By Brad Heath
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When it was over, the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump produced 135 days of partisan rancor, 17 witness accounts, more than 28,000 pages of documents and testimony, and one big loose end.
The impeachment inquiry provided a remarkable inside view of a White House effort to secure politically beneficial investigations by Ukraine’s government at a time when Trump is seeking re-election.
But – whether one ascribes the shortcoming to Democrats’ haste in their investigation or Trump’s recalcitrance – it yielded little direct evidence of what happened inside the Oval Office itself.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump in December without hearing from the aides who dealt with him directly, after Trump directed officials not to cooperate with the inquiry. The U.S. Senate acquitted him on Wednesday without hearing from them either.
In public and closed-door testimony, White House aides detailed an effort to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid and a coveted White House visit unless Ukrainian officials announced the investigations Trump sought into his Democratic political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden. That exchange was at the center of the House charge that Trump abused his power for political benefit.
But because almost none of the aides who testified had spoken to the president about the issue, their accounts left one central question largely unanswered: What did Trump himself do?
Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, appeared last week to be on the cusp of supplying an answer when The New York Times reported he had written a book claiming that Trump told him he would not restore security aid to Ukraine until it launched the investigations he wanted. Bolton said he would testify if the Senate subpoenaed him.
In his as-yet-unpublished manuscript, Bolton said Trump discussed the aid freeze with him in August, more than a month after it began. That account appeared to leave unanswered how and why Trump ordered the aid frozen in the first place, why it was ultimately restored and how closely Trump associated benefits to Ukraine with political favors.
“We have demonstrated, we believe, that the scheme was entirely corrupt,” said Representative Adam Schiff, the head of the group of House Democrats who prosecuted Trump. But he told senators: “If you have any question about that, ask John Bolton.”
In the end, Trump’s fellow Republicans in the Republican-controlled Senate suggested the answer did not really matter. Whatever Trump’s involvement, several senators said, the pressure campaign was not the type of wrongdoing for which they were willing to remove a president from office for the first time in U.S. history.
“While we can debate the president’s judgment when it comes to his dealings with Ukraine, or even conclude that his actions were inappropriate, the House’s vague and overreaching impeachment charges do not meet the high bar set by the founders for removal from office,” said Senator John Thune.
Senators also acquitted Trump of a related charge of obstructing the House impeachment investigation.
The conclusion of Trump’s trial offered a sharp contrast to previous impeachment trials, which all have led to acquittal but left little doubt about what the president did or why.
The last time senators put a president on trial — Bill Clinton in 1999 — lawmakers extracted a detailed, even lurid, account of his sexual relationship with a White House intern and the coverup that followed.
When lawmakers considered articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, they heard audiotapes from inside his Oval Office. One of those tapes was so damaging that Nixon resigned four days after its release rather than face being removed from office.
Trump’s trial ended up being less an effort to convince senators of his guilt or innocence – his acquittal by fellow Republicans was always assured – than it was an effort to persuade them to summon additional witnesses like Bolton to tie up the loose ends.
Unearthing the details of what, exactly, Trump personally did to condition security aid and a White House visit on Ukrainian investigations had been a central challenge for Democrats in their impeachment inquiry.
Trump’s administration had blocked some of the people who communicated directly with the president – acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for example – from testifying before the House.
Instead, Democrats built their case around a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. During the call Zelenskiy said Ukraine was ready to buy more anti-tank missiles. Trump replied that he should “do us a favor” and asked him to launch a pair of investigations. The Democrats’ case was bolstered by testimony from more than a dozen lower-level administration officials.
One after another they said they had no doubt that Trump would withhold both security aid and a White House visit unless Ukraine delivered the investigations he wanted.
One top diplomat, Gordon Sondland, testified that he “followed the president’s orders” when he asked Ukrainian officials to announce those investigations. He said he understood that security aid would remain on hold until they did. He added that he had not heard this from Trump but rather presumed it from what he knew about the conditions for a White House visit by Zelenskiy.
Instead, he said Trump instructed him and other officials to work with Giuliani, who was pursuing investigations as Trump’s personal lawyer, when dealing with Ukraine.
Trump’s lawyers dismissed nearly all of that testimony as hearsay. Sondland’s “mistaken belief does not become proof because he repeated it many times,” Trump lawyer Mike Purpura said at the impeachment trial.
Democratic prosecutors retorted that senators should then subpoena Bolton and others who dealt directly with Trump. Republicans blocked that in a 51-49 vote against hearing from additional witnesses, leaving unresolved the question of precisely what Trump said and did.
(Reporting by Brad Heath. Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)