Why President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scheme matters



November 25, 2019 - 10:22 AM

Over the last two weeks, in sworn testimony from experienced public servants with no political axes to grind, the American people have learned that President Trump orchestrated a scheme to extract what he called a “favor” from a foreign leader by withholding a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, against his own administration’s policy and the bipartisan wishes of Congress.

And yet the details of the Ukraine story — involving veiled threats, Latin phrases, less genteel “Trumpspeak” and “irregular channels” of diplomacy — don’t map neatly onto some Americans’ idea of obvious wrongdoing. One nagging question for many is whether Mr. Trump was really doing all this for himself, rather than in pursuit of the American national interest. It’s a crucial question; in fact, it’s at the heart of the inquiry.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with conditioning foreign aid on compliance with established foreign policy goals. But that’s not what Mr. Trump did. To the contrary, every known piece of evidence offered so far points in the other direction.

To list just a few: Rudy Giuliani, who was behind the Ukraine operation, has said publicly that he was seeking investigations damaging to Mr. Trump’s political rival in his capacity as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, and to advance Mr. Trump’s personal interests.

Multiple impeachment witnesses have testified that Mr. Trump did not care about systemic corruption in Ukraine, a longstanding focus of American foreign policy, including in the Trump administration. On Thursday, David Holmes, a career diplomat working in the embassy in Kyiv, testified that Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, agreed that Mr. Trump didn’t care about Ukraine and that he only cared about “big stuff,” like investigating the Bidens.

Then there’s the fact that, as noted in the Lawfare blog, Mr. Trump approved military aid to Ukraine in 2017 and 2018, even though Hunter Biden’s role as a director of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma was well-known at the time. Mr. Trump and his Republican allies now say that it’s in the national interest to get to the bottom of how it could be that Hunter Biden was serving for five years, at great financial benefit to himself, on the Burisma board.

This page was worried about that question in 2015. It’s interesting that Mr. Trump didn’t become fixated on it until 2019. What changed this year? Well, Hunter’s father, Joe Biden, became a presidential candidate.

And of course, there is the summary of Mr. Trump’s July 25 “perfect” call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Despite Mr. Trump’s exhortations that Americans “read the transcript,” it is not exculpatory. In fact, it provides the most direct evidence to date that Mr. Trump was seeking a bribe: When Mr. Zelensky brought up the military aid, Mr. Trump appeared to condition it (“do us a favor though”) on the announcement of investigations into Ukraine’s supposed interference in the 2016 election and the purported corruption of Mr. Biden and his son.

Not direct enough for you? Mr. Trump made it easier about a week after the release of the call summary. Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn last month, the president called on China to investigate the Bidens, too. He added, ominously, “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”

Mr. Trump’s more honest defenders don’t deny the basic story here. Instead, they argue that soliciting help from a foreign government for personal political gain is just not that bad. Mr. Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were “inappropriate” and “not how the executive should handle such things,” said Representative Will Hurd of Texas, but he shouldn’t be impeached for them. That’s far too glib a judgment. The nation’s founders made that clear by listing bribery as one of just two specific offenses meriting impeachment.

At the constitutional convention in 1787, Gouverneur Morris agreed that impeachment was a tool Congress needed to deal with a corrupt chief executive. “He may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust, and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay, without being able to guard against it by displacing him,” Morris said. “This Magistrate is not the King but the prime minister. The people are the King.”

Another framer, George Mason, asked, “Shall any man be above justice?” He added, “Shall the man who has practiced corruption, and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt?”

Nearly a decade later, in his farewell address to the nation, George Washington warned Americans “to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

Why were the framers so concerned about bribery and foreign influence? Because they had plenty of evidence of the damage it could do. They were designing the world’s first attempt at large-scale republican self-government, and they knew its success, and even survival, would depend on elected leaders who represented the people’s interest, not their own.

In other words, Americans agree to give their elected officials power over them, and those officials agree to exercise that power on Americans’ behalf. If the nation’s leaders breach that deal by lining their own pockets and bartering the interests of their citizens, they break the trust that self-government and democracy depend on. The testimony so far indicates that it’s even worse in this case. It suggests that Mr. Trump wasn’t simply soliciting a bribe, but doing so to try to rig the next election. It should go without saying that representative democracy cannot work if its leaders are cheating to keep themselves in power.