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Biden's threat to cut off weapons for Israel isn't the same as what got Trump impeached

Brent D. Griffiths   

Biden's threat to cut off weapons for Israel isn't the same as what got Trump impeached
  • Some Republicans are raising the prospect of impeaching Joe Biden.
  • Sen. Tom Cotton compared Biden's threat to withhold weapons to Israel to Trump's first impeachment.

Some Republicans and conservatives are so aghast that President Joe Biden is threatening to withhold offensive weapons from Israel that they are raising the specter of impeachment.

"Now some people say Joe Biden is doing this for reelection, which would be bad enough," Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, told reporters at a news conference slamming Biden's comments. "It would also, I have to add, be grounds for impeachment under the Democrats' Trump-Ukraine standard — withholding foreign aid to help one's reelection. Only with Joe Biden, it's true."

Biden signaled on Wednesday that he had lost patience with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet's leadership of the nation's war against Hamas. He emphasized his red line if Israeli forces launch a major invasion of Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, where millions are sheltering amid the war. Biden said if such a major invasion happens, the US will not supply Israel "weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities."

Biden also confirmed that his administration has already delayed a shipment of thousands of bombs. Israel has already gone into Rafah, but Biden characterized their current level of involvement as short of his red line.

Republicans have torched the president over his warning. Some, including Cotton, have gone so far as to compare his actions to then-President Trump's decision to pause aid to Ukraine temporarily. House Democrats impeached Trump for his actions.

Not everyone is sold. Cotton. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a noted Trump ally, cautioned that while someone could "make a good argument" in favor of impeachment, that was not his goal.

"I didn't come here to impeach the president," Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters at the same news conference. "I came to here to let everyone know we don't agree with this decision."

It's worth remembering what specifically got Trump in trouble. There are numerous differences between then and now.

A government watchdog found Trump broke the law.

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, formally concluded that the Trump administration broke the law in withholding congressionally approved aid to Ukraine. The watchdog concluded that Trump violated a Nixon-era law by withholding about $214 million in defense aid. The Trump White House disputed the report, but the office was unmoved by its defense.

"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," the watchdog concluded.

It's unlikely that Biden would be found to have violated the law if the White House spent the congressionally approved aid on Israel by the end of the fiscal year in September, according to a defense policy expert.

"The fact that Congress has enacted money to support Israel means the president has to spend it," Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Washington DC-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider. "So basically, he's going to have to spend that money on Israel as Congress appropriated, but he doesn't have to do that today."

Cancian did caution that the current bomb shipment Biden has paused likely has a different deadline, but it's not immediately clear which tranche of money that falls under. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the US sends roughly $3.3 billion to Israel a year, mostly through grants that Israel must, in turn, use to purchase US military goods and services.

And it wasn't just about the letter of the law. One of House Democrats' impeachment articles cited a "scheme or course of conduct for corrupt purposes in pursuit of personal political benefit." Trump's withholding of aid wasn't the offense alone.

The issue was whether Trump took official action, delaying aid to benefit a private scheme to get the Ukraine government to help dig up dirt on Hunter Biden. Trump's EU ambassador, Gordon Sondland, later confirmed a quid-pro-quo did take place.

Republicans have accused Biden of withholding weapons due to concerns about his reelection. Multiple Republicans cited the president's standing in Michigan, a key swing state, where over 100,000 people voted "uncommitted" in the state's Democratic presidential primary in an organized campaign to protest Biden's support of Israel.

"Why is it on hold? To appease his liberal base in places like Dearborn, Michigan, because Joe Biden is in trouble in Michigan," Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, the leader of the Senate GOP's campaign arm, told reporters.

Biden has repeatedly expressed concern about civilians dying during the war. According to Gaza health officials, about 34,000 people, many of them women and children, have been killed there. US allies — the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — have all expressed concern about an invasion of Rafah.

Other presidents have paused weapons shipments.

President Ronald Reagan blocked the transfer of F-16s to Israel in 1983 when its forces were in Lebanon. He cited a belief that doing so could violate the law, according to The New York Times. President George H.W. Bush also threatened loan guarantees in 1991 when then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wouldn't abide by his desired limitation on funding for settlements on occupied territory.

Trump himself was involved in another dispute. His administration withheld a $105 million package to support the Lebanese Armed Forces. Trump's delay occurred around when Congress was already probing his actions related to Ukraine.

This doesn't mean there won't be costs for Biden.

Biden relied on a bipartisan coalition to pass a $95 billion foreign aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. House Speaker Mike Johnson took a political risk in backing the package with little changes after House conservatives had threatened his future if he tried to pass additional Ukraine aid. (On Wednesday, Johnson easily survived a push led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, to oust him from power.)

Johnson has heavily criticized Biden's move.

"What the President is doing here is not only defying the will of Congress, to your point, we just voted on this several days ago," Johnson said on CNBC. "But he's also trying to dictate, I guess, and micromanage the war, the defense effort in Israel, as a condition of supplying the weapons that we all know that they desperately need."

That said, while Biden will need bipartisan support to keep the government funded in September, he likely will not ask for more Ukraine aid anytime soon

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