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Opinion | Ukraine Said No to Trump’s Political Hit Job. Will G.O.P. Senators Say Yes?




Senate Republicans are threatening to give President Trump what even a foreign government knew was inappropriate: the dirtying of a political rival. What an irony it would be if Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial itself yielded the very result for which he is being impeached: the corruption of America’s election integrity by the baseless denigration of Mr. Trump’s leading rival. It’s a step Senate Republicans are wrong to push — and one Senate Democrats should consider very carefully before permitting as part of any deal for witnesses.

The Ukraine extortion scandal was intended to sully Joe Biden, Mr. Trump’s leading political rival, ahead of the 2020 election. To achieve this, the first objective was to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden. The infatuation with the announcement itself, rather than any actual investigation, shows clearly that Mr. Trump was interested only in dirtying the Biden name before a potential election face-off.

It’s astonishing that, despite Ukraine’s intense dependence on the United States for military, diplomatic and other support in the face of an existential threat from Russia and outright war on its soil, the country’s leadership by and large resisted the campaign Mr. Trump relentlessly demanded and Rudy Giuliani, Gordan Sondland and others doggedly carried out. Ukraine never actually announced an investigation that used the magic words “Biden” or “Burisma,” the name of the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.

Even a dependent and vulnerable foreign government seemed to understand the sheer impropriety of what Mr. Trump was doing; and, whether because of inherent misgivings or a sense that bending to Mr. Trump’s will would risk Ukraine’s reputation in the United States Congress and its standing with future presidents, Ukrainian leadership wouldn’t give Mr. Trump what he demanded.

How extraordinary, then, that some Republican Senators are now pushing to deliver precisely what Ukraine refused to provide. As Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial begins, Republicans like Rand Paul have insisted that, if any witnesses testify, those witnesses include Hunter Biden.

Mr. Trump himself has gone further, demanding that Hunter and Joe Biden testify. But to have any Biden testify would give Mr. Trump exactly what he sought from Ukraine. After all, neither Biden is actually a relevant witness: neither has insight into whether Mr. Trump committed the impeachable offenses of which he stands accused. That type of relevant witness — which would include John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney — is precisely the type that the president and Senate allies like Mr. Paul and Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, are resisting.

The Bidens, by contrast, know nothing and therefore have nothing to say about what Mr. Trump ordered, why he did it, or whether it constitutes a high crime or misdemeanor such that the president’s removal from office is constitutionally justified. They are, in short, irrelevant witnesses.

But if a Biden is a witness, his actual testimony would not matter because Mr. Trump, loudly echoed by his political and media allies, would endlessly insist that the Biden family’s impropriety had been proven beyond any doubt by needing to testify before the Senate about its purported misdeeds. Fox News would roll endless clips of the questions Senate Republicans would ask of either Biden while keeping the cameras on the witness, then cutting away before showing the answers. This would be enough — more than enough — to lead many Americans to believe that Joe Biden indeed had done something wrong, even if they couldn’t say exactly what it was.


That would be a dangerous infection of America’s 2020 election and an even more damaging step for American democracy over the long haul. In 2016, election interference began with Russian disinformation and continued with America’s amplifying it. In 2020, we’re already seeing election interference that begins with American disinformation and then continues with Russian social media accounts amplifying it. Testimony from either Biden would bring that disturbing trend onto the hallowed floor of the Senate.

Let’s be clear: Mr. Trump’s legal team is already deploying that tactic; it submitted to the Senate this week a lengthy trial memorandum that repeatedly perpetuates the notion that both Bidens were the ones who really did something wrong — not Mr. Trump. And it’s a tactic Mr. Trump’s Senate allies could, under the trial rules announced this week by Mr. McConnell that delay the question of whether to call witnesses, deploy strategically only after assessing how the trial’s opening portions have gone for Mr. Trump.

Ultimately, this would reward Mr. Trump’s impropriety with the very goal he has sought all along. He began this whole Ukraine saga by trying — baselessly and by abusing his public office — to dirty the Biden name. Thanks to the courage of a whistle-blower, the honest testimony of dedicated public servants and the vote of the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump stands impeached for this perversion of American democracy. For the next stage of the impeachment process to deliver into Mr. Trump’s lap the very goal that animated this entire effort in the first place would be a tragedy.

Whatever they think of Mr. Trump’s conduct, Senate Republicans should not push for the corruption of our democracy that even a foreign government refused to provide. And Democrats should resist any such push — thinking very hard, in particular, before trading Mr. Biden’s testimony for, say, the testimony of Mr. Bolton or Mr. Mulvaney. There’s no equivalence between a relevant witness and an irrelevant one. And it would be a high price to pay to fulfill Mr. Trump’s very goal that got him impeached in the first place.

Joshua A. Geltzer (@jgeltzer), a former deputy legal adviser and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, is the executive director of Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

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