As ever with any Trump corruption story, we should wait to know more before drawing any firm conclusions. But this morning’s headline looks very bad:
President Trump personally ordered his staff to freeze more than $391 million in aid to Ukraine in the days before he pressed the new Ukrainian president to investigate the Democrats’ leading presidential candidate, two senior administration officials said Monday.
Mr. Trump issued his directive to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who conveyed it through the budget office to the Pentagon and the State Department, which were told only that the administration was looking at whether the spending was necessary, the officials said.
Note the sources: two senior administration officials. The aid was military aid, which the country needed to protect itself against Russia’s proxy fighters. This wasn’t just aid to build community centers; this was aid to buy weapons needed to protect a country at war.
If this is true, then the President of the United States took aid away vulnerable, strategically important country, and indicated to the new leader of that country that if he wanted that money back, it would be in his interest to open an investigation of POTUS’s domestic political rival.
If Trump did this, and if he is not held accountable for it, what’s to stop him from using US foreign policy to compel the governments of other dependent nations to act in the interests of the Trump Organization? Seriously, if Trump will operationalize US foreign policy to serve his domestic political interests, what’s to stop him from doing it to serve his personal business interests?
Second, Trump is happy to pit his overt abuses of power against the soft corruption of his foes. This is an aspect of Trumpism that the president’s critics find particularly infuriating — the way he attacks his rivals for being corrupt swamp creatures while being so much more nakedly compromised himself. But whether the subject is the Clinton Foundation’s influence-peddling or now the Biden family’s variation on that theme, Trump has always sold himself as the candidate of a more honest form of graft — presenting his open cynicism as preferable to carefully legal self-dealing, exquisitely laundered self-enrichment, the spirit of “hey, it’s totally normal for the vice president’s son to get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Ukrainians or the Chinese so long as every disclosure form gets filled out and his dad doesn’t talk to him about the business.”
In fact this sort of elite seaminess is bad, but what Trump offers isn’t preferable: Hypocrisy is better than naked vice, soft corruption is better than the more open sort, and what the president appears to have done in leaning on the Ukrainian government is much worse than Hunter Biden’s overseas arrangements. But no one should be surprised that some voters in our age of mistrust and fragmentation and despair prefer the honest graft — some in Trump’s base, and also some in the ranks of the alienated and aggrieved middle, the peculiar Obama-Trump constituency.
Indeed, history is replete with “boss”-style politicians who got away with corruption because they were seen as the rough, effective alternative to a smug, hypocritical elite. Trump’s crucial political weakness is that unlike those bosses, he hasn’t delivered that much to many of his voters. But that may make him all the more eager to return to the politics of comparative corruption, to have the argument again about whether he’s more ethically challenged than the swamp. He may not win it, but at least he’s playing a part that he knows well.
That’s going to be the main Republican pushback against Trump impeachment over Ukraine: that the Biden family is guilty of a more socially acceptable form of it. But I agree with Douthat: as skeezy as drunkard failson Hunter Biden is, what Trump is said to have done is much worse.
Think about what this does to America’s reputation in the world. If Trump did what he appears to have done, other nations now have to be afraid that taking American aid makes them vulnerable to being pushed around by a corrupt American president, who will use it to force those nations to work for his domestic political goals. I have no problem with America expecting recipients of our foreign aid to give us something in return for our generosity. But that “something” ought to be in the interests of America, not of the American president.
This is a bright red line, it seems to me. Again: if Trump did this, and if he gets away with it, what kind of serious damage will that do to America’s credibility with other nations? And what is going to prevent Trump from using his power as head of the most powerful state on earth to bully other nations into undermining his domestic political opponents?
If — again, if — the allegations are verified, then the Republicans — both Washington lawmakers and voters — are going to have to decide if they are loyal to a man, or to the country and its interests. All who support Trump, whether eagerly or reluctantly, know that they have to overlook sleazy behavior. The question is, how much are they — well, we, because as much as I cannot stand Trump, I genuinely fear the Democrats in power — anyway, the question is how much are we willing to overlook before we say, “That’s enough. You’ve gone too far”?
Let the White House release the transcript of the phone call Trump had with the new Ukrainian president. Depending on what’s in it, I am leaning towards opening an impeachment inquiry. That’s not to say that the president should be impeached. But based on what we already know to be true, this is the most serious violation of norms (at least!) that he has yet done. This is not about what Trump might have done in the 2016 election, regarding Russia; this is what he allegedly has done and might yet do to involve foreign powers to affect the 2020 election.
This is a big deal. Right now, we know that Trump spoke to the Ukrainian president about investigating Biden. Trump has said so himself. And to repeat, this morning, two unnamed senior administration officials said that the president withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in advance of that phone call. Trump’s case that he did nothing wrong lies on his repeated statements yesterday that he had not explicitly offered Ukraine President Zelensky a quid pro quo. That’s pretty weak.
We need to see that transcript. And we need to be confident that it is a truthful and accurate account of what was said between Trump and Zelensky.