After three days of boring public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, US House Democrats got something to build a case against President Donald Trump.
On the fourth day, ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that there was a quid pro quo attempt in Trump’s proposed meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in the White House.
Sondland said the meeting was tied to Zelensky ordering an investigation into Burisma, a corrupt Ukrainian gas company where the son of Trump’s possible presidential rival Joe Biden was a board member, and Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats led by Adam Schiff, chair of the intelligence committee, thought they hit a gold mine. Schiff called it a seminal moment in the investigation.
However, Sondland did not testify there was a quid pro quo arrangement tying the suspended $400 million US aid to Ukraine to investigation into Burisma and the alleged 2016 election interference by Kyiv.
When Schiff kept questioning him on this, Sondland said he had an inkling and it was just a personal guess.
Sondland said he tried to find why the $400 million aid to Ukraine was suspended but never got a clear answer. He then presumed the aid was withheld pending Zelensky’s announcement of the two investigations.
Sondland’s testimony gave something that pleased both Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats can now claim that the proposed White House meeting with Zelensky was an extortion attempt by Trump for personal and political gain. In their impeachment note, they can write that the president was trying to use a military aid already approved by Congress to Ukraine as a bargaining chip to damage Joe ahead of the presidential election.
Even if their impeachment move fails, Democrats can still use it as an election plank next year.
Republicans too have the advantage.
Recalling a conversation with Trump in September, Sondland said he had asked the president what he wanted from Ukraine. Trump said he wanted nothing, no quid pro quo. All he wanted was that Zelensky should fulfil his poll promise by cleaning up corruption.
This was the ‘seminal’ moment for Republicans.
Repeating what he had told Sondland on the phone, Trump claimed victory and said the impeachment inquiry was over. He also blasted the “fake press” for joining hands with Democrats in the witch-hunt against him.
The White House said Sondland’s testimony exonerated Trump of any wrongdoing. Democrats are conducting the impeachment inquiry only because of personal hatred for Trump, it added.
As things stand now, Republicans have an edge over Democrats in the impeachment inquiry.
None of the witnesses who testified so far have accused Trump of bribery.
Their views on the July 25 phone conversations between Trump and Zelensky do not go beyond expressions such as “unusual” and “improper”.
The transcripts of the phone conversations are in the public domain. It shows Trump has nothing to hide.
He met Zelensky in the UN and the $400 million aid to Ukraine was later cleared without any strings attached. Zelensky has not ordered any investigation into Burisma or the 2016 election meddling so far. In fact, he told a CNN correspondent this week that everyone in Ukraine is tired of Burisma.
Earlier, a Democrat and Republican who met Zelensky said he did not complain of any pressure from Trump or his lawyer Rudy Jiuliani.
Democrats seem to be making a mountain out of a mole hill. Trump’s concern over corruption in Ukraine stemmed from reports that some bad elements in Kyiv had tried to influence 2016 US presidential election. Since the president is eyeing a second term, he does not want another poll meddling in 2020.
Reports say Joe Biden’s son Hunter was not involved in the corruption scandal engulfing Burisma. If true, this shows Trump was wrong in ‘pressuring’ Zelensky to investigate the company.
However, a Washington Post report on Friday says Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman and Republican Lindsey Graham has sought documents related to Joe and his communications with Ukrainian officials when he was serving as vice-president.
Graham’s move may be to counter the impeachment inquiry against Trump.
The campaign to impeach Trump or foil it may be crucial for Democrats and Republicans ahead of 2020 elections. But the question is whether Trump committed such a serious crime to warrant an impeachment inquiry against him.
This is no Watergate. The probe revolves round a Trump meeting with Zelensky which never took place and a phone call between them which, according to the Justice Department, proved nothing.
The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry against Trump is a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.