Trump: A Banana Republican
On July 25th, Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s newly elected President, talked by telephone. Afterward, the Ukrainian side released a summary of the conversation that seemed anodyne but, in hindsight, is telling: “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.” Last week, we learned what those unnamed corruption cases are likely to be. Democrats are investigating whether Trump withheld American military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Zelensky to dig up what Trump hoped would be damaging information about his top Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. The alleged threats by Trump, which are believed to be the focus of an unusual whistle-blower complaint by a U.S. intelligence official, have reignited calls from some Democrats for Trump’s impeachment.
Trump admitted over the weekend that in a phone conversation with Ukraine’s new president, he raised the question of Ukraine’s launching an investigation of Joe Biden. The New Yorker piece explains why this is an issue:
A decisive sticking point appears to be Trump’s political interest in resurfacing old allegations connected to the business dealings of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, in Ukraine. In April, 2014, Hunter accepted a lucrative seat on the board of Burisma, one of Ukraine’s largest natural-gas producers, a decision that Hunter said he made without consulting his father. (Biden and Hunter had an informal arrangement that predated Hunter’s work with Burisma and was designed to insulate Biden from questions about his son’s private dealings: Biden wouldn’t ask Hunter about his business activities, and Hunter wouldn’t tell his father about them.)
It was a dodgy arrangement, for sure. But so far, there is no evidence that Hunter Biden’s position affected his vice-president father’s relationship with Ukraine. Of course, Trump wants Ukraine to come up with evidence, or at least to open an official investigation into the matter. Just the existence of the investigation would be enough to hurt Joe Biden if he becomes the Democratic nominee for president.
To be clear: it’s not just speculation that Trump pressured the new Ukraine president to do this. Trump admitted it himself. The Ukrainian leadership is in a terrible position:
That is an unwelcome, and potentially dangerous, scenario for any Ukrainian President, given the degree to which Ukraine relies on American diplomatic, economic, and military assistance. It is not just the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid that Kiev depends on but also American loan guarantees, economic sanctions against Russia, and diplomatic involvement in negotiating an end to the war in the Donbass. With that conflict continuing to boil, American military training and weaponry remains vital to Ukraine’s military.
With a hostile Russia on its border, Ukraine can’t afford to alienate Trump. Trump knows this. It would be unconscionable for an American president to pressure a vulnerable country to do his dirty work regarding a domestic US presidential campaign, but then again, we know that Donald Trump has no conscience. I mean that as neutrally as possible. He is demonstrably amoral. He does what he wants to do, bound by nothing.
I see that some Republicans — e.g., Lindsey Graham — are calling for an investigation into Joe Biden’s supposed dealings with Ukraine. And to be fair, it’s not the case that Biden is completely in the clear on the matter, given the behavior of his drunkard son:
Biden bragged in 2018 that, as vice president, he threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees if Ukraine did not fire its top prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani alleged for months that Biden wanted Shokin fired because Shokin reportedly undertook an anti-corruption investigation into Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma Holdings, which employed Joe Biden’s lobbyist son Hunter as a board member starting in 2014, reportedly paying him $50,000 a month. The Biden camp countered that Shokin was widely seen by the U.S. and Europe — and inside Ukraine — as ineffective, corrupt, and a hindrance to Ukraine’s progress. Ukraine’s parliament removed Shokin in 2016.
Erick Erickson is correct to say that the Biden-Ukraine situation is more complicated than many people think. Hunter Biden — drunk, drug addict, and all-around hot mess — seems like a grifter who has tried to benefit from his father’s political power. That doesn’t make Joe Biden guilty of anything, but the Hunter affair muddies the waters significantly.
Whatever the truth in the Biden-Ukraine matter, are we conservatives really prepared to sign off on an American president using the threat of withholding US aid to another country to strongarm that country’s leadership into doing dirty work against that president’s domestic political opponents? Think about what a future Democratic president could do with this precedent.
I’m not going to say at this point that impeachment proceedings should begin. We have to know what, exactly, is in the whistleblower memo. Besides, I agree with Erick Erickson here:
Let me confess something that bothers me — I don’t trust the media to get the Trump-Ukraine story right. But I also don’t trust conservative media outlets to do anything other than provide spin.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) September 23, 2019
I do wish, though, that Republican Senators would act like they care more about the rule of law and their responsibility to protect basic American institutions than they do about protecting the exposed flank of Donald Trump.
But then, as Lindsey Graham reminded us in that unforgettable Kavanaugh hearing discourse, the Democrats will stop at nothing to get what they want. There is a reason why many conservatives who cannot stand Donald Trump saw the Kavanaugh hearings, and were reminded of what the alternative is.
Washington is such a sewer. I guess it always was, and we happen to live in a time when the veil has been lifted. It’s dangerous, though, when the virtues don’t mean anything, and it’s all openly about power, and nothing but. Today Trump showed up at the UN, and said, in this presser, “What Biden did is a disgrace. What his son did is a disgrace.” It’s genius — immoral genius, but genius. He’s fomenting, and taking advantage of, confusion, including the fact that nobody really knows who to trust. Do you trust the mainstream media to get this story right? I don’t. Do you trust the conservative media to do so? I don’t. But this really is a huge story: if it’s true, the President of the United States tried to strongarm the government of another country to help him out in a domestic political contest by investigating a rival. That’s a banana republic move.
UPDATE:David French explains why it’s important to stay focused on what Trump actually did in the Ukraine controversy — we don’t have all the details yet — and not get caught up in spinning for the president. Excerpt:
It’s urgent that Congress discover the truth of the matter, and the reason is plain: a president simply must not use the awesome power of his office to coerce or pressure a foreign government to investigate a domestic rival. The gravity of the sin is magnified when that rival is in a desperate, dependent position — in this case, locked in armed conflict with a vastly militarily superior foe. A Trump request would have been improper even if the call represented a conversation between equals, but it was not a conversation between equals.
Those words do not mean that Joe and Hunter Biden’s conduct in Ukraine was proper. The Bidens should answer questions about that conduct. And of course Trump can tweet about their conflicts of interest every hour of every day, if he chose. But there is a vast difference between campaigning for office by calling attention to your potential rival’s known controversies and utilizing the official duties and powers of the presidency to push for foreign investigations. How easy would it be for a nation desperate for American aid to make a “finding” of wrongdoing that assists the very man who controls the receipt of vital military aid?
This is true, and urgently so. Ukraine is in a desperate position, and cannot afford to alienate the American president. Based on what we already know to be true, Trump had no business bringing this up with the new president of Ukraine. That doesn’t mean it’s an impeachable offense (we would have to know more before making that determination), but this is a bright red line for a US president to cross. It doesn’t become any less severe if we discover that Joe and Hunter Biden engaged in dodgy behavior either. The Bidens’ fooling around with Ukraine is certainly fair game for Trump. But we cannot have a situation in which a US president more or less blackmails a foreign government dependent on US aid to involve itself in punishing that president’s domestic political rivals.