Senator Lee, you and I will probably never agree on whether the Senate should convict Donald Trump on the charges brought by the House of Representatives. However, I hope that this open letter will persuade you to stop repeating certain falsehoods about Trump’s Ukraine scandal. A functional democracy requires that our elected representatives tell us the truth – not parrot discredited talking points.
Falsehood #1: Trump never asked Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Bidens
You have made this misleading claim on at least two occasions. On September 25, 2019, you stated “contrary to the media reports and all the hype . . . President Trump did not ask his counterpart in Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival.” You repeated this again as recently as January 22, 2020 when you wrote on your Facebook page: “The prosecutors seem desperate to believe that President Trump asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, but he didn’t. He asked Ukraine to investigate the corrupt Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.”
Taking a cue from the president, I urge you to read the transcript, Senator! In it, Trump states: “There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
The transcript specifically mentions Joe Biden. Nowhere does it mention Burisma – this is the exact opposite of what you have claimed.
Even if Trump had raised Burisma instead of the Bidens in his call with Zelensky, you are asking us to believe a fiction – that Donald Trump just happened to be concerned about this particular energy company in Ukraine, and that this had nothing to do with the Bidens. You are suggesting that Trump just woke up one morning and thought: “Burisma, that Ukrainian energy company, sure is corrupt; I better call the president of Ukraine and make sure he whips it into shape.” In a famously corrupt country, with hundreds of corrupt companies, are you really suggesting that Trump just happened to pick the one company in the world that is linked to his likely opponent in the next election? What a coincidence! As Romney put it in a related context, this certainly “strains credulity”.
Republicans have labored strenuously to create a fiction where Trump was concerned about corruption generally in Ukraine and did not want to release the aid until corruption was addressed. If so, why did Trump not mention corruption a single time in his famous call with Zelensky, even though the talking points that had been prepared for the call suggested he raise corruption? Why did Trump not have any issues with corruption in Ukraine when he released aid in the years before Joe Biden was a candidate? When a reformist president (Zelensky) had just come to power, who had campaigned on a pledge to fight corruption, wasn’t that an odd time to suddenly decide that Ukraine was more corrupt than it had been in prior years when Trump had routinely released the aid? Why was there a perplexing inability of the White House to articulate the hold on the funds when pressed? Why did the White House not challenge the certification made by the Pentagon that Ukraine had made sufficient progress combating corruption and was eligible to receive the aid, if corruption was really the issue?
Regrettably, it appears that Republicans’ misinformation campaign been successful – at least with their base. In October, only 40% of Republicans thought Trump asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens when this fact is clearly shown in the transcript and admitted by Trump. It’s easy to think the Democrats’ case is an irrational witch hunt when you have selectively rewritten the transcript of the call to remove Trump’s improper demand.
Falsehood #2: Trump did nothing wrong
You have stated: “What [Trump] did was not impeachable. It was not criminal. And I don't think what he did was even wrong.”
Reasonable minds may disagree on whether Trump’s actions rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”, but please do not insult our intelligence by claiming that Trump did nothing wrong.
Again, read the rough transcript (not your alternate reality of it). In it, Trump asks the president of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. While the United States might at times request foreign countries to assist in criminal investigations of US citizens, those investigations relate to violations of US law. In this case, Trump is not claiming the Bidens violated US law. He is instead pushing Zelensky to investigate the Bidens for supposed violations of Ukrainian law. The president is charged with enforcing US law, not Ukranian law! (If he was concerned that the Bidens had violated US law he could request the Justice Department to investigate them—he has not done so.) When asked whether any other Americans were singled out for such “special treatment”, the president wasn’t able to provide an answer.
Even the Republicans’ own witnesses emphatically believed that Trump acted inappropriately. Kurt Volker stated: "In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, 'Burisma,' as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden. I saw them as very different — the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable."
Trump, however, did not simply ask Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; he illegally conditioned nearly $400 million of vital military aid, which Congress had approved, on Ukraine announcing this investigation. This point – the quid pro quo issue – is at the heart of the Senate’s trial. Even before Sunday’s bombshell revelations in the New York Times, this quid pro quo arrangement was established by the witnesses before the House of Representatives. Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU, testified that there was a quid pro quo. Mike Mulvaney also admitted this, (before unconvincingly trying to walk back those remarks.)
The only “evidence” the White House has offered to counter the quid pro quo arrangement are the words of Donald Trump after he became aware of the whistleblower complaint. In other words, Senator Lee, do you expect us to take the self-serving denials of a famously dishonest president—a president who lied about the size of his inauguration crowd, who claimed that “there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”, and who just this week falsely claimed the House had never sought the testimony of John Bolton—over the documentary evidence and the word of respected government officials? The president lies compulsively even when his lies are easily disprovable and when the stakes are low. Should we suddenly believe him now when the stakes are high and he is suppressing the evidence that could prove or disprove his claims?
Falsehood #3: The alleged wrongdoing, even if proved could not be an impeachable offense
You have stated: “Even if you accept the allegation as they have presented, even if you accept what the other witnesses have said John Bolton would say, even that testimony isn’t enough to make a difference as to whether or not this is an impeachable offense.” Are you suggesting that holding congressionally approved aid hostage to advance one’s personal interests is not an impeachable offense? The congressionally approved aid didn’t belong to Trump – it belonged to taxpayers to advance the nation’s interest in countering Russian aggression. Trump betrayed this public trust when he used that money to get something that would only benefit himself – an investigation into the family of his main political rival. Would you agree that this type of quid pro quo was proper if the parties were switched?
Jonathan Turley, the constitutional scholar called by Republicans to testify before the House of Representative was very critical of Democrats’ impeachment case. However, he himself had a bottom line. He testified: “The use of military aid for a quid pro quo to investigate one’s political opponent, if proven, can be an impeachable offense.” Celebrity founding father, Alexander Hamilton, wrote in Federalist 65 that impeachable offenses involve the “violation of some public trust.” If the allegations are proved, would not Trump’s actions be a violation of our public’s trust? We trusted Trump to use the money for the purpose approved by Congress. Instead, he attempted to use the money to improve his personal political fortunes until he was caught and was pressured to release the funds.
Perhaps you’re not convinced that there was a quid pro quo. I agree that the record is incomplete. (The president’s unconstitutional stonewalling of Congress has left some holes in the record.) However, given the recent revelations from John Bolton (who supposedly heard firsthand from Trump that there was a quid pro quo arrangement) don’t you think that (using your words) “there is a genuine issue of material fact that needs to be litigated through witnesses in the Senate?” Shouldn’t we at least hear from Bolton? Blithely accepting the president’s denials of a quid pro quo despite the consistent evidence to the contrary and without making at least a modest attempt to seek witness evidence that was unavailable to the House, seems like willful blindness to me. You cannot claim the benefit of ignorance when the truth is within your grasp.
Falsehood #4: This is a Deep State Conspiracy
Senator Lee, in a recent Facebook video you stated: “The more I learn about this impeachment case, the more I become completely convinced of the fact that this is a manifestation of the deep state pushing back against a president they deeply despise.”
This conspiracy theory fails on its face. Gordon Sondland was a rich hotelier with no political experience who was handpicked by the president to be the ambassador to the EU after donating to Trump’s inaugural committee. Gordon Sondland was a key conduit of information between the president and the Ukrainians. He gave the most devastating evidence in the House proceedings, stating in no uncertain terms that he believed that the military aid was conditioned on an investigation into the Bidens. John Bolton was handpicked by the president to serve as Trump’s national security advisor and apparently heard firsthand from Trump that the aid would not flow until the investigations were announced. Neither of these key witnesses are from the “deep state” by any stretch of the imagination.
And are we to dismiss any concerns raised by government officials if we can find any connection in their past to the party not in power? Your claim that the impeachment case is a fiction of the deep state ignores the undisputed facts that have come to light. It is part of the Trumpian world view that any bad press is “fake news”, that any attempt at accountability is a “witch hunt”, and that any Republican who does not support Trump is “human scum”.
You yourself know well how this slander works. When you courageously challenged the briefing you received after the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, you were described as “Benedict Arnold” by Lou Dobbs. Bret Baier of Fox News claimed that critics of Trump’s Iran policy have “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Lindsey Graham accused critics of Trump’s Iran policy of playing a “game” and “empowering the enemy.” When asked specifically about your remarks, Trump stated: “If you look at what happened with Ukraine, that’s a hoax. Well, this is a hoax too,”
Think about this – you were accused of perpetuating a “hoax” because you raised justified concerns about a briefing you received on Iran. Similarly, and without any sense of irony, you imply that those who raise legitimate concerns about the Ukrainian scandal are part of a “deep state” hoax. In Donald Trump’s world, and despite the linguistic awkwardness, criticism of the Ukranian quid pro quo and the Iranian strike are both “hoaxes” by which he means, they are unfavorable to him. Please do not fall into the same facile, and intellectually dishonest trap.
Senator Lee, we will likely ultimately agree to disagree on whether Trump should be removed from office. I have no illusions that you will vote to acquit him. But for the sake of our nation, I would appreciate it if you—as one of the “de facto leaders to acquit the president”—could agree to stay true to the facts (the factual facts – not the alternative facts). If you cannot make your case that Donald Trump acted properly without twisting the facts, then maybe you should stop trying to make that case. Your constituents in Utah look to you to do the right thing during this critical time. You have shown political courage before, please show it again now.