This week, the first open hearings in the Democrats' impeachment inquiry against President Trump will happen, after several days of closed-door testimony and hundreds of pages of ensuing transcripts. We don't know, at least entirely, what witnesses will say. And the details will undoubtedly be somewhat complicated.
But the Ukraine scandal — which is what the impeachment inquiry has focused on so far — is very simple. The president abused his executive power by attempting to blackmail the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into providing political favors. Trump threatened to withhold congressionally authorized military aid until Ukraine smeared Trump's top political rival, Joe Biden, by falsely accusing him of protecting his son from a local corruption investigation, and exculpated Russia from accusations of meddling in the 2016 election by validating a goofy conspiracy theory.
Trump himself and several of his subordinates have publicly admitted to the scheme, and his White House has provided concrete evidence backing it up. That's all there is to it.
Back in September, when a reporter asked Trump about Ukraine and Biden, he confirmed that he had spoken with Zelensky about the Bidens: "The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine."
Later, when a reporter again brought up Biden and Ukraine, Trump further confirmed that he would withhold money to stop "corruption" — by which, as noted above, he means the Bidens:
Then there is the memorandum the White House voluntarily released describing the call in question between Trump and Zelensky, which contains a clear implied blackmail threat. When Zelensky asks about promised military hardware, Trump responds: "I would like you to do us a favor though," mentioning the crackpot conspiracy theory that Ukraine somehow had physical possession of DNC servers proving Democrats had framed Russia for interfering in the 2016 election. Later, Trump brings up Biden as well: "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."
Trump's acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also directly confirmed that the administration held up Ukraine aid in return for political favors — in this case the DNC server conspiracy theory. In a press conference, when a reporter told him, "what you just described is a quid pro quo," Mulvaney responded: "We do that all the time with foreign policy ... Get over it." (The Trump campaign later started selling "Get over it" T-shirts.)
Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also confirmed part of the scheme. When asked by CNN's Chris Cuomo if he had asked "Ukraine to look into Joe Biden," Giuliani blurted out: "Of course I did."
All the rest of the testimony and reporting has just buttressed this open-and-shut case. In closed-door testimony before the impeachment committees, then-U.S. chargé d'affaires for Ukraine Bill Taylor testified that "our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined by an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking and by the withholding of vital security assistance for domestic political reasons" — those reasons being Trump's demand for an investigation into the Bidens, and the DNC server conspiracy theory.
Thereafter U.S. ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland (a Trump supporter who donated $1 million to his inauguration) contradicted his earlier testimony, confirming that he had been involved in setting up the blackmail scheme: "I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks." The National Security Council's top Ukraine specialist, Alexander Vindman, also testified there "was no ambiguity" that Sondland was demanding an investigation into the Bidens, and that Zelensky could not possibly have failed to understand what Trump himself was implying: "the power disparity between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine is vast, and, you know, in the president asking for something... in return for a White House meeting[.]"
It is rather odd how the mainstream press has failed to communicate just how obvious this is. At The New Yorker, Susan B. Glasser chides Democrats for not withholding judgment until after the impeachment inquiry has concluded: "How much does anyone — on either side of this yawning national divide — care about the evidence if they know in advance how they plan to interpret it?" But of course most rank-and-file liberals aren't that interested in the details of the impeachment inquiry — all the important details are staring us right in the face! The culprit admitted to the crime, on national television!
According to the internal ideology of Important Journalism, reporters are not supposed to be partisan. And in previous scandals, like Watergate, the guilty parties have behaved evasively — thus communicating a guilty conscience that gives journalists permission to go on the attack. But when Trump just shamelessly admits to things, it leaves such reporters wrong-footed. If Trump behaves as though he hasn't done anything wrong, then they are forced to pretend as though it's a matter of dispute, even if it slants their coverage almost beyond recognition.
Sure, there are other elements of the Trump presidency that definitely deserve to be included in the impeachment inquiry — above all how he has been profiteering off the presidency. Trump has both looted public money and collected bribes from foreign countries in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution.
But the Ukraine story is still far more than enough for Trump to deserve impeachment and removal from office, and it could hardly be more straightforward. In a democracy, the head of government cannot be allowed to use his power to persecute his political rivals.
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