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The final showdown?

Oct 21,2019
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Stephan Haggard
The author is the Krause distinguished professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation

In the summer of 2017, I gave a lecture at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul. I argued that the United States was likely to experience a constitutional crisis over the course of the following year. I based this prediction on two expectations: the likely findings of the Mueller report on interference in the 2016 elections and the president’s own propensity not only to violate norms but even the law.

The prediction was right, if the timing was wrong. Now, however, the United States is in the thick of a constitutional confrontation between the president and the House of Representatives that could extend all the way through the elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump managed to survive the Mueller report through a combination of bluster, support from his newly-appointed attorney general (which, among other duties, oversees offices similar to Korea’s Supreme Prosecutors’ Office) and a technicality. The bluster was to repeat at every turn that the report found “no collusion and no obstruction.” This interpretation of the report was echoed in an early summary by Attorney General William Barr, which managed to set the news agenda.

In fact, the report by no means exonerated the president. The second half of the over-400-page document walked through 10 episodes in which the White House might have obstructed the investigation. In half of those, it is clear that Mueller’s team found the evidence highly troubling. But the investigation operated under an important legal technicality. A Justice Department ruling stated that a sitting president could not be indicted.

The nuances of Russian interference in the election and White House obstruction were incredibly hard for the public to follow. President Trump’s phone call with newly-elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, by contrast, was simple. Moreover, the report on the conversation by an unidentified whistle-blower aligned closely with a rough transcript of the call released by the White House.

After the 18-month Mueller investigation and overwhelming evidence of Russian interference, the public had clear evidence that the president openly invited Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections.

In the phone call, Trump asks President Zelensky not to investigate corruption in general, but to look into a particular case: a company on which Hunter Biden — the son of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden — sat as a board member. Moreover — and here, the full story is yet to be revealed — it appeared that the Trump administration withheld crucial military assistance from Ukraine just prior to the phone call. This would suggest not only a totally inappropriate request, but a quid pro quo as well. “Help me weaken my most challenging Democratic rival, and we will pay you off with much needed aid.”

The very simplicity of the storyline has made it difficult for the president to control the narrative. The leadership in the House had no choice but to begin an impeachment inquiry. There is a myriad of other actions by the president that might constitute an impeachable offense. But this case is too brazen to ignore.

The story is morphing day by day. In addition to the initial bombshell, there is evidence suggesting deeper malfeasance on the edges of the president’s team, including outright corruption. Two associates of Rudy Giuliani — mayor of New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks and now the president’s private lawyer — have been indicted on violation of campaign laws. The charges includes funneling money into the president’s campaign from Ukraine. And over the weekend, news broke that Giuliani himself may be under investigation.

These potential crimes tie back to Ukraine as well and include apparent efforts to protect corrupt firms from which the indicted parties — and others — hoped to profit. While Joe Biden as vice president was seeking the dismissal of corrupt Ukrainian officials, the coterie of people around the president is doing the opposite: seeking to enlist the Ukrainian president in chasing down conspiracy theories related to the Bidens rather than those that may involve his own campaign.

None of the possible outcomes is appealing, and all will necessarily take a toll on U.S. foreign policy and standing in the world.
It is possible that the president will be able to obfuscate and stonewall Congress, surviving the charges until the election of 2020. But to do so, he will have to escalate the rhetoric against the legislature and his opponents, further polarizing a deeply divided country. The impeachment by the House, rather than providing closure, will simply serve to rally Democrats and Republicans around what will be a bruising and vicious election campaign.

But we cannot rule out a different possibility: that the president’s responses reveal more and more clearly his fundamental unfitness for office. The wall of support for Trump — the roughly 35 percent of the electorate that embraces his combative style — has to date held up. But as evidence mounts and the stress on the president generates more and more questionable policy choices — such as the withdrawal from northern Syria — support could weaken sharply. More moderate Republicans and those in divided districts could start to desert the sinking ship. Support for impeachment, and even for removal from office could rise. Even with a positive vote in the Senate, the presidency is so weakened that pressure for him to step down could mount.

I should emphasize the obvious: None of the president’s opponents take any real pleasure in these unpleasant options. But the sooner this is resolved, the better. And not only for the United States but for its long-suffering allies as well.