On Wednesday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) betrayed President Donald Trump and the Republican Party by bolstering the Democrats’ partisan case for impeachment over Ukraine. Romney insisted that he had no option but to vote to convict and remove Trump because he had sworn before God to render impartial judgment on the case, and he suggested that he might have chosen differently had John Bolton been compelled to testify. Romney became the first senator in history to vote to remove a president of his own party, consciously making himself a “footnote” in “the annals of history.”
For this reason, it is necessary to rebut his claims regarding impeachment. Romney gave undue support to an impeachment argument that was incredibly partisan and weak. He effectively voted to give Trump the political death penalty for something that at most would have warranted a speeding ticket. The supposed abuses at the center of the case arguably have more to do with Obama’s administration and questions still remain as to just how orchestrated the Ukraine “scandal” was from the beginning.
In his Senate floor speech, Romney claimed that Trump “committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a ‘high crime and misdemeanor.'” Specifically, he accused trump of “corrupting an election to keep [himself] in office,” saying this is “perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
He laid out the case in four brief sentences: “The President asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. The President withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so. The President delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders. The President’s purpose was personal and political.”
“Accordingly, the President is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust,” the senator claimed.
First, Trump did indeed ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate potential corruption surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden started leading Obama’s Ukraine policy in early 2014, shortly before his son Hunter took a lucrative job at the notoriously corrupt Ukrainian gas company Burisma shortly thereafter, as Britain seized $23 million from the bank accounts of the company’s founder in a fraud case. Joe Biden would later brag about threatening to block $1 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the president to fire a prosecutor investigating Burisma.
Biden defenders claim the prosecutor’s firing had nothing to do with Burisma and everything to do with the prosecutor’s lax approach to rooting out corruption, but when a new prosecutor replaced the old prosecutor, the investigation into Burisma was dropped.
If Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor in order to protect his son, that would be an immense corruption scandal well worth investigating. Furthermore, the scheme would not necessarily violate any American laws, so it makes more sense for Ukraine to investigate the matter, rather than the U.S. government.
The suggestion that this involves “corrupting an election” is almost laughable. Democrats have argued that Trump was angling for an announcement of an investigation, hoping it would taint Biden, one of many potential rivals in the 2020 election. Yet such an announcement could not inflict any damage if the Bidens had not gotten themselves into this mess in the first place. Peter Schweizer has uncovered what appears to be heinous corruption surrounding Joe and Hutner Biden in China as well as in Ukraine, and various other Biden family members have traded the vice president’s last name for money or influence.
The strength of Romney’s argument comes from minimizing any potential Biden corruption and insisting that a Ukrainian investigation would somehow tip the scales of an election — when Biden had not even come close to clinching the Democratic nomination, and when the scandal in question had already been publicly revealed years earlier.
To bolster this argument, Romney claimed that Trump “withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so.” Ukrainian officials have insisted, over and over again, that they felt “no pressure,” and Ukraine did not know that the funds had been held up during the time Trump was supposedly using the funds to pressure them to announce this investigation. It is a routine occurrence for presidents to hold up foreign assistance, and the ultimate reason for the delay remains in dispute. Trump ultimately released the funds without Ukraine announcing any investigation — a marked contrast to Biden’s quid pro quo regarding Ukraine funds.
It is also true that Trump “delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders,” but the strength of Romney’s case depends on asserting a dubious quid pro quo. As for Obama, he refused to send any military funds to Ukraine, sending blankets and MREs instead.
Crucially, Romney insisted that Trump’s “purpose was personal and political.” In claiming this, the senator echoed the Democrats’ mindreading. Trump’s defenders have insisted that there is an alternate explanation for the president’s withholding of the aid — his skepticism of foreign aid in general and the corrupt country of Ukraine in particular. Democrats have not proven that Trump’s “purpose was personal and political,” but their anti-Trump partisanship leads them to this conclusion.
Even if Trump’s motives were nefarious, Romney has not shown how this case rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The main reason Democrats leapt to impeachment over this supposed scandal has more to do with the Trump-Russia mania than they would like to admit. The specter of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — through a pitiful social media campaign, rather than any successful attempts to change ballots or truly manipulate the process — has led Democrats to claim the high ground of “democracy” in accusing Trump of nefarious ties with foreign agents.
In what world does it make sense to say Trump was “corrupting an election” by asking Ukraine to get to the bottom of a previously reported Biden scandal? Presidents from both parties have “colluded” with foreign powers to win elections in the past with no such solid evidence of likely wrongdoing, as documented in Andrew McCarthy’s book Ball of Collusion. Obama’s administration launched an investigation into the Trump campaign on the trumped-up theory that Russian agents were infiltrating the campaign — and they did not even warn Trump about this supposed Russian threat!
Perhaps a vote to censure the president over the Ukraine scandal would have made sense, and it could have had a chance of passing both houses of Congress. Instead, House Democrats went for the jugular on a weak case, allowing their partisan bias to lead them to impute impure motives to Trump in the absence of compelling evidence.
Democrats destroyed their own case by seizing on a small scandal, depriving Trump of due process protections, rushing to impeach him in order to deal with an “imminent threat” as quickly as possible and then delaying passing the articles of impeachment along to the Senate, and turning Trump’s use of executive privilege into an impeachable offense.
After all this, Romney not only accepted their weak arguments but bolstered them by becoming the first senator in history to vote to remove a president of his own party. This is extremely significant. Any removed president is barred from holding any office of public trust in the future, making removal an effective political death sentence. For this reason, many senators who thought either President Andrew Johnson or Bill Clinton was guilty of the crimes leveled by the House in impeachment nevertheless voted to acquit the president.
I do not intend to impute bad motives to Mitt Romney, a man I deeply respect and whom I fervently supported in the 2012 presidential election. Yet it baffles me to see such a man snookered into such a historic mistake by a bad case, and it does make me wonder if there’s something nefarious going on. Rick Gorka, Romney’s 2012 campaign spokesman, said the senator was “motivated by bitterness and jealousy” toward Trump. A top Romney advisor once served on the board of Burisma with Hunter Biden.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Romney lent serious historic heft to a weak and painfully partisan impeachment case — heft the case did not deserve. At least most of the Senate rightly rejected the Democrats’ weak arguments.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.