ST. ALBANS — For the past two weeks, Vermont Representative Peter Welch has been part of history in the making. Along with fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee, Welch has been questioning witnesses in the impeachment inquiry into the actions of President Donald J. Trump.
Trump is accused of abusing his office to coerce a foreign head of state into investigating the son of former Vice President Joe Biden as well as claims – long disproven – that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers in 2016.
Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board of a Ukrainian company, Burisma Holdings, from 2014 to 2019. Some Republicans have claimed that Joe Biden pushed Ukraine’s government to get rid of prosecutor Viktor Shokin to protect his son. There is no evidence for this claim. In fact, the European Union and International Monetary Fund were also pushing for Shokin’s removal, as were Ukrainian anti-corruption groups and ordinary citizens who took to the streets of Kyiv to demand his removal.
Shokin’s removal was the policy of the entire U.S. government, not just Biden.
“It was discouraging and it was inspiring,” Welch said of the hearings so far. More are possible, should more witnesses agree to testify.
The inspiration came from the career public servants who testified. “They’re competent, hardworking, professional, idealistic. I think all of us can be proud of them,” Welch said.
He characterized Fiona Hill, formerly the Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council, as one of the smartest people he has ever encountered.
In her testimony, Hill directly addressed the notion that Ukraine, not Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC’s servers, stating, “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
She asked members of Congress to stop assisting Russia by repeating that fiction.
But her request fell on deaf ears.
And that is part of what Welch said was discouraging.
“One of the things that’s so alarming to me is that we’re in a new political world where a new presentation of facts will not change anybody’s mind,” Welch said.
He compared the situation to a board of aldermen discussing widening a road, only to have some members of the board refuse to accept measurements of the road’s current width as true.
The hearings, Welch said, provided a vivid example of what we all knew was happening. “People just see the facts the way want to see them, and I think that has ominous implications,” he said.
“What the President did is really serious,” Welch said, adding Trump had used his office to try to force a foreign government to help him in his reelection campaign.
If his colleagues agreed on what the President did, but didn’t consider it a violation serious enough to merit impeachment, that would be a debate worth having, in Welch’s view. But, “I didn’t hear any defense that addressed what the president said in his own words,” Welch said.
Welch was referring to a written summary of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 in which Zelensky raised the issue of military aid Ukraine needed and Congress had approved, and Trump responded by asking for a “favor.” That favor was an investigation of the fictitious claim Ukraine was responsible for the DNC hacking.
In order for debate to occur, there has to be a common starting point, a shared understanding of the facts, and without it it’s unclear how politics can be used to solve the challenges society is facing, in Welch’s view.
“Very few of my colleagues even acknowledge that there is something wrong with getting a foreign leader involved in domestic politics,” said Welch, adding that their approach “resonates in the social media world because everyone is free to take the facts they want.”
Welch is also concerned about the President’s outright refusal to cooperate with Congressional investigations, including the impeachment inquiry, and his colleagues’ willingness to go along with that refusal.
“All of us in Congress should have a commitment to the separation of powers,” Welch said.
Congress and the executive branch are intended to serve as a check and balance on one another, he noted, and that includes Congressional oversight of the executive.
While there has always been tension between the two branches, other presidents acknowledged Congress’s authority to conduct oversight.
“President Trump has said Congress has no authority and he’s beyond reach,” said Welch. ”He’s taken the position not a single document, not a single witness.”
Pushing back against that position should unite all members of Congress, in Welch’s view.
But the President’s refusal to cooperate will not halt the inquiry. “We’re not going to get stalled by the Presidential tactic of delay,” said Welch.
“The evidence we have is pretty compelling and direct,” Welch said, including the president’s own words.
Welch made his view of the evidence clear during the hearings, stating, “This conduct corrupts our democracy. It corrupts how our country conducts foreign policy. It threatens our national security and the security of all Americans, and it is, in my view, a clear betrayal of the President’s oath of office.”
The House Judiciary Committee is set to begin its own deliberations on articles of impeachment next week.