Is it permissible for a sitting president of the United States to bring pressure to bear on a foreign leader to investigate a political rival of the president for the sole purpose of casting that rival in a negative light?
That is the essential question members of the House of Representatives and Senate must answer for themselves as they confront the impeachment investigation now fully underway in the House. Those who have weighed in thus far on this point include a number of Republican legislators, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham (“If you bring articles of impeachment based on this phone call, I think you’re nuts”) and Iowa’s Joni Ernst (“I’ve looked at the transcript; I don’t see anything there”).
Note: Trump and his defenders never claimed that enlisting a foreign power to intervene in our elections was permissible—only that his campaign had nothing to do with it. Now, he is freely admitting to doing exactly that—and releasing a transcript that proves it.
Much is being made by the president’s defenders that there was no overt quid pro quo from Trump to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tying an impending foreign aid package to Zelensky’s commitment to investigate Biden.
While that much is true, President Trump, wise at least in the ways of influence and pressure, makes plentiful reference to how “very very good” the U.S. has been to Ukraine, despite that goodness not being “reciprocal.”
Zelensky then expresses his appreciation for that support by including the fact that his country has been buying American oil, is prepared to “buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” and that last time he was in the U.S. he stayed at Trump Tower in New York.
“Good. Well, thank you very much and I appreciate that. I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call. Give us a date and we’ll work that out.”
So not only is Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani involved in the now internationalized quest to “get to the bottom” of digging up dirt on Biden and his son, Hunter, whose involvement in Ukrainian politics has been shown to be completely above board, but even the sitting U.S. Attorney General has been enlisted in the effort to discredit what polls are currently saying would be Trump’s most formidable 2020 competitor. (The fact that Attorney General Barr has apparently already signed on to this effort tells us everything we need to know about what is supposed to be his office’s “independence” from the executive branch.)
So: no specific quid pro quo. (No, “If you consent to investigating Biden, I will release this $400 million aid package that has been on my desk for a couple of weeks.”)
Plentiful indication of what Trump is expecting Zelensky to do. (”…whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”)
Plentiful indication from Zelensky that he perfectly understands Trump’s expectation.
“We are already working on cooperation. We are buying American oil but I am very hopeful for a future meeting. We will have more time and more opportunities to discuss these opportunities and get to know each other better. I would like to thank you very much for your support.”
And the thing is: None of that matters.
Whether or not there was a quid pro quo, specific or veiled, is not pertinent to the central, overarching question: Should the president of the United States enlist foreign powers to help influence an American presidential election?
Didn’t we just conclude a multi-year investigation regarding that issue, and wasn’t Trump’s entire defense the endlessly repeated mantra that there was “no collusion!” between his campaign and Russia, whose effort to influence the 2016 election was exhaustively chronicled by U.S. intelligence agencies?
Note: Trump and his defenders never claimed that enlisting a foreign power to intervene in our elections was permissible—only that his campaign had nothing to do with it.
Now, he is freely admitting to doing exactly that—and releasing a transcript that proves it, with the apparent expectation that Republicans and even Democrats would readily see that there was nothing untoward, unethical, unseemly and least of all impeachable in his actions.
So: Are such actions by a sitting U.S. president permissible, allowable, just another day in the life of rough-and-tumble politics, nothing to see here, let’s just keep moving along?
How Senate and House members, and in a much larger and more important sense, the American electorate, comes down on that issue will tell us much about the state of our increasingly fragile democracy as we turn the corner toward an undoubtedly tumultuous 2020.
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For the officially released White House version of the call transcript between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, see here: