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Ukrainegate Risks Handing Trump Another Gift

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An impeachment inquiry is supposed to be captivating, but Ukrainegate, so far, is murky and convoluted. One problem is the lack of suspense: Whatever they may uncover about President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine, a House Democratic vote to impeach him is a foregone conclusion. Then there is the secrecy: The testimony has been conducted behind closed doors, depriving Democrats (and cable news networks) of riveting, dramatic moments, as well as the public of the opportunity to weigh the full evidence for themselves.

Representative Adam Schiff, leader of the Democratsimpeachment effort, has just vowed to start holding his proceedings in public. But it is unclear if a public hearing will surmount another obstacle: For all of the initial talk of a simple, open-and-shut case, the Ukrainegate scandal is difficult to follow and open to interpretation.

A case in point is Thursday’s apparent bombshell comments by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The prevailing narrative is that Mulvaney admitted to a “quid pro quo” wherein Trump suspended US military aid in order to coerce Kiev to investigate Trump’s bizarre theory about a DNC server. But that conclusion not only requires adopting a whole new narrative—it was a coerced Biden investigation, after all, that we are supposed to be concerned about—but taking a long answer by Mulvaney and isolating a small fragment. Asked why the Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, Mulvaney first claimed that it was primarily due to Trump’s concerns about corruption in Ukraine and insufficient financial support to Kiev from European allies.

According to Mulvaney, “those were the driving factors.” He then continued: “Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”

It is clear from that passage that Mulvaney is claiming that the “driving factors” were not what we are told he admitted to—the DNC server, which only got a “mention” from Trump “in the past.” Perhaps Mulvaney is lying—something we can never put past this (or any) White House. But that possibility does not justify erroneous characterizations of what he actually said.  

Mulvaney also drew a distinction between Trump’s efforts to obtain Ukrainian assistance with an investigation into alleged Ukrainian meddling in 2016, and an investigation into alleged corruption by the Bidens. That is a fair distinction. Although we can confidently dismiss Trump’s incoherent server theory, Ukrainians did meddle in the 2016 race with the aiming of hurting Trump’s candidacy; at the time, they even bragged about it. As the Justice Department now reviews Russiagate’s origins, it is not unreasonable for Trump to request Ukraine’s assistance with potential questions about that 2016 meddling. Nor would it be unprecedented to withhold US aid in order to compel Ukraine’s cooperation. That was, after all, the exact tactic that Joe Biden pulled to force the firing of an allegedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor in 2014.

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