Democrats repeated a bizarre talking point during the House Judiciary Committee’s debates about impeachment last week: that President Donald Trump solicited interference from Russia in the 2016 election.
The articles of impeachment passed by Democrats on Friday even refer to “President Trump’s previous invitations of foreign interference in United States election.”
That might seem odd, given that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report earlier this year showed there was no Russia “collusion.”
Yet Democrats refused to accept that conclusion — which is what animates their case for impeaching President Trump over Ukraine.
The Ukraine controversy supplied, for Democrats, the “evidence” of collusion that Mueller could not find.
A disinterested observer, reading the “transcript” of President Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, would find no reference to the 2020 election.
The only moment that might have been interpreted politically was Trump’s reference to former Vice President Joe Biden “bragging” in public about firing a Ukrainian prosecutor — a prosecutor who may or may not have been investigating Burisma, a company where Biden’s son, Hunter, was a board member.
Trump might benefit politically if Biden were found to have done something wrong in the past. Biden was then, as he is today, the frontrunner in national poll averages in the Democratic Party presidential primary.
But as witness after witness testified in the impeachment hearing, Biden’s conflict of interest in Ukraine was glaring — and it was never addressed by the Obama administration. It was — and remains — a topic of legitimate public concern: Hunter Biden only resigned his board seat in April, as his father joined the presidential race.
Senior National Security Council official Tim Morrison, who listened to the Ukraine call, believed that Trump had done nothing wrong. But he knew Washington well enough to know that the mere reference to Biden would easily be misconstrued, as it eventually was.
That was why he requested the transcript be placed on a more secure server — which Democrats have cited as if it were evidence he thought Trump did something wrong, i.e. the opposite of what Morrison said in his testimony.
Democrats were primed to see Trump’s comment to Zelensky as evidence of collusion because of the way the conversation was described — second- or third-hand — by the so-called “whistleblower,” who wrote that the president “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
That is what Democrats believed Trump had done with Russia in 2016: the “whistleblower” complaint maps perfectly onto their theory.
The evidence they still cite for Russia collusion, post-Mueller, is Trump’s statement at a press conference on July 27, 2016: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.”
It was a sarcastic joke, aimed at the media, which had badgered Trump about alleged ties to Russia. The sentence that followed — rarely quoted — was: “I think you [Russia] will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” i.e. for finding the emails.
Those who wanted to believe the worst, or who lacked a sense of humor, saw Trump’s joke as soliciting Russian interference.
John Brennan, who was then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in August 2018 (titled “President Trump’s Claims of No Collusion Are Hogwash“) that Trump’s statement was a critical moment. The counter-intelligence investigation was officially launched just a few days later.
The parallels between Trump’s joke about Russia (really, about the media’s lack of interest in Hillary Clinton) and Trump’s request to Zelensky are clear. In both cases, Trump was asking about a matter of public importance in the U.S. that the mainstream media had shown no interest in investigating. In both cases, he was making a legal, and somewhat flippant (more so in the Russia case), request for information.
In both cases, Democrats heard: election.
That is why Democrats continue to refer to disproven Russia allegations in their statements about impeachment. That is why they suggest that Trump’s real intent in withholding aid to Ukraine was to strengthen Russia. That is why MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, among others on that network, continue to run nightly segments about Trump’s supposedly lenient Russia policy (which is, in reality, a reversal of President Barack Obama’s appeasing “reset”).
They can’t prove either Russia collusion or Ukraine collusion, but they have what seems, to them, a pattern. Ukraine proves Russia collusion.
Hence their argument for what Byron York calls a “preemptive” impeachment. Because Trump “solicited foreign interference” in the past, he must be prevented from doing so again. Or, as the articles of impeachment say, he “has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national security and the Constitution if allowed to remain in office.”
The “pattern” allows Democrats to overlook the lack of underlying evidence — and look past the mountain of evidence to the contrary, such as Trump sending Javelin missiles to Ukraine, or Zelensky denying any pressure.
But beyond making Democrats look foolish and vindictive — at least, when the history of this regrettable escapade is written — Democrats’ conspiracy theory has led them into two political traps from which they cannot easily escape.
One is that they have accepted that Biden did something wrong: they accuse Trump of asking Zelensky to “dig up dirt” on an opponent, which presumes Biden is, in fact, “dirty.”
The other is that case against Trump requires them to exaggerate Biden’s dominance. He was not guaranteed to remain the frontrunner; after all, Jeb Bush was still leading in July 2015.
Thanks to “Russia, Russia, Russia!”, Democrats are limping into 2020 with the damaged frontrunner they deserve.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.