investigating multiple impeachable offenses at once might ironically replace one cacophony with another, dulling the political impact of the process for the same reason so many Trump scandals fade into background noise. Why deploy the very tactic Trump uses to exhaust the public’s capacity for outrage in a process that only works if the public is focused and incensed? If they’ve captured lightning in a bottle with the Ukraine scandal, why squander it?
There is a logic to this thinking but one enormous drawback is that it locks a large body of evidence that Trump has committed multiple impeachable offenses out of the inquiry. Ignoring that evidence places the bar for impeaching corrupt presidents unacceptably high and simplifies the challenge Trump’s allies in Congress face. If only one of Trump’s many scandals exceeds that bar, then Republicans need only concoct a thin pretext to acquit him, without having to attach themselves to any other offense.
Two developments on the eve of the first public impeachment hearings have created an opportunity for the House to resolve this conundrum; to draw related corrupt acts into the inquiry and insure that Republicans can’t shrug off the Ukraine matter as a forgivable aberration.
The first comes in the form of new testimony establishing that Trump knew Wikileaks would be publishing his opponents’ stolen emails, likely before the public learned Russian intelligence had hacked the Democrats. The second comes from the details of an off-the-record speech former national security adviser John Bolton gave to a gathering of financial executives about Trump’s betrayal of American interests.
Together these developments provide Democrats an unexpected opportunity to illustrate how neatly Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine matter fits a pattern of behavior—of self-dealing, of subverting U.S. democracy, of obstruction—without having to open a parallel investigations or draw new phases of the investigation out indefinitely.
The testimony came from Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates during the climax of the trial of Roger Stone—a famously sleazy, racist Republican operative and long-time adviser to Donald Trump. Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged Stone with lying to Congress about how he came to know of the plot to sabotage Democrats, but Gates was able to prove Stone lied by describing Stone’s communications with the campaign—including with Trump himself. Among other things, Gates’s testimony confirmed both that Trump knew of Wikileaks’s plans in advance, and that Trump likely lied to Mueller when he claimed in sworn, written answers that he only learned about the hacking scheme “at or shortly after the time it became the subject of media reporting.”
Separately, in his private speech, Bolton told Morgan Stanley bigwigs that he suspects Trump recently sold out U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria to Turkey because he has a corrupt business or personal relationship with the Turkish leadership. As national security adviser, Bolton had unrivaled visibility into Trump’s opaque, shady foreign policy, and he has intimated that it is deeply compromised.
Democrats have generally convinced themselves that it would be a political mistake to wade back into the waters of the Russia investigation, and that making a clean, aggressive case for Trump’s guilt in the Ukraine matter will maximize their chances of ending Trump’s presidency. But what if they can establish Trump’s role in the Russia scandal, and his broader abuses of power for personal gain, without relitigating the Mueller investigation or prolonging the impeachment inquiry for months?
Gates and Bolton could help them do that simply by restating before the impeachment committee things they have just attested to in other settings. And Adam Schiff, who leads the Democrats impeachment efforts, could pre-empt any efforts to spin this as a fishing expedition by announcing one week of hearings meant to establish that Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine scandal wasn’t a one-off.
Bolton has intimated through his lawyer that impeachment investigators could learn a lot from him, but has also suggested he’d resist a subpoena from them until a judge ordered him to testify. The fact that he’s dishing about these same issues to bankers for money fatally undermines his claim to requiring a court order to testify before Congress, and it’s not out of the question that Democrats could secure his appearance by sending him a subpoena and threatening to hold him in contempt.
Gates is a government witness awaiting sentencing, who is in no position to defy a subpoena and has every incentive to cooperate. By repeating what he’s already said under oath in court, he’d provide new bases for articles of impeachment pertaining to Trump’s support for a foreign attack on the 2016 election and his subsequent effort to obstruct an investigation of that attack. Bolton could both flesh out secret details of the Ukraine scandal, and speak to how extensively Trump has corrupted U.S. foreign policy for his personal benefit. Together, they would deny Republicans in Congress the ability to manufacture excuses for Trump, or doubt about the illegitimacy of his conduct toward Ukraine. They would demonstrate that what he did to Ukraine is serial corruption, and leave Republicans to choose whether to remove him for office or take a vote on the record in support of it all.