Former House Judiciary attorney Norman Eisen, author of a new insider account of Trump’s impeachment, joins Pushback to debate and discuss the Mueller probe, Ukrainegate, and more.
In his new book “A Case for the American People,” former House Judiciary Committee attorney Norman Eisen tells the inside story of the Democrats’ impeachment efforts against President Trump. Eisen joins Aaron Maté to debate and discuss the Mueller probe, Ukrainegate, and more.
Guest: Norman Eisen, former special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, including for the impeachment and trial of President Trump. Previously served under President Obama as ethics czar and ambassador to the Czech Republic. His new book is “A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump.”
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. Talk of impeaching President Trump began pretty much the day he took office. It finally happened nearly three years later when the House voted to impeach Trump for an alleged pressure campaign against Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. The Senate then voted to acquit Trump in a narrow partisan vote, ultimately leaving Trump’s fate up to voters in November when he squares off against Joe Biden.
Well, joining me is someone who was on the inside during this entire impeachment process. Norm Eisen served as the special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment and trial of President Trump. Previously he served under President Obama as ethics czar and ambassador to the Czech Republic. And his new book provides the first insider account of Trump’s impeachment. It’s called A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump. Norman Eisen, welcome to Pushback.
NORMAN EISEN: Thank you, Aaron. So, pleased to be with you and the Pushback listeners.
AARON MATÉ: So, before we get into impeachment, let me ask you about the current crisis right now, because your book ends pretty much when the pandemic is first starting to hit the US.
As someone who helped draft the impeachment articles against President Trump, how does his handling or mishandling of the pandemic rate in comparison to his other alleged offenses? Do you think that how he has presided over this pandemic, over this crisis, is worthy of impeachment?
NORMAN EISEN: It certainly will be, or not, for the fact that the Republicans in the House will not join to impeach him, and the Republicans in the Senate will not convict him. No matter what, you know, Trump used to say that his followers wouldn’t care if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue. Well, he’s killed tens of thousands of Americans through what I argue in the book is the same pattern of promoting his personal, political selfish interest to win elections that led to “Russia, Are You Listening?” to telling Ukraine “Can you do us a favor, though?”. Now he’s saying that to American governors, the same quid pro quo, the same selfishness to win elections, the same obstruction, the lying. So, it’s certainly that pattern of abuse and obstruction that’s continuing, costing these lives, certainly is a high crime and misdemeanor. But as I say in the book, the case is going to be decided now by the American people, and I make the case to them in the last chapter of the book, that COVID is part of this pattern.
AARON MATÉ: So, let’s get into all the controversies that preceded COVID. It seems like a long time ago now, but this is what’s occupied the bulk of Trump’s presidency. You joined the House Judiciary Committee as special counsel in early 2019. Talk to us about that period, the anticipation around the Mueller Report and the…what ultimately was for Democrats a pretty big disappointment.
NORMAN EISEN: Yes, I write in the book about myself, my co-counsel Barry Berke, and our belief based on the facts. And I still believe this to be true, based on the fact that Trump committed multiple impeachable offenses that Mueller discovered, the offenses of obstruction of justice. And we could see the evidence. I joined the House Judiciary Committee as counsel together with Barry for what I hoped would be, and I felt certain would be, an impending impeachment because the evidence was so clear. Then came Bill Barr, and we now know Barr lied about the Mueller Report, but in that period of weeks between Barr’s initial statements about what it contained and his declaration that there was no obstruction and getting the report and seeing what was in there, he was able to fool the country, to fool the press, to set the conventional wisdom, and the bottom line was that we never fully managed to persuade people that there were multiple impeachable offenses in the Mueller Report.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, so, Norm, my show is called Pushback, so I’m gonna push back a little here.
Looking back now, the core of the case was not obstruction; it was whether or not Donald Trump had conspired with Russia. And I think we can agree now that Mueller found no evidence of that. And Mueller then lays out this complicated…what I think is a complicated legal seminar-type discussion of whether or not these…whether or not Trump committed obstruction. But part of the reason why he doesn’t come to a conclusion is that he notes that there was no underlying offense, there was no underlying conspiracy between Trump and Russia. So, based on that, I’m wondering now if in retrospect you see any grounds to reflect on whether it was wise to put so much energy into this case that at the heart was a conspiracy theory, this idea that Donald Trump and Russia conspired.
NORMAN EISEN: Well, it’s…your show has aptly earned the name Pushback. That is fair. Pushback, certainly.
It seems to me that even if the evidence was not there for the collusion theory―and by the way my book has new evidence of collusion that came out; I make the case that I developed comes out for the first time in the book―that there’s more evidence that Mueller did not…that proves the collusion, be that as it may. Whatever the failings may have been in Volume One of the Mueller Report on collusion, there’s no question that in fighting back against the legitimate investigation which convicted so many, which involved so many charges, which proved so much wrongdoing, in illegitimately pushing back against that, President Trump obstructed justice. He did so at least five times. I lay it out in the book. I prove it in the book. And, so, he richly deserved impeachment for that. And it’s a pity that because of…principally because of Bill Barr’s lies, we were unable to achieve it.
AARON MATÉ: The new evidence that you talk about in your book, is this when Rick Gates of the Trump campaign tells your committee that Roger Stone told Trump about the Wikileaks emails?
NORMAN EISEN: Precisely so. Precisely so.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, but…
NORMAN EISEN: What we were…what we’ve…
AARON MATÉ: Well, the problem I have with that is, again, this is why…part of the reason why I personally was not a fan of this entire thing is because, again, it involves a conspiracy theory where the evidence to me just wasn’t there. So, Roger Stone, he said publicly that he had some secret channel to Wikileaks, but his case, his trial underscored that he was lying. And he was claiming to rely on Randy Credico, a left-wing comedian, and Jerome Corsi, a far-right conspiracy theorist, who, just on the face of it, the odds that these were a secret back channel to Wikileaks looks pretty farcical, especially. And the idea that Roger Stone could somehow know about Wikileaks’ releases. Essentially a lot of everything he said about this was bluster. But yet this was taken and interpreted to mean that he had some kind of secret knowledge, when really, I think, all the evidence showed that he was just lying.
NORMAN EISEN: The more salient point about it is that the president was lying because the president says he doesn’t…what matters here is the president’s state of mind, the president’s actions, and the president’s intent. And I find fault in the book with Bob Mueller for not pushing. The president says he doesn’t remember this. We show in the book it’s extremely unlikely. I show in the book it’s extremely unlikely that the president doesn’t remember it. He lied to Bob Mueller. And whatever the underlying facts may be, he cannot lie in a written statement with Bob and get away with it. But the more important point is Volume Two of the Mueller Report lays out five obstruction offenses. Why should the president get off scot-free on those five obstruction offenses?
AARON MATÉ: Well, again, I go back to what I think Mueller laid out was really a law school seminar discussion, where he’s not sure if they are offenses. He lays out sort of the for-and-against, and a constant throughout this is the point I made before…
NORMAN EISEN: Well, I’m sure.
AARON MATÉ: You’re sure…okay…
NORMAN EISEN: In the book. I am sure, and I urge your listeners to read the book. They will read the book. There’s three elements of obstruction of justice. It is not…and this was the problem with the Mueller Report. It’s not close. He lays out the elements, and then he says this element is shown, for example, say, by substantial evidence. Knowing Bob for a long time, having worked with him, knowing the field as I do, what he’s saying here is on five, not all ten, Aaron, [but] on five of these offenses that he has no doubt that an obstruction of justice charge would be brought against anybody except for a president of the United States. So, you know, you may disagree with me when you do the analysis. Your listeners may disagree with me. But I make the case in the book that there is no question that there are five obstruction charges. I do fault Bob for leaving this wiggle room, for not saying flat out, up front, clearly, the president obstructed justice five times. I would have charged anybody else with this crime. He should be impeached. If Mueller had said that, you know, the first part of the investigation would not have misfired. But I’m candid about my mistakes along the way, and we made the most of the second part, which was the identical pattern as to Ukraine.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, so let’s move on to Ukraine.
I guess the last point I want to make about obstruction is that Mueller was asked under oath whether anybody interfered with his investigation, and he said no. And I understand that you don’t just need…it’s not just a matter of having the acts; you also can have the intent to obstruct. But, based on the fact that the investigation ultimately wasn’t interfered with and the complicated, you know, nature of Mueller’s report, where he lays out both sides, I think it’s a tough one. But you’re right. You do make the case in your book, and you also provide a lot of, just, insider information that has not been revealed yet about this impeachment process.
Let’s go to impeachment. Let me ask you about the impeachment article. It says this, quote: “President Trump used the powers of the Presidency in a manner that compromised the national security of the United States and undermined the integrity of the US democratic process.” I think you have a case on the latter, because asking a foreign country to investigate a domestic rival, that is interference in the democratic process, so I’ll grant you that. But what about the national security part? How does freezing some weapons to Ukraine, how does that compromise US national security?
NORMAN EISEN: I love these good, tough questions. This is how we lawyers like to sharpen our arguments, so I relish it. The way in which the president’s playing, like, playing with $290 million of desperately needed military aid for Ukraine, playing with taxpayer money like it was monopoly cash, the way in which that compromises our national security is the following:
Ukraine is in a hot border war with Russia. They’re our ally, they’re standing up to Russian aggression which is a threat to all of Europe. So, they’re doing…they’re advancing America’s national security interests, directly in their engagement with Russia. They’re our ally. Russia’s our adversary. But it goes even deeper than that. When we play games like that with an ally, it makes all of our allies wonder whether the United States can be trusted, whether we’re as good as our word, whether we’ll uphold our commitments. And, so, it not only jeopardizes this critically important, if I may use the term “push back” on Russia, but it jeopardizes all of those alliances. And the reason those alliances are so important is our allies are an extension of American strength around the world. We were attacked on 9/11; our allies stood up for us when we’ve gone to war. Whether you agree with the premise―I don’t agree with the premise of the Iraq War at all that Bush embarked on―but our allies supplement us around the world. They ultimately…they stand in for American men and women, for our troops. There’s… so it saves our alliances, saves American lives. They undergird our economic relationships. If we pull the rug out from under one ally, all allies wonder about us. So, it has a profoundly destabilizing effect in the direct conflict between Ukraine and Russia, where we are on the side of Ukraine against Russian territorial incursions in Europe. It affects all of our alliances, especially in Europe, which is really the linchpin. Europe and the United States are the linchpin of transatlantic democracy and so much order and stability around the world. And Trump has weakened that.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, so we can get into a long discussion about the politics of the US and Ukraine. I happen to have the opposite view. I think that fighting a proxy war on Russia’s borders, expanding NATO to Russia’s borders actually hurts the security, not just of the US but the entire world, because it increases tensions between two nuclear armed powers. But on even this narrow issue of the weapons, your former colleagues in the Obama administration, including President Obama, had a different view. Obama was under heavy pressure to send this lethal assistance to Ukraine, but he resisted it because he didn’t want to further inflame a proxy war. Charles Kupchan, who served on the National Security Council under Obama, when Trump was weighing whether or not to send these weapons back in 2017, Kupchan wrote that, quote, “Lethal weapons to Ukraine is a recipe for military escalation and transatlantic discord.” So, there are differences of opinion here, but I guess my question to you is when Obama refused to send the same weaponry to Ukraine, was he undermining American national security?
NORMAN EISEN: Well, I don’t agree with everything, that every single decision that was made in the Obama administration. I, at the time, I supported the decision, but time has passed, Aaron, and I think that by the time we got to the Trump administration that it had become the appropriate decision. Other levers were not working. The war was in a stalemate. Russia was not backing down. You know, we’re not providing them with the entire arsenal of American weaponry where we were slightly upping the ante, and sometimes you do that in international relations. I think Russia understood what we were doing. Look, Ukraine…it is going to be very tough for Ukraine ever to win an arms race with Russia. The point here was to rebalance a little bit, so I thought it was the right…I thought some caution and allowing the situation to develop was the right thing with Obama. And then when it developed, yes, I supported the Trump administration decisions, and many, many of my fellow Obama appointees agree. Charlie is a very good friend of mine. We’re on the opposite sides. The two of us just signed dueling letters on the Russia approach in Politico, which I commend to you and your listeners’ attention. My letter just went up this morning urging a firmer hand with Russia. I think we’re safer if they…if we’re clear about sanctions and other measures to rein them in. And I think the danger of the Trump administration, I’m sure we can agree on this. Aaron, the danger of the Trump administration has been now pushed back on you. The totally erratic policy where some parts of the administration are tough, other parts are very weak, the president flip-flops mostly on the side of weakness, and it’s led to a chaotic and unpredictable situation. That is the greatest fear of all―unpredictability.
AARON MATÉ: I agree that Trump’s policy towards Russia has been incredibly dangerous, but I guess this is part of my point here. I feel like instead of pushing back on that from the Democrats in trying to promote peace and cooperation, Democrats have been encouraging him to be even more hawkish, impeaching him over freezing some weapons, constantly calling him a puppet of Putin. All this has incentivized, I think, an even more radical and far-right policy than Trump may have otherwise had pursued if he wasn’t constantly being told that he was Vladimir Putin’s puppet.
NORMAN EISEN: I have to say, if you’ll indulge me in some more pushback, I believe that Trump would have sold us down the Volga River, even worse, if it weren’t for the constant effort to hold him accountable, to point out to the United States and the world that he’s doing Putin’s bidding. The fact that we’re keeping an eye on him and on Putin, the shameful display in Helsinki and the failure to raise more recently…the failure to raise Russian bounties, the way he prostrates himself before Putin. No, I do not think that we can let up one iota. If anything, we have to double down in letting Trump know we’re watching, we’re keeping an eye out, we’re pushing, we’re not going to let up. You know, Vladimir Putin―forgive me, I’ll just say one more thing on this point, I feel strongly about it―Vladimir Putin has gone even beyond Soviet…Russia and the Soviet Bloc in his assaults on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the permanent…it’s bad enough that the Soviet Bloc, for example, invaded Prague in ’68, something that I’ve written a lot about, but the attempt to permanently seize the Ukrainian land is just outrageous, and we’re not gonna tolerate it and we’re never gonna forget it and we’re never gonna give up.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, this could get into a long debate about Ukraine policy. I’ll just say, I don’t think the seizure of Crimea would have happened if the US hadn’t helped back a coup in Ukraine and supported people that were talking about expanding NATO to include Ukraine, which would have put NATO even more on Russia’s borders. But that is a whole other discussion that we can get into…
NORMAN EISEN: That’s for our next…my next visit to Pushback. We’ll deal with Ukraine.
AARON MATÉ: That’s for the next episode.
Okay, another aspect here, Article One. It condemns Trump for, quote, “his invitations of foreign interference in US elections.” Was the Steele dossier paid for by the Clinton campaign to a former British spy supposedly using sources in Russia―although that turns out to be a deceptive picture―was that foreign interference in the election? And, if so, could that have been impeachable of Hillary Clinton, had she won the election?
NORMAN EISEN: Now, I have to tell you on the Steele dossier, that goes a little beyond the scope of the book and beyond the scope of my expertise. What I…and, as Bob Mueller says, that is not something that he relied upon in his report, I think, when he was asked questions about that. I will say that I think that the…whatever the hypotheticals are that we might consider, the foreign interference that you’ve seen here with Trump, Aaron, consider the pattern. “Russia, are you listening?” Openly. Put Roger Stone to the side. Openly calling on a foreign government to do illegal cyber attacks on a domestic opponent, then doing the same with Ukraine. And now he’s…it’s the same pattern of abusing the law and then covering it up. Instead of saying, “Russia, are you listening?” or “Zelensky, can you do us a favor, though?”, he’s saying to American governors, “Can you do us a favor, though?”. He’s establishing a quid pro quo with governors, mayors and American citizens in blue places around the country. So it’s the patt…it’s Trump who’s the president, not Hillary Clinton, and that is a pattern, as I make the case in the book. That is a pattern that we need to hold him accountable for, and the American people have to stop that pattern before he high crimes again.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, on the issue of Steele, I think Trump making a joke at a news conference or whether you think he’s being serious, a public declaration at a news conference is less serious than paying for a piece of opposition research that is then used. I realize Mueller says he didn’t rely on it, but the FBI did rely on it to spy on Carter Page multiple times. We know that they even misled the FISA court to do that. The Steele dossier fueled a lot of innuendo. People thinking that there is a pee tape, that Trump has…is compromised by kompromat from Putin, so it was consequential. It did have an impact in domestic politics, and so I guess I have a hard time seeing that an effort to hold Trump to account for soliciting foreign interference, when the far most consequential solicitation of foreign interference, in my opinion, was the Clinton campaign paying for the Steele dossier.
NORMAN EISEN: Well, I disagree. Again, the scope of my work did not rely on the Steele dossier, did not encompass the Steele dossier. We began really building on the Mueller Report, then pivoted to the Ukraine allegations. There’s an undoubted pattern with Trump. Trump and Trump alone. No other candidates are president. And the point of impeachment, the point of my book, really, is to deal with the clear and present danger in the White House. And, Aaron, whatever may be in the rear-view mirror…and the Carter Page allegations were very…put aside the Steele dossier, the shocking conversations and behavior that are alleged, put all that to the side. We’re looking at a direct threat. This pattern being continued with a fourth time, and this far out-shadows the, in my view, unmerited allegations about the Steele dossier. Trump has…is threatening to attack our next election directly, because he couldn’t get Russia to do it, he couldn’t get Ukraine to do it. We know he mishandled COVID because he believed it would be in his electoral advantage. So, I’m trying to focus readers on that coming threat, above all, to the looming election. I don’t think Hillary Clinton poses any dangers to the coming election. Trump does, and that is what I would like the readers of my book and your listeners to focus on. This is not just history; this is a warning. History is a prediction, and Trump is about to come for our election.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, and I agree with you that Trump is a massive threat to the country and to the world, and with his attacks right now on the Postal Service, his attacks on mail and voting, there is an effort to subvert democratic choice. I guess the approach I’ve been taking here and how I felt about the Russia fixation from the start, is that far from challenging Trump, it actually exacerbated his threats, it encouraged the more hawkish policy and it also distracted us from his actual policies, the harm he’s doing to the country and to the world, into conspiracy theories, into this idea that he was compromised by Russia, and when that didn’t pan out, I think that handed him a very big gift. So, that’s the line of…that’s the approach that I’ve taken to this.
But, you know, on the point of his threat to the world, I want to ask you, when…behind the scenes when you were discussing the impeachment of Trump, and you reveal in your book that actually you wrote up ten articles of impeachment for all different kinds of offenses, do Trump’s attacks on foreign civilians ever factor into the conversations behind the scenes amongst lawmakers? So, you know, he’s escalated US support for the war on Yemen, he’s launched a coup attempt in Venezuela, trying to overthrow the government, he’s imposed murderous sanctions that deny people food and medicine, to try to get the population to suffer into submission, he assassinated Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general. Do these acts, foreign policy acts, ever weigh as possibly being impeachment-worthy?
NORMAN EISEN: You know, I think that they are considered by some of the members of the caucus, where the impeachment calculus…well, I…you will not find them discussed in the book. And my ability, because I was operating as a lawyer, so I’ve got to limit myself to what I have permission to talk about in the book. I will go so far as to say that there are some members of Congress who are very concerned about whether Trump is abiding by law in those kinds of activities, but I will try to answer your question this way.
The decision on impeachment at a minimum requires the unanimity of the caucus. We started, Chairman [Jerrold] Nadler, myself, my co-counsel Barry Berke, the other members of the Judiciary Committee began the process with the ten secret articles, draft articles, that I describe in the book, because we felt we needed to cast a very wide net to capture the president’s wrongful behavior. And what happened then is we had a convergence of the caucus, which finally coalesced around the Ukraine allegations, where we could get a majority of the caucus to support two articles of impeachment, focusing on these allegations, this pattern that I’m describing, that you and I disagree on. It’s why I was looking forward to coming on.
AARON MATÉ: And I appreciate that you did, by the way.
NORMAN EISEN: I love it. As I say, that is the lifeblood of our democracy. So, we focused on the pattern and that is where we achieved unanimity. So, in a sense, if, you know, if there are issues, however meritorious some in the caucus may feel they are, that are not going to achieve the unanimity, they don’t get the same attention. And, really, the conversation concentrated around Ukraine and to some extent on this pattern of―as he’s doing now with COVID―he will do anything to get re-elected. He will even kill people to get reelected. And he has intentionally decided to…he made a series of intentional choices. I lay out the evidence in the last chapter of the book, and more evidence has come in still. He made a series of intentional choices that caused tens of thousands of Americans to die because he believed it was in the interest of his re-election. That is a pattern of radical abuse of power to get re-elected that we also saw in the Ukraine affair and in what preceded it, and we’re about to see it again with his attack on the coming elections. So, that is where we had unanimity, and that’s what the caucus agreed on.
AARON MATÉ: In terms of the case itself, do you think that you had enough evidence to make a quid pro quo case? The problem I had with it is that all the Ukrainians involved, from Zelensky…President [Volodymyr] Zelensky of Ukraine to his other top aides, they all said that they saw no linkage between the military assistance that was frozen and this demand they were getting, to announce an investigation of Burisma and Joe Biden, and, in fact, they only learned about the frozen military aid after it became public in late August with an article in Politico.
NORMAN EISEN: Yeah, we proved that there was a quid pro quo and the book marshals the evidence of the quid pro quo. In fact, Ukraine privately complained to the State Department long before the Politico article. They were concerned about the freeze. You could understand why they didn’t want to bring it up publicly, make it worse. No less an authority, and I lay out all the evidence in the book, no less an authority―I don’t agree with him about anything―than Lamar Alexander, who voted against impeachment and against even having witnesses, the senator, Republican senior senator from Tennessee. He―no less than Lamar―said the Democrats have proved their case by a mountain of evidence, that the aid was conditioned on attacking Biden in effect, so he found that there was a quid pro quo. We laid it out for days in Congress. We didn’t think we could do it. We weren’t certain we could do it. Then the evidence started coming in, and there’s just no doubt about it. Of course, the president was trying to…you can see it in the call memorandum. Of course, the president was trying to extort President Zelensky. That’s how Donald Trump does business. As I explained in the book, he’s been doing this same pattern of abuse and obstruction since his very first big legal scandal, a racial discrimination case at his rental properties in 1973. So, I have no doubt about the quid pro quo.
AARON MATÉ: No argument against the claim that Trump is corrupt. And there was a pressure campaign against Ukraine. I guess I never felt as if the quid pro quo was established, and if I could summarize why.
On the call record Trump is asked by Zelensky about Javelin missiles, about the Javelin aid, and that’s when Trump says, “If you do us a favor, though.” But the Javelins were not a part of the military assistance package that was frozen. And then you have the fact that the Trump official who supposedly communicated the quid pro quo demand to the Ukrainian side was Gordon Sondland. But Gordon Sondland himself said that that was only his presumption, in the absence of another explanation, and he told that to a Ukrainian official named Andriy Yermak in a very brief conversation that Yermak himself said he couldn’t even remember. But if the quid pro quo was made by a Trump official who by his own account says that was his presumption, not that anybody told him that there was such a linkage, can you really say that you’ve proved a quid pro quo?
NORMAN EISEN: I think you can, you know, I’ll…there’s…it truly is a mountain of evidence and we would need…I think we’ve already scheduled a second podcast to discuss the debate over Ukraine, which is really a debate over how to deal with Russia. And I really do…they’re just up…there’s dueling proposals in Politico from a group of people I’m associated with, and we’re all friends on both sides, and a group of people on the other side that captures some of the nuance of the point you’re making about the little debate you and I had about the right way to do Russia policy.
Look, there was multiple, multiple…it was not just one Sondland-Yermak meeting. There was the Kiev meeting in February 2019 with [Lev] Parnas and [Igor] Fruman. And then Ukrainian president [Petro] Poroshenko and prosecutor general [Yuriy] Lutsenko.
AARON MATÉ: Parnas is a clown, Norm, Norm, Norm. Parnas is a clown and this is…
NORMAN EISEN: Well, that’s an indictment, Aaron, that’s an indictment of Trump and Giuliani, because they relied heavily on that clown, and they gave that clown authority. Fine, put Parnas to the side. July 10, that’s the Sondland-Yermak-Danyluk meeting that you were talking about, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s the phone call. Look at the proximity in the phone call that takes place where Trump goes directly from Zelensky, saying he wants something. Zelensky’s talking about what he needs. Trump goes directly to, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” That proximity is very important, and it doesn’t stop there. There’s…
AARON MATÉ: Wait, wait, Norman. Norman, wait, wait.
NORMAN EISEN: …the Madrid meeting between Giuliani and Yermak…
AARON MATÉ: Wait.
NORMAN EISEN: …there’s the text messages between Volcker and Yermak…
AARON MATÉ: Yeah.
NORMAN EISEN: …and on and on and on. The Sondland-Yermak Warsaw conversation.
AARON MATÉ: But even, speaking of proximity on the call transcript, the object of the favor that Trump is asking Zelensky for is not immediately an investigation into Biden. He wants him to look into his theory about CrowdStrike and the Ukraine server, which is not Joe Biden. That’s something else. That’s true, I’m not sure exactly what Trump thinks there, that maybe the DNC server was actually hacked from Ukraine and that it’s actually stored maybe in Ukraine. I’m not sure what he means. But that was the actual…I mean, proximity-wise, that was the immediate object of the favor he was asking Zelensky for, was to look into that theory.
NORMAN EISEN: And what Trump does is, he, at first there’s some very lovely chit chat and then Zelensky talks to him about great support in the area of defense, okay. That is not limited. He says that before he gets to the Javelins, then he adds a point about the Javelins, so he’s describing the Javelins as a specific example of a general point. That’s when Trump comes in with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” And Trump doesn’t just confine himself to the server. What Trump is alluding to here, Trump says there are a lot of things that went on. The whole situation, okay.
What Trump is suggesting there is an alternative theory. My Brookings colleague Fiona Hill testified powerfully that anyone who pushes this theory is pushing Russian propaganda. So, I think that that means that Trump was doing that here. That the theory that there’s an alternative explanation for the attack on the 2016 election. We know Russia. Surely you agree Russia was behind the attack. You don’t think Ukraine was the one who hacked the DNC servers.
AARON MATÉ: Well, listen. First of all, I don’t call it an attack. I think even if Russia is guilty of everything it’s accused of, it was some meddling. But I don’t think it’s worthy of the comparisons it’s gotten. Some people liken it to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. I think they’re accused of email hacking and putting up some silly memes on social media, which to me is not…I don’t see it as being nearly as grave as other people do, especially given all the things the US does around the world. I mentioned before, trying to overthrow governments like Venezuela. But look, you know, we…this is a whole other discussion, but I think Russia certainly put out some deceptive social media posts. On the email hacking, I actually have a different view than you, but I don’t think we have time for that today.
NORMAN EISEN: But you don’t think Ukraine did it. You don’t think Ukraine did it.
AARON MATÉ: I have absolutely no reason to believe that Ukraine did it. No, of course, of course.
NORMAN EISEN: So, then Trump goes on. So, here’s the point I wanted to make. So, then Trump talks about the CrowdStrike and this crazy, kooky conspiracy theory, that somehow Ukraine, not Russia, attacked. Then Zelensky cuts in to try to make peace, and then Trump pivots over directly. He cuts back in on top of Zelensky, he says, “Good, because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good.” The prosecutor was not very good. He was corrupt and he was shut down. And so, Trump immediately pivots; he associates the whole thing with the Biden part of it, and that’s the forward-looking part of it that is so, so troubling.
So, no, I think the proximity is proven when you read the transcript. The flow, the cuts in and out, that in fact Trump is advancing a single, reprehensible extortion scheme to shake down a vulnerable foreign country to attack our elections again. I think the Russian attack was very, very serious. I recognize, you know, we’ll have that debate another time.
AARON MATÉ: At our third podcast.
NORMAN EISEN: This is, but this…we scheduled a whole season, Aaron! But this is a tremendously…this is a…what’s happening here in Ukraine, whatever one may think of what happened before, this is a terrible, terrible thing for an American president to be doing. And it foreshadowed, if he would do this, as some of our witnesses said, he would do anything. And this really foreshadowed the COVID intentional misconduct that has led to tens of thousands of Americans dying.
AARON MATÉ: Well, we can agree that Trump’s negligence and his ineptitude has led to tens of thousands of Americans dying. We totally agree on that. I don’t see personally that…
NORMAN EISEN: Not negligence. No, intentional.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, yeah.
NORMAN EISEN: Intentional. He intentionally chose not to deal with it, because he thought it was in his personal electoral interests, and there’s a tremendous amount of evidence that’s come into the public record. He made a direct choice, and it was a choice that led―and he should have known it would lead―to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. He does not care. And to have a president…that’s what unifies “Russia, are you listening?”, “Zelensky, can you do us a favor, though?” and COVID, where he’s saying to American governors the equivalent of “Can you do us a favor, though?”, as our impeachment witnesses warned. And now he’s about to do it again in the election. That is as bad as it gets. No wonder the presidential scholars and experts have ranked Trump the worst president in American history. We’ve never seen a president behave like this in the entire centuries-long history of the United States.
AARON MATÉ: And I agree. Trump is among the worst, if not the worst president, ever.
NORMAN EISEN: Who’s worse? What do you mean among the worst?
AARON MATÉ: Well, you know…
NORMAN EISEN: Aaron, who’s worse than Trump?
AARON MATÉ: George W. Bush killed more people. So, if we judge…if we value human life, then we have to factor stuff like that into [it]. George W. Bush killed more people, Richard Nixon killed more people, Ronald Reagan killed more people. Barack Obama even possibly killed more people, although I would rather have President Obama in office than Donald Trump.
NORMAN EISEN: Well, we certainly we certainly agree on that. I do not think there has been a case in American history―you would tell me if you disagree―where a president has intentionally, for his personal, political advantage, intentionally chosen to neglect a natural catastrophe, a public health disaster. Even Bush, with Hurricane Katrina, he was trying; he just was not competent. Here it was intentional wrongdoing. We’ve never seen a president willing to sacrifice American lives that way.
AARON MATÉ: All right. Well, look, I really appreciate your time, Norm Eisen. We’ve gone over what you even…
NORMAN EISEN: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: …promised me, so I…and I hope we can do this again. I really appreciate your time and your insight.
NORMAN EISEN: I look forward to it. It was a great debate. I made a commitment when I brought this book out that I would debate with everybody. And the most distress…we have some strong areas of disagreement, but the most interesting debates are the ones where they’re the strongest disagreements. So, thanks for hearing my arguments out, and thanks for having me on Pushback.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for laying it out. The book is called A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump. Norm Eisen, thanks very much.
NORMAN EISEN: Thanks, Aaron.