There are those who remember the early seventies. Nixon won a second term easily enough. George McGovern, a good man, inspired no one, and two weeks after the Democrats settled on him, his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, became a problem. Eagleton had been hospitalized and received electroshock therapy for “nervous exhaustion” and “depression” several times during the sixties. That wouldn’t do. But no one else wanted the job. McGovern finally convinced Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy, to give it a go, but it was too late. Sargent Shriver would be no one’s vice president. Nixon won a second term, and then had all of the Watergate stuff catch up with him, and fumed and plotted and lied and withheld evidence, and then resigned because he was going to be impeached, and actually be removed from office. That would be a first for any president in the nation’s history. And that wasn’t going to happen to him. He resigned, a long time ago, on August 9, 1974 – just a few days after “Mama” Cass Elliot died in her sleep in London, and the Mamas and the Papas were no more.
That really was a long time ago, and although Bill Clinton was impeached, over not much and exonerated, we’ve never had a president in that much trouble since, until now. Friday, September 20, 2019, was when everything collapsed – stories from the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post and then the New York Times, one right after the other, that all come down to what the Washington Post reported here:
When President Trump spoke on the telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in late July, the Ukrainians had a lot at stake. They were waiting on millions in stalled military aid from the United States, and Zelensky was seeking a high-priority White House meeting with Trump.
Trump told his Ukrainian counterpart that his country could improve its image if it completed corruption cases that have “inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA,” according to a readout of the call released by Kiev.
What neither government said publicly at the time was that Trump went even further – specifically pressing Ukraine’s president to reopen a corruption investigation involving former vice president Joe Biden’s son, according to two people familiar with the call, which is now the subject of an explosive whistleblower complaint.
Three sources now confirm that Trump asked a foreign power to help him win an election, perhaps again. That’s forbidden. But that is what has happened:
Days after the two presidents spoke, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, met with an aide to the Ukrainian president in Madrid and spelled out two specific cases he believed Ukraine should pursue. One was a probe of a Ukrainian gas tycoon who had Biden’s son Hunter on his board. Another was an allegation that Democrats colluded with Ukraine to release information on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort during the 2016 election.
“Your country owes it to us and to your country to find out what really happened,” Giuliani said he told the Ukrainian president’s aide, Andriy Yermak, during the Madrid meeting. Yermak, according to Giuliani, indicated that the Ukrainians were open to pursuing the investigations. The aide reiterated the Ukrainians’ plea for a meeting with Trump, a summit that would be an important signal to Russia of Washington’s support for Ukraine.
“I talked to him about the whole package,” said Giuliani, who has been lobbying Ukrainian officials to take up the investigations since the spring. Yermak did not respond to a request for comment.
It seems that Trump did use his office to try to force a foreign country to take actions damaging to his political opponents. Biden is a crook. Paul Manafort shouldn’t be in prison. The Democrats arranged that!
Rudy may have said too much:
Giuliani said he has kept the president informed of his efforts in Ukraine for months. But he declined to say specifically what he has told the president. “My narrow interest is for the benefit of my client,” he said.
Asked Friday if he had discussed Biden on his call with Zelensky in July, Trump told reporters, “It doesn’t matter what I discussed,” adding: “Someone ought to look into Joe Biden.”
Trump was being restrained. He usually goes all in. What about Hillary’s emails? Why hasn’t someone arrested Obama for that big book deal that’s going to pay him so much? What about OBAMA and the emoluments clause?
Trump didn’t go there, perhaps because he knew better:
National security experts said Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was highly inappropriate.
“This is requesting assistance from a foreign government to tarnish your political rival and opening the door to outside interference in our politics and elections,” said David Kramer, a former State Department official responsible for Russia and Central Europe during the George W. Bush administration.
Giuliani said Trump did not threaten to withhold U.S. funds from Ukraine if the country did not investigate Biden and Democrats.
“He didn’t do that. President Trump didn’t do that,” Giuliani said this week.
However, the Trump administration has held Zelensky at arm’s length since his election in April. Trump refused to set a firm date for an Oval Office meeting with the newly minted Ukrainian president at the White House – a sit-down that Ukraine has urgently sought to demonstrate Washington’s backing as it fights a long-simmering war with Russian-backed proxies in its east. U.S. officials and members of the Trump administration wanted the meeting to go ahead, but Trump personally rejected efforts to set it up, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
By the time Trump and Zelensky spoke during the July 25 telephone call, the meeting at the White House still hadn’t been set. Soon after, it was disclosed that the White House had put a hold on $250 million in military aid for Ukraine after Trump ordered a review of the assistance package.
And now everyone knows what was going on:
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Zelensky this month in a Kiev meeting that the aid was being held back because Trump was concerned about corruption and thought the Europeans should provide Ukraine more assistance, according to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who was in attendance, as well as an aide to Johnson.
A former senior administration official who repeatedly discussed the issue with Trump said that the president thought “what we were doing in Ukraine was pointless and just aggravating the Russians.”
“The president’s position basically is that we should recognize the fact that the Russians should be our friends, and who cares about the Ukrainians?” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
And some people had no idea what was going on:
U.S. Embassy officials in Kiev repeatedly expressed concerns about the contacts between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials. They have not been privy to most of the discussions, and at times, have only learned later from the Ukrainians, who said they were unsure if Giuliani was officially speaking for the U.S. government, according to two officials with knowledge of the matter.
But he was up to something:
Giuliani has pushed Ukrainian officials to renew an investigation into the activities of Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas producer while his father handled U.S.-Ukraine policy.
In particular, Giuliani has alleged Biden advocated for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor who at one point had overseen an anti-corruption probe of the gas producer’s owner. However, the case had been dormant before the prosecutor’s firing, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials, and the U.S. ambassador at the time publicly called for the case against the gas tycoon to proceed.
Yuri Lutsenko, the former Ukrainian prosecutor general who succeeded the fired prosecutor, told Bloomberg News in May that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.
But Giuliani has said there is more to uncover, adding that his goal is to make sure Biden didn’t become president without having to answer for the issues in Ukraine.
That’s an odd business. Biden called for the ouster of a corrupt prosecutor, but that was never in dispute. Everyone and the IMF wanted him gone. There was no disagreement. Biden was speaking for all of the western nations. The Ukrainians agreed. That was an easy call. There was no controversy, but Rudy says there was, and now the Ukrainians are puzzled.
And there’s this:
Giuliani has also urged Ukraine to investigate whether Democrats colluded with Ukrainian authorities during the 2016 election to put out information damaging to Manafort, who is now serving a 7½-year prison sentence for financial crimes related to lobbying he did for a Russia-aligned politician in Ukraine.
Manafort ran the Trump campaign for many months, right up to the Republican Convention, and then waves and waves of accusations hit him, all of them true in the end. That embarrassed Trump. Giuliani is not saying that Manafort wasn’t a crook. He’s saying that the Democrats evilly paid or bribed or extorted the Ukrainians to reveal the truth, that Manafort was a crook all along, to embarrass Trump – and the Ukrainians can prove that, and should. And they want nothing to do with any of this:
People close to Zelensky have told American officials that if there is a case to pursue, they will follow it and the law – an attempt by Zelensky and his aides to avoid getting drawn into a partisan political fight in the United States.
“For us, the important thing is to not get involved,” said one Ukrainian official earlier this summer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“There is nothing good that can come from this,” he added. “I don’t want us to be used.”
It’s too late for that, and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker sees a pattern here:
Much as he did three years ago – when he asked Russia to hack the emails of his Democratic rival – President Trump on Friday seemed to make a similar request of Ukraine, all but urging the Eastern European nation to investigate Joe Biden, his potential Democratic opponent.
“It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this – somebody ought to look into Joe Biden,” Trump said Friday in the Oval Office, swatting away questions about whether he had improperly attempted to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on the former vice president.
It was 2016 all over again, when Trump looked directly into the camera and exhorted a geopolitical foe to steal the emails of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, and release them to the public.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said in July of that year, referring to the trove of messages that Clinton deleted from a private email server. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
So yes, if Ukraine happened to be listening Friday, the president’s desired outcome could not have been more clear.
That may be bold, and seem stupid, but it may be quite clever:
For Trump, controversial public disclosures have become almost routine, with the president saying the potentially scandalous part aloud. It is a form of shamelessness worn as a badge of protection – on the implicit theory that the president’s alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view.
Hey, Nixon never thought of that:
Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, said Trump manages to “worm out of things” by making his bad behavior so blatant.
“I think the normal reaction for a lot of people is that something that someone does in public, it takes away the idea that it’s nefarious,” Akerman said. “They think, ‘Would he really be doing it in public if there was something wrong with it?'”
That is clever, but maybe it isn’t:
Akerman added that when Trump takes actions such as asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails or publicly pressuring Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, not to cooperate with prosecutors, his intent is the same – whether he acts publicly or behind closed doors.
“What he’s been saying in public is the kind of thing I used to prosecute people for doing in private,” Akerman said.
Trump, then, is in trouble either way, but he has moved beyond Nixon to what may be a safe zone:
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said Trump’s sheer brazenness makes him a difficult target for his critics and puts him outside the scope of previous leaders brought low by high crimes and misdemeanors.
“There’s a striking contrast between Watergate, where secret tapes helped bring about the downfall of a president, and the Trump White House, where many of the statements that violate the norms of the presidency are made right out in public,” Nyhan said. “His opponents are routinely uncertain how to proceed, because they’ve never encountered a political opponent who so directly states what they mean even when it’s politically scandalous.”
But there are limits to this:
In a combative and disjointed interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Thursday evening, Giuliani contradicted himself in rapid succession, first saying he had never asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, before shouting that he had, in fact, pushed for such an investigation.
“Of course I did!” Giuliani said.
On Friday, Hillary Clinton tweeted out a clip of the interview, offering a stark rejoinder of her own.
“The president asked a foreign power to help him win an election,” she wrote. “Again.”
Trump is good at this. Giuliani isn’t, but Andrew Sullivan sees a much larger problem here:
Once again, Trump was seeking support from a foreign power in order to influence next year’s presidential election. Hey, he got away with it once. Why not twice?
Do I believe that Trump is perfectly capable of using his office to lean on a foreign government to expose a political opponent? Well, duh. And do I believe that he and his attorney general will do everything they can to keep this bottled up and away from the congressional oversight it clearly merits and legally requires? Of course they will. And the worst of it is: They have a point.
The trouble in our constitutional system is that a confidential presidential phone conversation with a foreign leader is obviously covered by executive privilege. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the most defensible cases of executive privilege there is. The president must have the ability to speak candidly with foreign leaders, and his conversations should not be available to anyone outside the Executive branch. Separation of powers requires that even the Congress be excluded from the details of this kind of discussion. And yet that discussion may well present a real threat to national security, and constitute an impeachable offense.
Which will it be? There’s no good answer. No one thought that might be a problem:
The elevation of a despicable, shameless liar and con artist to the presidency has revealed a core weakness in the U.S. Constitution. Its attribution of executive authority to one individual, the president, gives that individual extraordinary control over the entire government. If that individual is a traitor, a crook, or a pathological liar, too bad. You either impeach him… or he wins. You begin to understand why the Roman republic vested this kind of authority in two men, so that if one were corrupt, the other might correct it.
We have no such system. We have, in effect, a dictator of sorts. And since Trump has no other way of operating, we have slid – perhaps irrevocably – away from liberal democracy toward an elected form of tyranny. The Founders simply assumed that a figure as depraved as Trump would never win an election.
But it’s even worse than that:
More to the point, his criminality is backed by a solid majority of his own party. It seems increasingly likely to me that Trump’s “defense” will be to admit he did it, and insist there’s nothing wrong with it. And who believes that the GOP won’t support him on this?
So there’s only one thing left to do:
As I’ve said over and over again, the instinctual tyrant never stands still. Each time he survives, he moves the baseline. The corruption – profound now – will only intensify. The abuse of power will grow. Each time we fail to hold the tyrant accountable is an opportunity for him to up the ante yet again. Which is to say there is one obvious remedy for this lawlessness and borderline treason. Impeach!
Sullivan is not alone. There’s George Conway, the noted lawyer in New York and the husband of Trump’s main defender on staff, Kellyanne Conway, and Neal Katyal, the law professor at Georgetown University, the former acting solicitor general of the United States, and these two say this:
Among the most delicate choices the framers made in drafting the Constitution was how to deal with a president who puts himself above the law. To address that problem, they chose the mechanism of impeachment and removal from office. And they provided that this remedy could be used when a president commits “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
That last phrase – “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” – was a historical term of art, derived from impeachments in the British Parliament. When the framers put it into the Constitution, they didn’t discuss it much, because no doubt they knew what it meant. It meant, as Alexander Hamilton later phrased it, “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
And that concept isn’t complicated:
Simply put, the framers viewed the president as a fiduciary, the government of the United States as a sacred trust and the people of the United States as the beneficiaries of that trust. Through the Constitution, the framers imposed upon the president the duty and obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” and made him swear an oath that he would fulfill that duty of faithful execution. They believed that a president would break his oath if he engaged in self-dealing – if he used his powers to put his own interests above the nation’s. That would be the paradigmatic case for impeachment.
And here we are:
It appears that the president might have used his official powers – in particular, perhaps the threat of withholding a quarter-billion dollars in military aid – to leverage a foreign government into helping him defeat a potential political opponent in the United States.
If Trump did that, it would be the ultimate impeachable act.
But that would be one of many:
Trump has already done more than enough to warrant impeachment and removal with his relentless attempts, on multiple fronts, to sabotage the counterintelligence and criminal investigation by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and to conceal evidence of those attempts. The president’s efforts were impeachable because, in committing those obstructive acts, he put his personal interests above the nation’s. He tried to stop an investigation into whether a hostile foreign power, Russia, tried to interfere with our democracy – simply because he seemed to find it personally embarrassing. Trump breached his duty of faithful execution to the nation not only because he likely broke the law but also because, through his disregard for the law, he put his self-interest first.
It’s all the same thing, but now it may be even worse:
Unlike the allegations of conspiracy with Russia before the 2016 election, these concern Trump’s actions as president, not as a private citizen, and his exercise of presidential powers over foreign policy with Ukraine. Moreover, with Russia, at least there was an attempt to get the facts through the Mueller investigation; here the White House is trying to shut down the entire inquiry from the start – depriving not just the American people, but even congressional intelligence committees, of necessary information.
It is high time for Congress to do its duty, in the manner the framers intended.
It does feel like the summer of 1974 again, but somehow it’s oddly different, as Fred Kaplan notes here:
Imagine if Richard Nixon had burned the White House tapes, blocked John Dean and other aides from testifying before Congress, and locked himself in the Oval Office, impervious to pressure from even leading lights of his own party – that’s what we’re seeing with Donald Trump, except that his Republican Party controls a majority in the Senate and almost none of its members seem to care about what he’s doing.
This is far beyond Nixon. Think back to August 9, 1974, at noon, a few minutes after Nixon had left the building. Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath and was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States, and gave a brief acceptance speech, broadcast live to the nation. He was being comforting – “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
He was wrong.