Trump's phone call: the view from Ukraine

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has finally announced that the House is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry after reports surfaced that Donald Trump called on a foreign power to intervene in the upcoming election. Trump placed a hold on $391 million in aid to Ukraine just over a week before a July phone call in which he apparently urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden—the son of former US Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's likely opponent in next year's race. The transcript of that call (not, apparently, verbatim) was released by the White House Sept. 25.  Trump of course called the impeachment inquiry "the single greatest witch-hunt in American history," and tweeted that the inquiry is PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT (all caps). (Jurist)

This pretty clearly constitutes use of military aid to Ukraine as a bargaining chip—or an outright bribe. Details of how Ukraine's internal war became a football in American politics are provided in a video "explainer" and related coverage by Kyiv Post.

It is now confirmed that in the July 25 phone conversation between Trump and Zelensky, they discussed a possible Ukrainian investgation into Hunter Biden as well as into Crowdstrike, the cybersecurity firm that apparently traced the 2016 DNC hacks back to Russia. This "bizarre" second item was evidently based on misinformation. CNN reporter Daniel Dale wrote on Twitter that in 2017 Trump said he had "heard" that Crowdstrike is based in Ukraine and owned by a wealthy Ukrainian. In reality, the company's headquarters are in Sunnyvale, California.

Trump specifically called upon Zelensky's government to cooperate with Rudolph Giuliani—who is Trump's personal attorney, and holds no position in the US government.

Earlier this year, Giuliani made several serious accusations against Biden and the Ukrainian government. As Kyiv Post states: "If proven, these accusations might help Trump win re-election in 2020. But there's a problem: The claims aren't backed up by any evidence." 

Giuliani claimed, first, that Biden as vice president pressured Ukraine to fire its then-prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, who was investigating corruption claims against Burisma Holdings, the country's largest oil and gas extraction company. Hunter Biden was at that time serving on the Burisma board (he stepped down earlier this year). Giuliani also claimed that Ukrainian officials conspired to help Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US elections. Kyiv Post dryly states: "For now, we will only focus on the first accusation becuase you can only disprove so much conspiracy theory in one video."

Burisma is owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, a Ukrainian businessman and Kiev's former natural resouces minister who after leaving office was investigated for money laundering, illegal enrichment and other such sleaze. However, the investigations have by now either been closed, downgraded to tax-evasion cases, or languished without action. 

There was no investgation into Hunter Biden. In 2016 Biden indeed pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin. But Biden was hardly alone in calling for the ouster of Shokin, who was widely accused of failing to prosecute official corruption. By the time Shokin stepped down in April 2016, after just 14 months in office, he was "one of the most unpopular figures in Ukraine." Anti-graft activists, non-profit government watchdogs and top members of the ruling coalition in parliament were all calling for Shokin to be fired. 

In March 2019, Yuriy Lutsenko, Shokin's successor, gave an interview to John Solomon, a "controversial" contributor to news outlet The Hill. Lutsenko told Solomon that Biden had pressured the Ukrainian government to fire Shokin in order to protect Burisma. At the time of his interview, Lutsenko was on the way out, and probably knew it. Then-President Petro Poroshenko was headed for a spectacular electoral defeat. Lutsenko "was likely angling to keep his job in a new administration by gaining the support or Trump's people. With little knowledge of Ukrainian politics, Solomon appears to have taken his claims at face value." 

For now, Ukraine has not opened an investigation into Hunter Biden, and Zelensky's administration appears to be playing down the issue. His administration has denied that there was any "pressure" from Trump.

Which may be the price of keeping US military aid coming. Given Trump's perceived closeless to Russia, it's an irony is that his administration went further with its aid to Ukraine than the Obama administration by deciding to provide Kiev with lethal weapons. In 2017, Trump announced his intent to provide Javelin anti-tank missiles. By the time the Javelins were dispatched, however, Russian armor had pulled back from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has stalemated into trench and bunker warfare. As Defense News states, the military assistance still sent Ukraine "a powerful signal of American support, particularly when the US is not obligated to defend it, as it would a NATO ally." Similarly, the blocking of the aid sends "a signal to Russia that the US is not as concerned about Russian occupation of Ukraine."

Ukraine has lost 13,000 of its people since its conflict with Russia began in 2014.

'Witness intimidation' via Twitter

Trump notoriously dissed Marie Yovanovitch via Twitter during her Congressional testimony about the "smear campaign" that the president's allies successfully used to oust her as ambassador to Ukraine. Some excerpts from the Daily Beast account...

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the point person for the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, stopped a line of questioning to ask Yovanovitch what the effect would be on her and future impeachment witnesses. "I can't speak to what the president’s trying to do," said Yovanovitch, "but I think the effect is to be intimidating."...

[I]n May 2019, the State Department recalled Yovanovitch, a move that shocked U.S. diplomats. Career department officials summoned her home so she would not suffer the indignity of being fired by a Trump tweet. The fateful call from the State Department came, testified Yovanovitch, on the night she was hosting an event honoring a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who was killed in an acid attack...

"Perhaps it was not surprising that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of a desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me," Yovanovitch said Friday. "What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador. How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?"

Trump becomes third US president to be impeached

After hours of short speeches, the US House of Representatives voted Dec. 18 evening to impeach President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

The historic vote followed party lines with Republicans voting against impeachment and only one independent voting for it. Two Democrats, Representatives Collin Peterson and Jeff Van Drew, opposed the first article on abuse of power, leaving a final vote 230 to 197. On the second Article, for obstruction of justice, the final vote was 229 to 198 with another Democrat, Representative Jared Golden, joining those opposed to impeachment.

Democratic presidential candidate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, voted present on both articles. In a statement, Gabbard expressed support for continuing the impeachment inquiry but maintained concerns about "further divid[ing] our already badly divided country."

In response to the impeachment process, Trump sent a six-page letter on Dec. 17 to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In his letter, he called the impeachment "an unprecedented and unconstitutional abuse of power," that was nothing more than an "illegal, partisan coup."

This vote triggers a trial in the Senate, which will be overseen by Chief Justice John Roberts. It is expected that the trial will begin in January. (Jurist)

Putin has Trump's back on impeachment.

From NPR, Dec. 19:

Halfway across the world from Washington, D.C., where President Trump on Wednesday became just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, Trump's counterpart in the Kremlin made clear that he has the American president's back.

During his annual marathon news conference in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the charges against Trump as "completely made up."

"The Democratic party, which lost the elections, is now trying to revise this history through the means that they have at their disposal — first by accusing Trump of collusion with Russia. But then it turned out there was no collusion," Putin said Thursday during the hours-long event, echoing the arguments put forth by Trump and his Republican colleagues in Congress. "It could not form the basis for impeachment, and now there is this made-up pressure on Ukraine."

GAO: withholding Ukraine aid was unlawful

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the agency tasked with auditing the federal government and the legality of its activities, found Jan. 16 that the freeze on military aid to Ukraine that has been at the center of impeachment proceedings into President Trump was unlawful. The agency's analysis determined that when the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) withheld funds that had been apportioned by Congress, it violated the 1974 Impoundment Control Act.

"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA," the decision states. "The Constitution grants the President no unilateral authority to withhold funds from obligation."

The decision comes on the same day that the Senate begins trial proceedings in the impeachment of Trump. Charges of Trump's abuse of power include accusations that he ordered the freeze on military aid to Ukraine, and withheld a meeting with the Ukrainian president, while seeking to get the Ukrainians to take public steps that would benefit his re-election. The Trump administration has asserted that nothing about the way they delayed the funds was untoward, and report may create new challenges for Trump's defenders.

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget responded to the GAO report and disputed its findings. (Jurist)

Trump acquitted on both articles of impeachment

The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump ended with an acquittal for both articles of impeachment. The Senate has fallen short of the necessary two-thirds vote required to convict and remove Trump from office, with the final vote being. 48-52 on abuse of power, and 47-53 on obstruction. The change in votes between the impeachment articles came from Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. Because of this, Romney has become the first senator in history to vote to convict a president of his own party in the impeachment process, voting Trump guilty for abuse of power.

Trump tweeted a video shortly after the conclusion of the trial, expressing his satisfaction with the ultimate result. (Jurist)

White House post-impeachment purge

Within hours of each other, the White House removed two of the most crucial witnesses against Trump in the investigation that led to his impeachment for abuse of power. Late today, news emerged that Trump had ordered the recall of Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union—"effective immediately," the ambassador noted in a statement. Hours earlier, the White House escorted out Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine policy officer on the National Security Counsel—along with his twin brother Yevgeny, who was not an impeachment witness. (Politico)