Democrats' Dubious Impeachment Subtext of Treason

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Less than 72 hours before Donald Trump was impeached last month, the House Judiciary Committee released a behemoth 658-page report outlining the rationale for the final articles produced by the Democratic majority. It would be interesting to conduct a secret ballot asking members of Congress — and indeed, members of the media — to confide whether they actually read the report before the vote took place. Based on the woefully incomplete public discussion of what this impeachment really entails, one has to conclude that few, if any, bothered.

Because if they did read it, they’d know these impeachment articles were never strictly about punishing Trump for mentioning Joe Biden on a phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. That’s the popular bite-sized depiction of Trump’s purported wrongdoing, but by the House Judiciary Committee’s own telling, the scope of their impeachment went far beyond just that one narrow allegation — and is fraught with highly ideological assumptions that have so far gone largely ignored.

Even if the Senate trial fails to result in a conviction (as is exceedingly likely) the long-term implications of what the House of Representatives has already ratified by way of its impeachment vote in December are highly ominous.

For instance — and the fact that this has been overlooked is especially mind-blowing — the first article alleges that Trump “betrayed the Nation.” Grave stuff. No president has ever been impeached for “betraying the Nation” before. What does this mean, exactly? The Judiciary Committee report helpfully provides a definition of the relevant terms. In a section describing what they believe constitutes “impeachable treason,” the Democratic majority writes, “At the very heart of ‘Treason’ is deliberate betrayal of the nation and its security." There’s that phrase: “betrayal of the nation.” According to the drafters of the impeachment articles, then, Trump has been effectively impeached for treason — except the drafters presumably recognized that inserting the word “treason” in the actual text might prove a tad controversial. So instead they just heavily insinuate it, and confirm that they are charging the president with treason in supporting materials that few will ever read.

“Such betrayal would not only be unforgivable,” the report’s explication of treason reads, “but would also confirm that the President remains a threat if allowed to remain in office. A President who has knowingly betrayed national security is a President who will do so again. He endangers our lives and those of our allies.” This language is then imported into the impeachment articles almost verbatim: “Wherefore President Trump, by such conduct, has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national security and the Constitution if allowed to remain in office.”

So let’s be clear on what was done here. The Democrats set forth a definition of treason in their lengthy impeachment report, and then inserted that same definition into the final impeachment articles — except without using the actual word “treason” in the text. This would seem like a rather significant development, but most of the media discussion has blithely glossed over it.

Having established that treason was a central element of the impeachment articles, a number of troubling implications become clearer. First, in order to have engaged in treason, one must have acted to further the interests of a nation with which the U.S. is in a state of war — thereby “endanger[ing] our lives and those of our allies,” in the words of the report’s authors. Clearly, the “ally” in this scenario is Ukraine, and the “adversary” is Russia. The designation of Russia as an “adversary” is sourced to what the impeachment report’s authors describe as the official “national security policy” of the United States. (Underpinning the logic of the entire impeachment exercise is the notion that Trump defied so-called “official” U.S. foreign policy — a characterization attributed to witness George Kent in the report — as if presiding over “official” policy is the purview of unelected members of the national security state bureaucracy, not the elected president.)

The report’s authors cite impeachment witness Tim Morrison, the former National Security Council operative under Trump, as saying: "The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that they can fight Russia over there, and we don't have to fight Russia here." (Adam Schiff directly cited this quote during one of his trial soliloquies.) Central to the reasoning behind these impeachment articles, then, is the presumption that the U.S. is engaged in direct hostilities with Russia, and taking any steps to interrupt these hostilities — such as temporarily withholding (but not actually rescinding) future dispersals of military aid — constitutes a treasonous betrayal of the American people. Only in the minds of the most hardened and conspiratorial Cold Warriors does that prospect have even the slightest plausibility.

And the idea, asserted almost in passing by the report’s authors, that the lives of Americans are “endangered” by the temporary withholding of military aid to Ukraine is of course another incredibly fraught proposition, seeing as it conflates U.S. national security with that of Ukraine. Assuming that sending lethal weaponry into Ukraine’s eastern provinces actually does enhance its long-term national security (another disputed premise), the concept that U.S. and Ukrainian interests are one and the same is not some objective statement of fact but a highly ideological proposition devised to justify an interventionist U.S. policy. An illuminating challenge for these pro-impeachment advocates would be to go to Ohio and ask voters whether they believe their security interests are interchangeable with those of Ukraine. After the blank quizzical stares set in, the advocates might come to realize that this belief is a fairly niche one.

Another under-analyzed element of the impeachment articles is the assertion that Trump’s actions with regard to Ukraine “were consistent with [his] previous invitations of foreign interference in United States elections.” The objective here, then, is to emphasize that the Ukraine matter must not be understood as a standalone episode, but part of a broader pattern that heightens the urgency of impeachment. What are these “previous invitations of foreign interference”? The Judiciary Committee report again provides an answer.

“These previous efforts include inviting and welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 United States Presidential election,” the report reads. So we are now back to the Mueller investigation, which was widely presumed to have been discarded. Far from it: the report’s authors state that Trump’s conduct vis-a-vis the 2016 election confirms that there are “sufficient grounds” for impeachment. Past instances of “inviting and welcoming Russian interference” include the infamous Trump wisecrack on July 27, 2016 about Hillary Clinton’s private email server (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”). They also include Trump exclaiming, “I love WikiLeaks!” on the campaign trail and the allegation that members of the Trump campaign “were maintaining significant contacts with Russian nationals.” (Yes, Russian “nationals” are supposed to be seen as sinister, even if such “nationals” have no connection to any government body.) There is even a reference to George Papadopoulos and his purported discussion with Joseph Mifsud about “dirt” related to Hillary Clinton.

These were all core tenets of the Mueller investigation and they were all exhaustively analyzed, and summarily debunked as constituting any illicit or conspiratorial relationship between Trump and Russia. But Democrats in their zeal still managed to smuggle Mueller back in. When Nancy Pelosi proclaimed that impeachment was never fundamentally about Ukraine, but about Russia — exclaiming “All roads lead to Putin” as her justification for the endeavor — she wasn’t kidding.

Again, Democrats who voted for these impeachment articles voted not simply to punish Trump for soliciting an investigation of Biden. Rather, they also voted to impeach him for committing treason at the behest of Russia. And in turn, they ratified a number of extremely fraught New Cold War assumptions that have now been embedded into the fabric of U.S. governance, regardless of what the Senate concludes.

It’s crucial to emphasize that this is the first impeachment in American history where foreign policy has played a central role. As such, we now have codified by way of these impeachment articles a host of impossibly dangerous precedents, namely: 1) The U.S. is in a state of war with Russia, a nuclear armed power; 2) the sitting president committed treason on behalf of this country with which the U.S. is in a state of war; 3) the president lacks a democratic mandate to conduct foreign policy over the objections of unelected national security state bureaucrats.

Is the reality of what was done here going to set in any time soon?

Michael Tracey (@mtracey) is a journalist in Jersey City, N.J.



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