Did Donald J. Trump break the law by requesting assistance from a foreign government to discredit former Vice President Joe Biden, in this case Ukraine? Or does the president have the authority to solicit such support regardless of the source? If the president is guilty of breaking the law, what is the proper remedy: acquittal, impeachment, censure or removal from office?
On these questions, the fate of the republic may weigh in the balance.
One danger is that the perennial hunt for seeking out wrongdoing to prove guilt has now reached a new destructive level in American politics. Facts, truth and reality have become distorted, manipulated or contorted into weapons to win political battles. In a more idealistic age that perhaps never really existed, people were entitled to their own opinions. But no one was entitled to their own facts. Likewise, democracies are under grave threat when truth is the first casualty.
By most accounts, the biggest current serial abuser of fact, truth and reality is the president. The Washington Post has detailed some 10,000 incidents thus far, when the president has, charitably, been reported as less than honest. Democrats are not innocent either. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is far from a non-partisan participant. And when truth or fact can be labeled “fake news,” or as “alternative facts,” can a democratic system of government work?
One answer is that government will fail. The Vietnam War is a starting point. For well over a decade, Democratic and Republican administrations knowingly lied, beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed nearly unanimously by both houses of Congress over an attack that never took place. Later, the Watergate cover-up was based on lies.
While certain former members of George W. Bush’s administration are still shameless about supporting the Iraqi invasion in 2003, the White House did not, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conclude, “just get it wrong.” Facts, truth and reality were manipulated to formulate false and illegitimate arguments for going to war. Weapons of mass destruction and fabricated Iraqi ties to al-Qaida simply did not exist. Cynics will argue that all governments lie or distort truth, facts and reality to serve their policies, interests and actions.
The question is whether a certain point exists or may be reached when this disregard for facts, truth and reality will or can prove fatal to the democratic process. The United Kingdom is ahead of America in this in how it deals with Brexit. Brexiters, led by Dominic Cummings, now senior adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, lied to the voters over what the European Union was costing Britain every day. That falsehood is not the same as making empty campaign promises that are unverifiable such as “building a wall and having Mexico pay for it,” or nearly a century ago, promising all “a chicken in every pot.”
The impeachment inquiry over Ukraine has launched the United States on a path where it, too, will confront whether facts, truth and reality are relevant to its politics. One sinister symptom is Trumpites, who are now claiming Sen. Mitt Romney is involved in Ukraine-gate in order to distort and confuse the issues by making these ludicrously false charges.
The critical issue has nothing to do with whether a quid pro quo was offered by the White House. To repeat, did or did not Trump solicit foreign help to uncover wrongdoing to impugn Joe and Hunter Biden in violation of American law?
Will the inquiry answer this question unequivocally? In any inquiry, errors, mistakes and wrongdoings will be uncovered. But will this evidence be sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if facts, truth and reality are absent — or if it leads to a credible finding of innocence? And if the law was broken, what should the penalty be?
The Constitution gives no guidance. Nor does precedent nor history help. To make matters worse, both parties are locked in a life-or-death political struggle over presidential conduct. But can any polity or public tolerate an outcome when facts, truth and reality will be cynically manipulated for the political purpose of deposing or exonerating its leader? And unlike and more damaging than Watergate, is the absence of any good will or trust between the parties.
If truth, fact or reality no longer exist in a political system, on what basis can anyone responsibly vote or decide guilt or innocence? Britain faces a different aspect of this crisis now. America will soon confront this diabolical dilemma as this inquiry unfolds.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts.” Follow him @harlankullman.