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Barbershop: The Politics Of Impeachment


We're going to spend a bit more time on the story that led the program and is dominating conversation in Washington, D.C., and around the country. That is the impeachment inquiry announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi following revelations that President Trump urged Ukraine's leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. The contents of that phone call came out in a reconstructed transcript that the White House released earlier this week.

To remind those who may not have been following all this, this all came out because of a complaint by a whistleblower who said White House officials believed they had witnessed the president abusing his office for political gain. This is a complaint that was deemed urgent and credible by the intelligence community's inspector general. It was then sent to the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, who did not send it to Congress, as the law seems to direct, but rather to the Department of Justice. Eventually, the contents of the complaint were also made public, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this all required that the House proceed.

We thought this was an important subject for the Barbershop because that's where we talk with interesting people about what is in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us here in our Washington, D.C., studios are Mona Charen. She's a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. That's a conservative research organization here in Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to this program.

MONA CHAREN: Thanks. Nice to be here again.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Alfonso Aguilar. He is the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. That's a group that promotes conservative values within the Latino community. He also formerly worked in the administration of George W. Bush.

Welcome to you as well.

ALFONSO AGUILAR: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And joining us from Maine Public Radio is Joe Lockhart. He's the co-host of the "Words Matter" podcast, and his name might be familiar because he served as press secretary during the Clinton administration.

Joe, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

JOE LOCKHART, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you because you wrote a piece in The New York Times earlier this week. Earlier this year, you wrote in The New York Times opposing impeachment. But you've now written a piece saying that you've changed your mind. And, in fact, you say you were wrong. Why were you wrong?

LOCKHART: Well, I was wrong because I misread Donald Trump. And all of the evidence was there to see what kind of president he is, but I missed one part. I actually thought that President Trump in the aftermath of the Mueller report would be chastened by the criticism. I think he understood that that alone was not going to get him removed from office, but the idea of foreign interference and that sort of thing would keep him out of that business. The fact of the matter is that this call to the Ukrainian president that's now the center of this controversy and scandal happened the day after Bob Mueller testified on Capitol Hill.

I think ultimately for me, the change of opinion - and I've heard from a lot of Democrats around the country over the last few days who have had the same experience. But for me, it was, up until the Ukraine thing, everything was about 2016 and 2017. And I felt that those things - the collusion with the Russians, the obstruction of justice - could be dealt with and should be dealt with at the ballot box in 2020.

What changed with Ukraine is, rather than looking backwards, now we're looking forward. Donald Trump has made clear he will do whatever he needs to do, including involving foreign governments to interfere in our elections, to make sure this isn't a free and fair election. That was the bright red line for me.


LOCKHART: If we can't guarantee free and fair elections, then I think you have to try to remove him from the process.

MARTIN: So Joe's piece is kind of tough on himself. Mona, you wrote a tough piece this week for the National Review suggesting the president may not know the difference between corruption and honesty. And you also said some tough things about the people who are continuing to support him. You say that if Trump is twisted and occasionally delusional, partisans who cloak him with excuses and sympathy are exactly what Trump thinks everybody is - corrupt - which was pretty strong words.


MARTIN: So the question I have for you is, you are not a Democrat, so you're not in the business of advising them. That's not your job. But do you think that these allegations rise to the level that demands an inquiry as well?

CHAREN: I do think they had no choice. This was the kind of thing - look, when the president abuses his authority in certain areas - say, in making war on a nation or in spending or in many other respects - Congress has a way of checking him. They can defund it. They can - you know, they can push back. But in this instance, when the president is secretly shaking down foreign leaders to get dirt on his opponent - and let's be clear. The idea that the president was simply asking for an investigation by the Ukrainians - it doesn't hold water. I mean, this was an obvious demand for dirt.

The Ukrainians, first of all, were being pressured by the withholding of their military aid. Second, they don't exactly have a strong tradition of independent judicial actions. And third, it was very clear that - from the president's tone that what he was looking for was something that could be used against Biden. And so this is the sort of thing where the Congress, which has been relinquishing its power over the course of many decades, really needs to reassert it and again recall that it is the first branch, and the - it is the only possible check on a rogue president.

MARTIN: Alfonso, I take it you disagree. In fact, you've been tweeting that you think that the president is right to question the whistleblower's motives and so forth. I just have to ask you - do you think the president did anything wrong?

AGUILAR: Well, yeah, in the way he talked about this. I do think it was inappropriate to talk about or suggest that the Ukrainians should look into the Bidens. Having said that, he said - has said many things in the past that have been inappropriate. This is typical Donald Trump. But the question is, does it rise to bribery, extortion or even a violation of campaign finance laws? And I have to say it doesn't.

MARTIN: But why is that the question?


MARTIN: I mean...

CHAREN: It doesn't matter...

MARTIN: Why is that the question?

CHAREN: ...If it's not illegal. That's not the standard when it comes to impeachment.

MARTIN: Yeah. That was my question as well. Why is that the...

AGUILAR: Well, first of all, I think there's not a clear standard based on the Constitution where, if you read it, you know what the standard is. I have no problem if Congress wants to investigate. First of all, this - you know, Nancy Pelosi saying now - that now she supports an impeachment inquiry investigation - this was already happening. Structurally, there's no difference. We had six to eight committees investigating Donald Trump on a number of things.

Now they're calling an impeachment inquiry. That's fine. You can make that - the political case that this is outrageous, whatever. But at the end, I feel if you don't have a clear-cut crime here, a clear-cut smoking gun showing clearly that he violated the law, I think it's better for the American people to decide. Look, Joe Biden - let's go to Joe Biden.


AGUILAR: Joe Biden did a couple of things that were totally inappropriate. I'm not saying he did wrongdoing. But...

MARTIN: That's not the - Joe Biden is a private citizen. He's not the leader of the free world. He's not the commander in chief of the armed forces.

AGUILAR: No, but...

MARTIN: And his son is a private citizen, so what is - the question is...

AGUILAR: But we can have selective outrage.

MARTIN: So President Trump...

AGUILAR: Well...

MARTIN: ...Represents all of the people...

AGUILAR: Yes, but...

MARTIN: ...Not just some of the people.

AGUILAR: We cannot have selective outrage here.


AGUILAR: If we have Joe Biden as vice president intervening in Ukraine, an investigation of a natural gas company where his son is a director - and perhaps there's no wrongdoing.

MARTIN: But...

AGUILAR: But telling - you know, telling the president to fire this prosecutor - that by itself...


AGUILAR: ...In itself is inappropriate.

CHAREN: No, I cannot...

MARTIN: Let's have Mona...


LOCKHART: Can we jump in with some facts here?

MARTIN: Absolutely. Mona is going to...


MARTIN: Mona's been trying to get in here, and then I'll go to Joe.

CHAREN: I know you're out of the room.


CHAREN: This is a talking point that I don't think holds up that I've heard from many Republicans. The fact is that when Joe Biden was pressuring - when he was vice president, he was pressuring the Ukrainians to fire that prosecutor, it wasn't because the prosecutor was going after his son's company. It was because - which he wasn't. It was because the prosecutor was not being tough enough on corruption, not that he was being too tough. So this just falls apart when you examine it.

MARTIN: That's really not the issue here. The issue is the president represents the United States of America. And the question is, is he performing his duties consonant with his sworn oath...


MARTIN: ...To put the interests of the country first? That is the question.


MARTIN: Go ahead, Joe.

LOCKHART: I think that - yeah, and I think that's right. And let me just underline what Mona said there. What Vice President Biden was doing on behalf of the Obama administration and on behalf of the EU and on behalf of the International Monetary Fund was putting pressure - appropriate pressure - on Ukraine to get rid of a prosecutor who was not looking into - a corrupt prosecutor who is not looking into companies. And this wasn't just the company that Hunter Biden was involved in. It was all of the companies in the, you know, incredibly corrupt economy of Ukraine. But so - you know, it's - I understand talking points. I've been in that business.

AGUILAR: Wait a second...

LOCKHART: This talk...

MARTIN: Let him...


LOCKHART: Hold on a second. This talking point is not true. And you can say it as many times as you want. It still doesn't make it true. And I think, you know, we have to step back for a second and say we expect the president of the United States to do his best to tell the truth, and this president has failed over and over again.

But Michelle is right. Put Joe Biden aside. This is a president of the United States who at the root of this said Ukraine needs military aid from the U.S. to fight against Russia. He wanted to - and it's in our national interest that Ukraine is strong enough to fight back against Russia. And instead of looking at what our national interest is, he decided to pursue his own interest.

MARTIN: What...

LOCKHART: And his own interest was getting dirt on Joe Biden. So he said, here's $250 million in aid. I'm not going to give it to you until you either find or manufacture dirt on one of my political opponent. That is an abuse of power. That is - it's politically a high crime and misdemeanor. But it's red - black-letter law that you go out, and you try to get a - something that helps your campaign, it has a value, it is illegal - and if the president was a private citizen, he would have been indicted on the Stormy Daniels payment. And he'd be indicted on this payment.

MARTIN: And then is this subject of the - now we do - here's what we know from the reconstructed transcript. What the president said is, I would like you to do us a favor, though because our country has been through a lot - and Ukraine knows a lot about it. And therefore - he goes on to make - the quid pro quo is not explicit in that transcript. But might - I take it that that is the purpose of an inquiry - to determine whether it is. But Alfonso, back to you. You've been trying to get back into this conversation.

AGUILAR: Well, I was just...

MARTIN: So do you...

AGUILAR: First of all, I just - not repeating a talking point. I'm not saying here that there's any wrongdoing that has been proven on Joe Biden. What I'm saying is that it was inappropriate. This is not a talking point. Joe Biden asked for the removal of this prosecutor. Whatever...


AGUILAR: But - can I finish?

MARTIN: Joe, let him finish, please.

AGUILAR: But the...

LOCKHART: For what...

MARTIN: Joe, let him finish, please.

AGUILAR: But this is the conflict of interest. You're the vice president of the United States, and your son is a director in a Ukrainian national gas agency. Don't you see, that in itself is a conflict of interest. That's not a talking point.

MARTIN: But is the relevance of President Trump - is this President Trump's job to investigate this? Why is that in the best interest of the United States?

AGUILAR: But then - let me...

CHAREN: If you wanted to have a genuine investigation of Biden, his son, all of that, there are perfectly constitutional and appropriate ways to do that. You can ask the Justice Department to look into it. There are ways to - you do not go to the president of a foreign country and say, I need you to do me - yeah, I know you want those missiles, those anti-tank missiles, but I need a favor first.

MARTIN: And, Joe, I want to give you another crack here, Joe.


MARTIN: Do you understand Alfonso's position at all? Or do you feel - I know that he takes umbrage at your calling these talking points. These are the White House talking points. But...

LOCKHART: They are. And let me...

MARTIN: But...

LOCKHART: Let me separate it into two issues because I think that may clear it up for the listeners. One is there's a completely legitimate question of, should anyone in the government have any family member involved in any kind of lobbying anywhere in the world, whether it be in the United States or others? We've kind of crossed the Rubicon there because so many - if you - you could look all through the government - all you have to do, by the way, is look at the Trump family and look at their business around the world and how they use the president of the United States in their promotional videos...


LOCKHART: ...To sell around the world. So that's one issue. The second issue - and this is what I take issue with - it is fundamentally dishonest to say that the vice president wanted this prosecutor fired because he was looking into a business...


LOCKHART: ...That his son was involved in.

MARTIN: I'm going to cut you off here.



MARTIN: Joe, I've got to cut you off there because that's not really the bigger issue. But - I'm sorry we didn't...


MARTIN: ...Have a chance to. Mona, can you give us a very brief final thought? We only have 30 seconds, and I apologize.

CHAREN: Oh, gosh. Well, the bottom line is whether Republicans will at this final test say to themselves, there are things that are more important. There's integrity. There's the honor of the country at stake. And though the political interest is in siding with the president, the right thing to do would be to take this extremely seriously.

MARTIN: That was Mona Charen, columnist and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Alfonso Aguilar was with us. He's the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. And Joe Lockhart was also with us. He's the co-host of "Words Matter" podcast, the former press secretary to President Bill Clinton.

Thank you all so much for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.