During the debate over the articles of impeachment today, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson claimed that top officials in Ukraine did not know until late August that the White House was withholding military aid.
“Let me correct something else,” Johnson said. “My good friend and trusted friend [Rep. Zoe] Lofgren said before the break at some point that the Ukrainians knew about the hold on the aid, but the fact is senior Ukrainian government officials did not know about the delay in funding until August 28th.”
What we know: It’s unclear when exactly Ukrainian government officials knew that nearly $400 million in military and security aid was being withheld. But there is evidence to suggest that some of them suspected there was an issue with the funding as early as July 25, the same day as President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
According to testimony from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, before the House Intelligence Committee, some members of her staff told her that they had received queries about the aid from Ukrainian officials on July 25.
Cooper did not, however, know if the Ukrainian officials were aware of a hold on the aid or were just checking in.
The New York Times has reported that, according to Olena Zerkal, an ex-top official in Kiev, members of the Ukrainian government knew the aid was being held up at some point in late July, but Zerkal could not recall the exact date.
It wasn’t until Politico reported in late August that Trump was withholding military aid to Ukraine that top Zelensky adviser, Andrey Yermak, texted Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, with a link to the article and a message “we need to talk.”
Even in the midst of a divisive and angry impeachment proceeding, Republicans and Democrats somehow find a way to make common cause when it comes to spending and borrowing more and more money. The Washington Post reports that “top congressional negotiators said Thursday they had reached a deal in principle to approve $1.3 trillion in federal spending for 2020, likely averting a government shutdown next week.” This is the bipartisanship that so many high-minded politicos and journalists call for, and it’s killing our economic future (more on that in a moment).
The House of Representatives, controlled by the Democrats, just passed a “progressive” defense spending bill that totals $738 billion, or “$120 billion more than what President Obama left us with,” in the words of Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.). Is America under $120 billion more military threats since January 2017? Of course not, but why live in reality when make-believe is so much more fun? The bill is considered progressive only because it includes “paid parental leave for federal workers,” a long-sought goal of liberal Democrats and, not unimportantly, President Trump, who is urging “don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!” Next week, the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to pass similar legislation that includes the family leave plan along with money to establish Trump’s new Space Force and “the largest pay increase for uniformed service members in 10 years.”
So, despite impeachment proceedings and other disagreements, Congress and the president are pulling in the same direction and digging deep into the pockets and couch cushions of current and future taxpayers. Such bipartisanship doesn’t come cheap, of course. The deficit for fiscal 2019, which ended in September, was $984 billion. Total outlays clocked in at $4.447 trillion, with revenues reaching $3.462 trillion, both record amounts. For the first two months of fiscal 2020, deficits came in at $342 billion, a 12 percent increase over the same period in a previous year despite revenues climbing by 3 percent. Like GM before it was bailed out, America is losing money despite bringing in more cash than ever before.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is now projecting annual deficits in excess of $1 trillion in each of the next 10 years:
Just a few years ago, such a scenario seemed unimaginable, at least rhetorically. Even while Democrats were often identified as the party of out-of-control deficit spending (fact check: both parties are terrible on this score), they at least paid lip service to the need to rein in the national debt. During its 2008 national convention, for instance, virtually every major figure in the party inveighed against “dangerous fiscal irresponsibility” (to quote Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana). The party’s official platform promised:
We will maintain fiscal responsibility, so that we do not mortgage our children’s future on a mountain of debt.
“What I’ve done throughout this campaign is to propose a net spending cut,” Obama said in his final pre-election debate with McCain [in 2008]. “I have been a strong proponent of pay as you go. Every dollar [in spending] that I’ve proposed, I’ve proposed an additional cut so that it matches.”
Of course, once Obama and the Democrats took power, they stopped talking about fiscal responsibility and all that. The Republicans took up the slack and constantly criticized deficit spending, right up until the moment they regained control of the purse strings.
In a 2012 paper, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff define a “debt overhang” as a situation in which the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90 percent for five or more consecutive years. After looking at 26 debt overhangs in 22 advanced economies since 1800, they conclude that “on average, debt levels above 90 percent are associated with growth that is 1.2 percent lower than in other periods (2.3 percent versus 3.5 percent).” These overhangs last a long time—in their sample, the average lasted 23 years—creating a cumulative loss in economic growth that’s “nearly a quarter below that predicted by the trend in lower-debt periods.”
That work has been validated by left-wing economists associated with the University of Massachusetts, who were critiquing an earlier version of Rinehart and Rogoff’s work that had mistakenly found that debt overhangs reduced growth below zero. The critics conclude that “the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent.”
We crossed that Rubicon back in 2010, folks. The only difference is that these days, nobody seems to care anymore. You don’t have to believe there’s something magical about a 90 percent threshold to grok the idea that unpayable government debt has a negative effect on growth. The people who comprise markets recognize that a day of reckoning will eventually come and government will do some combination of raising taxes, reducing services, or inflating currency. None of those outcomes, and especially the unpredictability they promise, is good for economic growth. Which helps explain why the CBO predicts that average annual growth between 2019 and 2029 will be 1.9 percent. That figure compares to 3.2 percent average annual growth between 1950 and 2018.
But weak growth isn’t everything, right? Before we enter a decade of sluggish economic activity, let’s at least feel good for a few days that Republicans and Democrats can pull together to spend money we don’t have on programs that we don’t need.
Another chapter in the House impeachment melodrama unfolded this week. The proceedings shifted from Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee to the Judiciary Committee, which is run by another Democratic member of Congress, Jerry Nadler of New York.
Last month, Schiff’s failed approach was to bring down the president by bringing in a whole cavalcade of intelligence and foreign policy professionals and having them explain how their feelings had been hurt by the bad orange man.
Nadler tried a new approach. His strategy was to treat impeachment like a faculty meeting at Wesleyan. He produced a long line of academics with impressive-sounding credentials and had them condemn the president.
And if you weren’t paying close attention, you might have been impressed. A highlight was when Nadler asked witness Noah Feldman what the Framers of the Constitution would have thought about President Donald Trump’s behavior. Feldman answered: “I believe the Framers would identify President Trump’s conduct as exactly the kind of abuse of office high crime and misdemeanor that they were worried about.”
Madison, Hamilton, Washington. These are the same people the left would like to see dethroned, their statues knocked over by screaming college kids. If even they think Trump is rotten, then impeachment is mandatory.
Of course, once you pause and consider this all for a moment, it starts to look a little less impressive. None of the witnesses had any evidence against the president. They were instead giving you their opinions.
So why would we care what these people think? Apparently, we are supposed to care because of their credentials, which enable them to give a fair, balanced, and informed opinion on how America ought to proceed. But is that real?
Well, consider the star witness, Pam Karlan. She is the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford. And before that, she clerked for a Supreme Court justice and earned three separate degrees at Yale. She has written several textbooks on constitutional law.
If there is one impressive person in this country who our system has deemed capable of making judgments that you don’t even understand, it’s this lady.
But think again. And this is a subtheme of the impeachment drama that we would like to highlight for its lasting impact. It turns out the more you know about the people you are supposed to consider impressive, the more you find out they are not impressive at all.
Karlan, for example, is not some apolitical academic. She is a political activist who has donated thousands of dollars to Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.
Donating to Democrats does not prove that Karlan is wrong. She proved that herself. She made it very clear that she was incapable of wise judgments. Instead, she made bizarre claims. She claimed that delaying military aid to Ukraine was like cutting off rescue services to Americans after a hurricane.
She also engaged in embarrassing political stunts like ridiculing a president’s teenage son: “The Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility. So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a Barron,” Karlan said. Wonder how long she practiced that one in the mirror?
Karlan’s fellow witnesses were almost as embarrassing. Feldman, professor at Harvard Law School, told lawmakers that he was skeptical of impeachment until this past summer. Suggesting, of course, that his endorsement is more legitimate. Turns out that was a lie.
How do we know? All the way back in March of 2017, the same man suggested that Trump should be impeached because of a tweet he sent accusing Obama of monitoring Trump Tower. That was impeachable, he said.
Feldman also said that Jim Comey’s memo of his conversations with Trump was impeachment-worthy, too. He even told Slate.com that the president doesn’t actually have free speech and should be impeached simply for saying things that Feldman doesn’t like.
The only witness who didn’t embarrass himself was George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. Describing Turley as a GOP witness or a right-winger or a Republican is inaccurate. He is a member of the Democratic Party. He has advocated legalizing polygamy. He wanted George W. Bush tried for war crimes.
Turley doesn’t like Trump. He didn’t vote for him. But he called an absurdity where he saw one:
My personal views of President Trump are as irrelevant to my impeachment testimony as they should be to your impeachment vote. I get it. You’re mad. The president’s mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. …
Will a slipshod impeachment make us less mad? Will it only invite an invitation for the madness to follow every future administration? That is why this is wrong. It’s not wrong because President Trump is right. His call was anything but perfect. It’s not wrong because the House has no legitimate reason to investigate the Ukrainian controversy. It’s not wrong because we’re in an election year. There is no good time for an impeachment.
No. It’s wrong because this is not how you impeach an American president.
Turley had it exactly right. This charade we are all witnessing in Washington is definitely not how you impeach an American president.
Everyone who plays poker is familiar with the “tell,” that is, a nervous tic or subtle mannerism that betrays when a player has a strong or bluff hand. I think the Democrats’ behavior this week includes several “tells” that their impeachment hand is weak, and might cause them to lose the whole political pot next year.
The first is the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that John notes immediately below. It was a big surprise Tuesday when Speaker Pelosi said the House was now ready to take up and presumably approve the new agreement, after months of delay. It may be true that the Trump Administration has made significant concessions for various special interests to gain support, but its passage will still be a large political win for Trump heading into the election campaign.
So why this major concession just now? I suspect Pelosi and other Democratic strategists can see that impeachment is not gaining traction, and moreover that refusing to take up USMCA would hand Trump a cudgel to beat up a “do-nothing Congress.” Trump’s approval ratings are way better than those of Congress, and even though the ratings of a president versus the ratings for an entire branch of government are not commensurate for a variety or reasons, the party in charge of the House can pay a real price for being purely obstructionist. Just roll back the historical tape to 1948 to see an example of this dynamic: Tom Dewey—the Joe Biden of that election cycle—thought he could cruise into the White House on the unpopularity of the crude incumbent.
The second “tell” of the week are the two articles of impeachment themselves. As Andy McCarthy notes, they are exceedingly weak: an improper use of power in his Ukraine phone call, and obstruction of the congressional investigation. That’s it? That’s all they got? Why only two? Why not throw in the obstruction of justice vibe of the Mueller Report? Why not an emoluments allegation, or something else? Previous presidential impeachment drives (Nixon and Clinton) involved at least four possible articles.
My hunch is that additional articles of impeachment would allow for more House Democrats from marginal districts to cover themselves by voting against one or two or them, and Pelosi needs to hold her caucus together to get a successful vote. There are several House Democrats who have indicated their lack of enthusiasm for the whole thing, and some calling for a mere resolution of censure instead. (The Constitution does not provide for censure against another branch, however, though it still might be politically effective for Democrats to charge next fall that Trump is “the only president ever censured by Congress.” Also, it should be added that the Judiciary Committee didn’t really devote sufficient time to backing up additional charges: they’re putting all their impeachment eggs into the Ukraine basket.)
Beyond this, one reason for limiting impeachment to these two weak items is that it makes it more likely the Republican Senate will make quick work of the matter and perhaps even dismiss the case on Day One of the Senate trial. Chief Justice Roberts won’t even have to skip lunch that day. And this becomes a political weapon for the Democrats for the election, where they are desperate to regain control of the Senate. They will tie every Republican senator who votes to dismiss impeachment to Trump. I’ve thought all along that Senate election politics played as big a role in the calculations and timing of impeachment as any of Trump’s actual deeds.
If the House had included additional impeachment counts, it would put pressure on the Senate for a longer and more substantive trial. Here’s where the two weak charges become another “tell” that Democrats are bluffing and playing pure politics. Do Democrats want a longer Senate trial? Ask yourself this: if the Senate holds a three or four-week trial starting in January, requiring the silent attendance of all senators (as the Senate rules stipulate), what happens to the presidential campaigns of Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, and Sanders? You know they want to be pounding the pavement in Iowa and New Hampshire, and not sitting silently in the Senate chamber. This is one reason Cocaine Mitch ought to threaten a long, six-day a week trial starting three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, just to see how Democrats respond. And then start spreading the word that impeachment is actually a DNC plot to smooth the way for Joe Biden’s nomination, just as the DNC tilted the playing field for Hillary against Bernie in 2016. Fun times!
Lastly, there is the question of whether the Senate ought to have a trial in which they call Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, Adam Schiff, the “anonymous” whistleblower, and others as witnesses. Trump is said to favor this, while Mitch McConnell is said to be against it in favor of getting the whole thing over with quickly. He may be right about this, but it is certainly worth deploying his own very good poker face to suggest that just maybe the Senate will call on the Bidens for an accounting of things.
The final wild card, suggested by John Yoo, is that Trump himself could demand to appear in the Senate to defend himself. You could easily see Trump doing this, to the largest TV ratings in this history of the known universe. The earth itself might stop spinning on its axis. Sure, it’s high risk, but Trump likes this kind of high risk. It would be the greatest show ever. And I’ll bet Democrats would regret the impeachment mess they created.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Democrats fretted openly about the possibility that Donald Trump, being a rather poor sport, might refuse to acknowledge an election loss.
To be fair, Trump refused to state that he would accept election results, depending on the circumstances: “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he stated in his Oct. 19, 2016, debate with Hillary Clinton. Clinton, for her part, called his statement “horrifying,” adding that he was harming American democracy.
Trump, of course, won. And Clinton spent the next couple of years suggesting openly that she had been robbed in the election. Democrats blamed Clinton’s election loss on Russian interference, on voter suppression, on anything but Clinton’s campaign performance.
That wasn’t a particular shock: After George W. Bush won the 2000 election, many Democrats continued to maintain that he was an illegitimate president.
And not much changed in the nearly two decades since: In 2018, Democrats insisted that Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams had actually defeated Brian Kemp, despite having lost by approximately 55,000 votes. To this day, Democratic presidential candidates repeat the lie that Kemp stole the election from Abrams.
Now in the run-up to 2020, Democrats are already suggesting that if Trump wins, the election will have been illegitimate.
This time, they’re pointing to Trump’s supposed attempt to gather information from the Ukrainian government on potential 2020 rival Joe Biden in return for release of much-needed military aid. In fact, Democrats state that if Trump is not impeached, the 2020 results will inevitably be deemed improper.
On Sunday, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who suggested way back in 2017 that though Trump was “legally elected,” he was “not legitimate,” doubled down: “The president, based on his past performance, will do everything he can to make it not a fair election. And this is part of what gives us the urgency to proceed with this impeachment.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week, “The president leaves us no choice but to act because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “If you have a corrupt executive who is willing to maintain power by corrupting our election, there’s an urgency there.”
Former federal prosecutor Anne Milgram wrote in The New York Times, “Who gets to pick the next president of the United States—President Trump, Ukraine, Russia or us?”
Impeachment, then, must be used without proper evidence of a crime in order to prevent Trump from stealing the election. By this logic, any suspicion of illegitimacy in an upcoming election becomes an excuse for ousting a legitimately elected president.
This is a vicious cycle: illegitimate impeachments based on perception of illegitimate elections. And with Pelosi promising that our very civilization is at stake—a contention she made over the weekend—over the outcome of the next election, we can be sure that the pressure will continue to rise.
Things are already ugly in American politics. A republic can only be maintained when the people have faith that even if their side loses an election, that election was legitimate—and only when people believe that there is a tomorrow.
With Democrats openly claiming that they can run an end-around with the electoral process because they don’t trust the results, and stating that any future loss is evidence of corruption and a representation of the end of the country, things are about to get a lot uglier.