Monthly Archives: November 2019

Impeachment – Who Should Testify?

In keeping with their desperate and ill-conceived defense of the indefensible president, Republicans have submitted a list of proposed witnesses they claim should be called to testify in next week’s public hearings on the impeachment of Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, the list includes the heretofore anonymous whistleblower who first revealed the president’s treachery in trying to leverage Ukraine’s president to publicize an investigation of Joe Biden by withholding Congressionally-approved aid. Republicans also want testimony from Biden’s son and random others.

Of particular interest, however, is the omission of most of the administration personnel with actual knowledge of the president’s demands, including, most notably, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and appointed “fixer” to replace the disgraced and jailed Michael Cohen.

How should Adam Schiff, who chairs the House investigation, respond to these requests?

The issue in the hearings – the only issue – is whether the president of the United States committed impeachable offenses. The witness list, therefore, should consist only of people who can present factual information about that question. The whistleblower is not such a person because his report of the president’s wrongdoing was obtained from others who almost certainly will testify about their firsthand knowledge of what transpired.

I think of the whistleblower as similar to a person who hears others shouting “fire” and calls 911 for the fire department to report what he heard. He can’t say there was actually a fire or any details because he didn’t see it. He heard from others who saw it and he took action to help. Therefore, in the ensuing investigation of the fire, his testimony would at most establish that someone shouted “fire,” but he could not testify about the details of the fire he didn’t see. His testimony would be essentially useless on the origin of the fire, how it spread, who fought it, etc. If he chose to be identified, he might be hailed as a hero but his information about the fire itself would be useless. An imperfect analogy, I suppose, as most analogies are, but sufficient to make the point.

The Republican demands for exposure of the whistleblower are an essential element of the only “defense” Trump has – distraction from the central and only real question: the president’s conduct in connection with aid to Ukraine and the 2020 election interference he sought from a foreign government. The same is true about the demand for Hunter Biden’s testimony. Republicans want to create a sideshow about alleged corruption in the Biden camp which, even if true (and it has not been shown by evidence from any credible source), is not relevant to the president’s attempt to obtain foreign interference in the election. It is the president’s conduct, and no one else’s, that is at issue in the impeachment process.

I well understand that, when push comes to shove, Trump’s defenders will argue it was a legitimate exercise of presidential foreign policy authority to try to ferret out corruption by a person who was Vice President at the time. However, the evidence is clear, and mounting with every passing witness, that the sole purpose of Trump’s Ukraine maneuver was to help him defeat a domestic political opponent in 2020. Absent Biden’s prominent standing among the top challengers in 2020, Trump would have had no interest whatsoever in Biden’s involvement in Ukraine.

The answer to the question posed, then, is straightforward: individuals with direct knowledge of Trump’s conduct should testify. This is the investigative phase of the impeachment process and the sole issue is the president’s conduct. If Republicans want to produce witnesses to testify about Trump’s character, in mitigation of the possible penalty, that testimony will only be relevant in the Senate trial where the issue is conviction (or not) based on the evidence adduced in the House process. It is laughable, of course, that Republicans would introduce character evidence in the Senate, as that would create the opportunity for full exploration of Trump’s personal conduct in a host of areas, including defrauding charities, cheating the military and many others. Such a development would not deter the Republican majority from finding Trump “not guilty” but it would add to the ammunition available to the Democratic nominee in the 2020 campaign. The Senate trial, managed by #MoscowMitch, will be a brief affair with a foregone conclusion.

An overarching question remains as to how broad the House articles of impeachment should be. There are reported indications that Democrats are planning to limit the articles to the Ukraine situation. I am speculating, but must assume the rationale for that is to anticipate and undermine the argument that the impeachment process is just political revenge and an attempt to undo the election of 2016.

That would be a huge mistake. It would allow Trump to escape the findings of the Mueller investigation that Trump committed at least 10 acts of obstruction of justice. Prior posts in this blog covered the details. If the issue is going to be presented of criminal acts by the president, and there is an entire bag full of evidence of at least 10 such crimes in addition to the Ukraine scenario, limiting the charges will be interpreted by Republicans, and possibly the electorate, as proof that the Mueller Report was wrong and that Trump is innocent. The evidence of Trump’s guilt is overwhelming and he has thus far produced nothing substantive and relevant that could defeat that evidence.

Of course, in anticipation of the public hearings next week, Trump has announced he “may” issue a “transcript” of another Ukraine call. When? Why, Tuesday, of course, the day before the hearings begin. Classic Trump deflection and distraction. The first release of the “notes” from the call with President Zelensky were a disaster for Trump as those notes established the very crime he had denied. The second release will be more suspect since Trump is now in more serious trouble than he ever imagined and he likely will use the second call notes to try to repair the damage. I have previously written about the problem of calling these reports “transcripts” and the concerns expressed there are even more serious in the promised second release. CNN, among others, continues to misuse the term “transcript” to describe these notes, the original source of which are locked away in an ultra-secure computer somewhere in the White House.

A final point – the refusal of the Trump administration to produce witnesses subpoenaed by the House committees has led to multiple legal proceedings designed to test the extent to which the Executive Branch can claim, as this administration has, “absolute immunity” from Congressional oversight. Those cases are generally being decided against the administration that will certainly want a final ruling from the Supreme Court before complying. Democrats, wisely, I think, have not taken that bait entirely. Schiff has said repeatedly that the House will simply assume that the evidence that would have been adduced from non-appearing witnesses would be adverse to the president.

Schiff’s position is entirely consistent with the way legal presumptions operate. A party who claims “Proposition A” to be true but refuses to produce evidence of the truth of “A” risks a finding that “A” is not true. Withholding evidence is, in effect, an admission. The House has every right to draw adverse conclusions from the refusal of administration witnesses to testify, especially since those who have done so have uniformly supported the conclusion that Trump did indeed try to leverage Ukraine as charged for the purpose of unlawfully securing foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Transcripts, Quids & Quos and Evasions

I continue to see media stories describing the document released by the White House that purported to be a “transcript” of the conversation in which the president of the United States tried to pressure a foreign leader into investigating a domestic political rival (Joe Biden). The same stories often use the term “quid pro quo” which translates roughly to “something for something” or “this for that.” I remain mystified and angry that experienced people whose job it is to communicate continue to misuse terms that are essential to understanding the stories they are reporting.

While I doubt any media people will read this blog post or care much what I have to say, but that has not stopped me before and it will not do so now. You might say I am writing this without the expectation of a quid pro quo. But it would be far better not to say that. Here’s why.

First, what is a “transcript?” This is not particularly mysterious, though there are different meanings for different situations. For example, in education, a transcript is “an inventory of the courses taken and grades earned of a student throughout a course of study.” https://bit.ly/2O04dD4 Anyone who has an education will likely recognize this one.

In the world of law, however, “transcript” refers to something quite specific. In fact, the proper relevant term is “transcript of record” which is a “typed or written copy of the court reporter’s notes that have been taken down during a trial.” Black’s Law Dictionary at https://bit.ly/2CrYqR7

This is a precise record of what is actually said, word for word, during the proceeding for which a transcript is being made. It is typically recorded as the events occur by a trained “court reporter” who either types into a special machine that produces tapes from which the “transcript” is printed or in more modern environments the reporter speaks into a device that records the reporter’s words. To assure precision and accuracy, the parties to the proceeding may review and propose corrections to the “transcript” before it is considered “final” and no longer subject to dispute.

Transcripts in the above sense are routinely created in “courts of record” and in depositions and formal arbitrations. A “court of record” is usually a trial court or higher but does not typically include small claims court and traffic courts where no verbatim record is created.

Note that I referred to “parties” in the plural in referring to the review/correction process. Regardless of the positions of the parties or who asked that the deposition be taken, both sides get to review the record and disputes are settled by the court. The result is that a “transcript of record” is as accurate as humans can make it: taken down and produced by disinterested professionals, evaluated by partisans and ultimately determined by a neutral authority.

You get the idea, I’m sure. A “transcript” as regards an event is a precise, accurate record of exactly what was said by the participants. Anything less formal is not actually a “transcript” and lacks the credibility of an official transcript.

For example, if I sit in on a telephone call and make personal notes of what I heard, then have someone type up my notes, no “transcript” results. Instead, there is just a typed version of my notes and there is no process by which the accuracy and precision of my note-taking is assessed and corrections made by independent parties with an interest in accuracy and precision. In this situation there is no “transcript” of the call. Even if a disinterested professional is involved in taking notes, the absence of independent review of the resulting document deprives the document of the credibility to be given to a “transcript.” In the case of Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine, there is an additional problem that a “translation” was required, adding an additional layer of uncertainty to the end product.

It follows, therefore, that the document released by the White House of Trump’s “perfect call” with Ukraine President Zelensky is not a “transcript” and should not be referred to as one by the media or anyone else. There is no basis for the conclusion that the document has the precision and accuracy of an authentic “transcript.”

At the same time, since the White House obviously believed the president’s claim of perfection for the call, the document that was released may reasonably be presumed to be the best version, from Trump’s point of view, of what occurred. As has been reported everywhere but Fox News and Breitbart, the document is clearly damning and proves that Trump is once again lying about what transpired. Numerous parties who listened in on the call have testified under oath that Trump unquestionably demanded an investigation, and public disclosure thereof, of a domestic political rival.

This brings us to the question of “quid pro quo.” The media and Republican defenders of Trump have obsessed over whether the call involved a “quid pro quo.” Here, again, we must refer to the environment of law, where this term is often used and has a well-understood meaning. As stated in Black’s Law Dictionary (https://bit.ly/36LZOMu),

What for what; something for something. Used in law for the giving one valuable thing for another. It is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding. [emphasis added]

In simple English, as applied to the Trump-Zelensky call, Trump was demanding a public declaration of an investigation of his chief political rival in exchange for the release of aid funds that Congress had previously appropriated. Still in simple English, Trump said, “if you want the money released, you must announce the investigation I want.” What for what; something for something. You do this for me and I’ll do that for you. Clear as a bright sunny day.

Reading the document released by the White House, the “best version of the call per Trump himself,” it is plain that Trump demanded something in exchange for something else. A “favor,” his word, for a favor.

The media would do well to stop calling the White House document a transcript. It is not a transcript. At best it is a summary of notes about the call. It has not been vetted by independent authorities or any outside party with an interest separate or independent from Trump.

As for the quid pro quo, why use a Latin term when simple English will do? While quid pro quo is easy to understand, the use of Latin here will only obscure the issue for many readers. Some short-hands are useful but this one, in this setting at least, is not. It is helping the Trump administration muddy the public understanding of the illicit bargain Trump sought to achieve.

Finally, there is this question, as yet unanswered by the White House: why were the records of the Trump-Zelensky call secreted in a top secret computer? If they are exculpatory, why haven’t they been released? The answer, I suggest, is that the original records would be even worse for Trump than the doctored notes falsely presented as “transcript” to the world.