At the heart of Trump’s impeachment is a fight over meaning, not facts

Oh say can you see?
Oh say can you see?
Image: Ephrat Livni
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The full House of Representatives voted today on articles of impeachment against US president Donald Trump. The vote—230 to 197—went along party lines, with most Democrats finding both an abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. One Independent joined the Democrats, Justin Amash of Michigan. Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard voted that she was present but did not vote yes. Republicans objected overwhelmingly.

In a blistering dissent accompanying the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic majority report in support of impeachment, the minority assailed the form and substance of the Democrats’ case against the president. The right contends that the left is ignoring important “exculpatory evidence” because it’s preoccupied with “debasing” the president, not the nation’s best interests.

Yet Democrats say that the facts are undisputed. Trump abused the office of the president to advance his personal political interests. They lay out a sequence of events, statements, and interpretations, supporting their contentions, with an explanation of what inferences they drew from facts that were proven.

It is this space between fact and inference that anyone interested in the truth should be examining now.

But in a post-truth society, even the most basic notions become confusing. With all the back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, it’s fair to ask: What is a fact, how is it established, and what does it mean when it is? How should we read the facts?

Just the facts ma’am

A fact is a thing that happened and can be proven objectively. For example, it is a fact that Trump spoke to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 and asked him to “do us a favor.”

This is truly undisputed. It’s proven by the reconstructed record of the call that Trump himself released, as well as by testimony taken during the inquiry. No one is arguing that this call didn’t happen or that Trump didn’t ask for a favor.

What people reasonably debate is how to interpret the facts. Do they show an intent to use his public office for personal gain?

Trump says the call was “perfect” and innocent. It doesn’t indicate a corrupt intent, Republicans contend in their dissent. They point to Trump’s assertions of innocence and say he withheld funds appropriated for military aid to Ukraine because he wanted to make sure Europeans also contributed, not to leverage the office of the president for personal gain, as Democrats claim.

Also, the aid was ultimately released, and Ukrainian officials have said they felt no pressure, so the proper inference, Republicans argue, is that Trump’s request was made on behalf of the nation, not himself, and that he committed no impeachable offense.

Their fight, then, isn’t really about the facts here but what they mean.


Democrats counter that they are under no obligation to take Trump’s claims of innocent intent at face value in light of many other facts. The president isn’t credible, they say. He refused to cooperate in the investigation, thwarted their efforts, and is coming up with “after-the-fact justifications” for his actions.

To support this position, they note that Trump didn’t previously withhold military aid to Ukraine although the prior president, ousted for corruption, was considered problematic. Yet when Zelensky, who’s considered a “true reformer” intent on ridding his country of corruption, came into power, Trump pressured him by withholding aid. This, the left says, makes no sense.

Democrats also point to the timing of Trump’s intensified concern about Ukraine. It happened to coincide with the entry of his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, in the 2020 presidential elections.

Moreover, Trump could have pushed for investigations through official channels. Instead he used his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to encourage Ukrainian action through backchannels, indicating a personal interest rather than a governmental one.

Finally, they note that Europeans do contribute substantial amounts of aid to Ukraine and that the Trump administration only inquired into their allocations after becoming aware of suspicions about his delay in releasing the American aid.

These facts suggest that Trump’s intent wasn’t innocent, Democrats say, and that his justifications were fabricated retrospectively.

Their conclusion that Trump’s intent was corrupt is indeed based on inferences, as the Republicans have complained. But that’s how all cases are made—by establishing facts and drawing reasonable inferences from them based on other evidence, then attempting to convince a jury or judge of the validity of this point of view.

Anyone is free to disagree with either party’s reading of the facts. But the Democratic case isn’t based on inferences built on hearsay and speculation, therefore worthy of disdain, as the Republicans claim. The case for impeachment is based on facts that establish direct and circumstantial evidence of Trump’s corrupt intent.

This evidence must be weighed against Trump’s claims of innocence—which haven’t been established under oath at a hearing. Sadly, whether Republicans can establish his innocence objectively probably doesn’t matter because the impeachment is expected to be decided along purely political lines.

In other words, the process here won’t necessarily establish any truth, arguably making the impeachment an empty exercise that divides Americans even more ahead of the 2020 elections.

What’s the point?

So is there any point in going through the motions? If truth is entirely relative and subjective, then no amount of evidence would make Americans on either side of the political divide change their minds on impeachment, the answer is “no.” There is no point.

Still, not going through the motions, not even trying to establish whether the president abused his power, just because minds are closed and politicians are expected to vote along partisan lines would mean giving up on the notion of truth altogether, putting outcomes before constitutional process, and political practicalities before principle. And that would be disastrous.

At this point, all Americans, including the president, should at least be pretending that they want to establish what the facts really mean, instead of railing against the impeachment proceedings.