Incompetence is not an impeachable offense
The problem with most conspiracy theories is that they presume too much competence on the part of the conspirators. The same may be true when it comes to President Trump’s alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine. As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., put it, “What I can tell you about the Trump policy towards the Ukraine is that it was incoherent … They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”
Graham may be right. Wednesday’s impeachment hearing certainly provided no new evidence that Trump had a coherent strategy to use U.S. security assistance, and the prospect of a presidential meeting, to get Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
The witnesses — William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent — acknowledged that they had never spoken to the president and had no firsthand knowledge of Trump’s thinking. As former independent counsel Kenneth Starr explained on Fox News, there was “no John Dean” to testify “this is what the president told me.” If anything, Taylor testified that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told him the president said on more than one occasion “no quid pro quo” and that he was effectively cut out of the decision-making process by a separate unofficial channel.
What we saw on display Wednesday were two dedicated, experienced career foreign policy officials who had been desperately trying to figure out what the president wanted — and inferring his intentions based on snippets of information from others. But their efforts to divine Trump’s desires presume that the president knew what he wanted. It’s not clear he did. His handling of Ukraine seemed less the execution of an intelligible plan than a chaotic mishmash of constantly changing urges and demands. According to Sondland, “President Trump changes his mind on what he wants on a daily basis.”
Trump surrounded himself with a toxic brew of individuals whispering into his ear and appealing to his worst instincts. His personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was filling his head with all sorts of conspiracy theories about Ukraine that made the president very hostile to the country. At the same time, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a spending hawk who doesn’t like foreign aid to begin with, was trying to get Trump to enact a larger rescission of $4 billion in foreign assistance before the end of the fiscal year — that included not just assistance for Ukraine but also development aid, economic support, military financing programs, global health programs in many countries and funding for international organizations.
At one point Wednesday, Taylor testified that then-White House aide Tim Morrison told him the “president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.” That means Trump, at one point, was considering not delivering the Ukraine aid, period — regardless of what they did on “the investigations.” Throw in Trump’s long-standing concern about burden-sharing by our European allies, and his anger over now-disproved charges that he had conspired with Russia to steal the 2016 election, and the result is the mess we see before us.
Is it possible that Trump is an evil genius who came up with a strategic plan to leverage U.S. security assistance and a presidential meeting? If so, he did an awful job. For one thing, Taylor confirmed Wednesday that the Ukrainians were not aware that their aid was on hold until they learned about it from an Aug. 29 article in Politico, more than a month after Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Taylor testified that Ukrainian officials “contacted me very concerned, asking about the withheld security assistance … At that point, I was embarrassed that I could give him no explanation for why it was withheld. It had still not occurred to me that the hold on security assistance could be related to the ‘investigations.'” So, neither he nor the Ukrainians knew about the alleged quid pro quo. And then, less than two weeks later, the Ukrainians got the quid without delivering the quo.
Maybe future witnesses will provide the smoking-gun evidence that Trump ordered them to execute a quid pro quo. But it looks as though the entire Ukraine debacle may be the result less of intent than incompetence. And unfortunately for Democrats, incompetence is not an impeachable offense.