The life of the Trump-Ukraine affair can be measured in days, and the most basic facts of the matter are still unknown. Yet many Democrats and their allies in the media are already renewing their calls for the impeachment of President Trump. By doing so, they are observing one of the lessons of the Trump-Russia investigation: Act before finding out what happened. Don’t wait for the end of an investigation, with its facts, details and messy inconclusiveness, to call for the president’s removal. Strike first, before things get complicated.
We found out only Wednesday what was said in the July 25 telephone conversation in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son. We don’t know what a whistleblower told the intelligence community inspector general about the conversation (although we do know that he or she did not have direct knowledge of the call). We don’t know what other evidence the whistleblower did or did not include in the complaint. And, of course, we don’t know who the whistleblower is or the circumstances surrounding his or her decision to come forward.
Nevertheless, the media is filled with the notion that the public already knows what happened. “At this point, the facts are pretty much in the open and agreed to,” Politico wrote Monday.
“Donald Trump already admitted everything you need to know about the Ukraine drama,” reported CNN, also on Monday.
If one thing is clear, it is that the public does not know everything it needs to know about the Ukraine situation.
Some administration officials urged President Trump to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky, which he died Wednesday. Through the day Monday, Trump, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, discussed his options with reporters. “I can do it very easily,” he said. “But I’d rather not do it from the standpoint of all of the other conversations I have. I may do it because it was a very innocent call on both his part and mine.”
Trump was similarly noncommittal in other statements. His hesitation about “all of the other conversations I have” reflects the advice of aides who oppose public release because doing so would mean that no foreign leader could have confidence that confidential talks with Trump would remain confidential.
Democrats demanded release of the transcript, as well as the whistleblower complaint. The intelligence committees saw it Wednesday.
“It’s something that goes beyond this phone call,” Post reporter Shane Harris said on CNN Monday. “It’s apparently not just this one incident that so alarmed [the whistleblower].”
Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau warned against releasing the transcript alone. “This is a trap,” Favreau tweeted Monday. “I would bet that Trump is focusing on the transcript because he knows it isn’t great, but not nearly as incriminating as the entire whistleblower complaint. We need the full whistleblower complaint ASAP and Democrats should accept nothing less.”
“Releasing the Ukraine Transcript Isn’t Enough,” read the headline of a Huffington Post story. “Where’s the Whistleblower Complaint?”
The commentary was in line with my report Sunday on what some administration officials who urged release were saying about the transcript:
“The officials think release of the transcript would show definitively that Trump did nothing illegal. The president’s adversaries, determined to use the issue to demand his impeachment, might still argue that he acted inappropriately, but release of the president’s precise words, the officials believe, would make it more difficult for critics to claim that Trump did something wrong.”
That gets to a fundamental fact of political investigations. They often uncover an inconclusive set of facts. Partisans can argue those facts one way or the other. There is no slam dunk, no smoking gun.
Most recently, Democrats who had accused Trump of conspiring or coordinating with Russia to fix the 2016 election were deeply disappointed by the release of the Mueller report. After all the media talk, and all the accusations, and after two years of investigating with full law enforcement powers, Mueller could not establish that a conspiracy or coordination even took place.
So now, with many of the president’s adversaries in a high state of agitation about the Ukraine story, the lesson of Trump-Russia is: Move fast. Don’t withhold judgment. And don’t wait for the results of a long, ponderous investigation. It might not produce the ending Democrats want.