Something for Nothing

Things got serious. Donald Trump wanted something and the Ukrainians had it – dirt on Hunter Biden, thus dirt on his father, Joe Biden, and he made an offer the Ukrainian couldn’t refuse. He’d free up the military aid Congress had said he had to release to the Ukrainians. He’d do that for that dirt on the Biden father and son. That would sink Joe. Trump would easily win reelection. And the Ukrainian couldn’t refuse. That military aid was critical in keeping the Russians from overrunning Ukraine – and everyone knows that Vladimir Putin is Trump’s personal friend and confidant. In exchange for that dirt on either Biden, or both, he’d chat with Putin. Maybe he could talk Putin down. He’d give it a try, if he got that dirt. Otherwise, there’d be no military aid – let Congress fret and fume – he didn’t have to do a damned thing they say. So, did the Ukrainians want to survive as a nation? Donald Trump wanted something, and the Russians were right here, waiting for their answer. Would Trump get what he wanted? Think carefully.

That was one way to look at things the day after Nancy Pelosi changed her mind and opened the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, because presidents aren’t supposed to do such things. But it wasn’t quite that simple. Things moved too fast, and at the end of the day, Peter Baker noted that all this happened:

President Trump repeatedly pressured Ukraine’s leader to investigate leading Democrats as “a favor” to him during a telephone call last summer in which the two discussed the former Soviet republic’s need for more American financial aid to counter Russian aggression.

In a reconstruction of the call released Wednesday by the White House, Mr. Trump urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Attorney General William P. Barr and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, on corruption investigations connected to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats.

That did look bad:

Although there was no explicit quid pro quo in the conversation, Mr. Trump raised the matter immediately after Mr. Zelensky spoke of his country’s need for more help from the United States. The call came only days after Mr. Trump blocked $391 million in aid to Ukraine, a decision that perplexed national security officials at the time and that he has given conflicting explanations for in recent days.

The aid freeze did not come up during the call, and Mr. Zelensky was not yet aware of it. Instead, he thanked Mr. Trump for previous American aid, including Javelin anti-tank weapons, and suggested he would need more as part of Ukraine’s five-year-old war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.

“I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Mr. Trump responded, shifting to his interest in investigating Democrats and urging that he work with Mr. Barr and Mr. Giuliani.

“Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” Mr. Trump said.

This seemed like a smoking gun, which made no sense. Why would Trump release this? It seems he thought this was innocent chit-chat:

In a series of public appearances on Wednesday that veered from bristling with anger to uncharacteristically subdued, Mr. Trump insisted that he did nothing wrong and was once again the victim of “a total hoax.” Mr. Zelensky, who by an odd coincidence was in New York for a previously scheduled meeting with Mr. Trump, backed him up by saying during a session with reporters that he did not feel pushed by the president.

“It’s a joke,” Mr. Trump said. “Impeachment for that?”

But House Democrats denounced Mr. Trump for seeking foreign help to tear down Mr. Biden, a leading rival for his job, and said the quid pro quo was implied and clear, comparing him with a mob boss who makes veiled hints to extort money from his victims.

“The president has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Oops:

The White House released the reconstructed transcript of the call in the morning in hopes of undercutting suspicions about the president’s actions, but it failed to convince Democrats. By the end of the day, the administration similarly sent Congress the original complaint filed by an unidentified intelligence official that triggered the furor that in just a matter of days has put the future of Mr. Trump’s presidency at risk.

The complaint reportedly calls into question a range of actions by the president beyond just the phone conversation. Democrats and at least one Republican who reviewed it on Wednesday said it contained disturbing allegations, and, while still classified, it will be the central issue on Thursday morning when Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, testifies before Congress.

That’s two miscalculations. The loose transcript of the call was damning. The whistleblower complaint was even worse. On the other hand, not releasing either would have been even worse. Trump was stuck, and the day got darker:

As of Wednesday, 218 House members have publicly advocated impeachment or at least an inquiry, reaching a majority for the first time.

And then the arguments began:

Few Republicans broke with Mr. Trump on Wednesday. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah called the record of Mr. Trump’s phone call “deeply troubling,” but most others who spoke publicly said it revealed no impeachable action.

“From a quid pro quo aspect, there’s nothing there,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, a Trump ally who served as a House prosecutor during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Democrats said no direct quid pro quo was necessary to conclude that the president overstepped his bounds. But even if it was, they said Mr. Trump’s meaning was hard to miss and the timing of the request to Ukraine coming just after he put the aid on hold was damning.

“There was only one message that that president of Ukraine got from that call and that was: ‘This is what I need, I know what you need,'” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Like any mafia boss, the president didn’t need to say, ‘That’s a nice country you have – it would be a shame if something happened to it.'”

And then things got even stranger:

The meeting on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly could hardly have come at a more charged moment in Ukrainian-American relations. Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian with no prior political experience, was elected this year to take over a country torn by Russian military intervention and desperately dependent on help from the United States and Europe.

Even as he flattered Mr. Trump, the Ukrainian leader made a point of saying he did not actually order the sought-after investigation.

“We have independent country and independent general security, and I can’t push anyone,” Mr. Zelensky said in halting English, referring to the prosecutor general. “So I didn’t call somebody or the new general security. I didn’t ask him I didn’t push him.”

The former comedian still has it – he can use irony as a weapon – he’s not the jerk here. And then there’s the very conservative David French writing at the very conservative National Review:

I haven’t been a litigator since 2015. I haven’t conducted a proper cross-examination since 2014. But if I couldn’t walk a witness, judge, and jury through the transcript of Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and demonstrate that a quid pro quo was more likely than not, then I should just hang up my suit and retire in disgrace. The actual sequence is extremely tight, and the asks are very clear.

Then he dives into the text and proves that – if anyone wants actual proof – but there was more on the way:

The intelligence officer who filed a whistle-blower complaint about President Trump’s interactions with the leader of Ukraine raised alarms not only about what the two men said in a phone call, but also about how the White House handled records of the conversation, according to two people briefed on the complaint.

The whistle-blower, moreover, identified multiple White House officials as witnesses to potential presidential misconduct who could corroborate the complaint, the people said – adding that the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, interviewed witnesses.

Mr. Atkinson eventually concluded that there was reason to believe that the president might have illegally solicited a foreign campaign contribution — and that his potential misconduct created a national security risk, according to a newly disclosed Justice Department memo.

In short, this wasn’t just one guy, but that couldn’t be covered up forever:

Bowing to pressure, the Trump administration permitted members of the intelligence committees and congressional leaders to read a copy of the complaint, which remains classified, late on Wednesday.

Its allegations were “deeply disturbing” and “very credible,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said after emerging from reviewing the complaint.

After reading it, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee told reporters that it contained far more information that reinforced their mounting concerns. They could disclose very little, but several of the lawmakers said it discussed other witnesses.

“It was very well written and certainly provides information for the committee to follow up with other witnesses and documents,” Mr. Schiff said.

So this too made things worse. Too many things had gone wrong in just one day, and the New York Times team of Maggie Haberman and Michael Crowley and Katie Rogers saw and heard this:

President Trump’s mood went from feisty to self-pitying to deflated on Wednesday as he fended off questions about a July phone call in which he urged the president of Ukraine to work with Attorney General William P. Barr on potential corruption investigations connected to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democratic rival.

Although Mr. Trump sought to present a business-as-usual image in his annual trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly – by highlighting a trade deal with Japan, among other things – his anger and anxiousness took over his day, aides said. He appeared aggrieved in comments to reporters ahead of a meeting with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, but by late afternoon, Mr. Trump appeared so exhausted that he spoke unusually slowly at a rambling news conference meant to sum up his trip at the United Nations.

He was spooked. He had been cornered. Or he had cornered himself. He resorted to angry whining:

He opened by naming 28 countries whose leaders he had met with and said that unfortunately reporters were far more interested in his phone call with Mr. Zelensky. “I’ve been up from early in the morning until late in the evening and meeting with different countries, all for the good of our country,” Mr. Trump said. “And the press doesn’t even cover all of this.”

Then he moved on to the call, and the words he said spoke to the Ukrainian president.

“They were perfect,” Mr. Trump said. “They were all perfect.”

He added: “I didn’t threaten anybody. In fact, the press was asking questions of the president of Ukraine and he said, no pressure. I used the word pressure and I think he used the word push, but he meant pressure, but it’s the same thing. No push, no pressure, no nothing. It is all a hoax, folks. It is all a big hoax.”

Just don’t ask him about the substance of any of this:

The president went so far as to suggest that his enemies had intentionally sabotaged his excellent adventure in Manhattan. “So that was all planned like everything else,” Mr. Trump said. “It was all planned. And the witch hunt continues,” he said.

There was nothing else he could say:

Although several of the president’s allies sought to play down the contents of the reconstructed transcript of the call released Wednesday, two people close to Mr. Trump said that the transcript matched what they knew of his dealings with world leaders on the phone. One former senior official called it the typical playbook: Engage in flattery, discuss mutual cooperation and bring up a favor that then could be delegated to another person on Mr. Trump’s team.

At the White House, a grim sense of frustration has set in… The White House counsel’s office is prepared for an impeachment inquiry, but other departments in the West Wing are badly depleted by staff departures and plagued by exhaustion.

All of them know what’s coming, but they did what they could:

In the morning, White House officials briefed about a dozen Republican members of the House and Senate on the reconstructed call, providing them with talking points. Mr. Trump called into the meeting as the members sat around the table in the Roosevelt Room, insisting it was a hoax and that Democrats had gone overboard in pursuing him, people briefed on the meeting said.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies said he saw impeachment as a good political opportunity that would result in a backlash against the Democrats.

But they knew better:

Anger from some current and former administration officials was directed at Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s longtime friend and personal lawyer, who had repeatedly told Mr. Trump that he believed Ukraine was involved in the 2016 election interference, a notion on which the president fixated. The aides believe that Mr. Giuliani, eager to land something that would please Mr. Trump, had gotten too far out on a limb. And they cringed at his television appearances.

And so the day ended:

Mr. Trump had little chance to catch up with his media coverage at the United Nations, but aides said they were bracing for the president to react angrily when he finally saw some of it after a fundraiser on Wednesday night in New York, to be held at the Upper East Side home of John Paulson, a hedge fund manager.

Brace for what will come. His anger is now legendary. He holds grudges forever. And this is special:

It was not a country that would naturally have seemed high on the priority list of a president who came to office relishing a trade clash with China, promising to reorder the Middle East and haranguing European allies to spend more on NATO. But for President Trump, Ukraine has been an obsession since the 2016 campaign.

Long before the July 25 call with the new Ukrainian president that helped spur the formal start of impeachment proceedings against him in the House, Mr. Trump fretted and fulminated about the former Soviet state, angry over what he sees as Ukraine’s role in the origins of the investigations into Russian influence on his 2016 campaign.

He does have a grudge:

Mr. Trump’s focus on Ukraine started after a law enforcement organization, the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, released damaging information about cash payments earmarked to his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, by the Russia-aligned political party of Ukraine’s ousted former president.

Even after Mr. Manafort stepped down from the Trump campaign under pressure, he insisted to Mr. Trump’s aides that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was behind the surfacing of the documents revealing the payments, and questioned the authenticity of the documents.

Mr. Manafort remained in contact with Mr. Trump’s aides through the election. And during the presidential transition, Mr. Manafort told people that he was discussing possible investigations with the president-elect’s team into whether Ukrainians tried to undermine the Trump campaign through the release of damaging information about Mr. Manafort.

Mr. Trump was briefed on the subject, and would consider pursuing investigations “if the Democrats keep pushing” investigations into Russian meddling on Mr. Trump’s behalf, Mr. Manafort told people in the days before the inauguration.

So, the Ukrainians had always been out to get him, and there’s this:

Mixed in with the issues related to Mr. Manafort is the unsubstantiated theory that the hack of Democratic National Committee emails in 2016 could have been carried out by Ukrainians who in turn pinned the blame on Russia – something that Mr. Trump brought up in general terms with Mr. Zelensky on the July 25 call.

That might be the oddest part of this. Drew Harwell is a technology reporter for the Washington Post and notes this:

For years cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike was a source of news, not a subject, as it unraveled some of the world’s most notorious hacks.

But ever since the company exposed Russian intrusions into Democratic Party computers in 2016 – findings President Trump repeatedly has attacked – CrowdStrike has been a subject of allegations that rippled through conservative news sources, onto social media, into the criminal trial of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone and, finally, in July, into a call between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart.

The release Wednesday of the text of that call prompted an ecstatic response on right-wing corners of the Internet. “CROWDSTRIKE IS BACK ON THE MENU BOYS,” said one thread Wednesday on the Reddit message board devoted to pro-Trump discussion.

The server with everything that will finally destroy Hillary Clinton was stolen by George Soros or Joy Reid and it’s in Ukraine now! Hillary Clinton can be destroyed! Trump wants that server and he wants it now!

Volodymyr Zelensky must be a bit puzzled, but Michael D’Antonio – who wrote Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success – sees what’s going on here:

Donald Trump is facing accountability for the first time in his life…

Why would Trump use a phone call with a foreign leader to ask for a blatantly personal and political favor? I would suggest that Trump expects the government to function like his personal business – and as a result he can’t imagine that anything he might desire would be out of bounds for a president.

Throughout his life, Trump has operated under special conditions that allowed him to get away with almost anything. The classic example came when his extremely wealthy father bailed out his casino by purchasing $3.5 million worth of chips at a blackjack table and then left the casino without gambling. This gambit broke state regulations, but the resulting fine – $30,000 – was paltry, and the deposit provided much-needed cash flow.

Family wealth bailed Trump out of other difficulties and made it possible for him to take risks that others would have avoided. Bankruptcy followed bankruptcy, but because Trump’s family money was protected by corporate structures, he maintained his high-profile lifestyle and kept on promoting himself as a super-successful businessman. He spread lies about the prominent women who had allegedly pursued him as a romantic partner, and he offered wildly varying claims about his personal wealth. Trump has even said that his net worth depends on how he feels at a given moment.

The truth about Trump remained elusive because so much of what he claimed could not be verified. His privately held businesses were not required to produce accurate public financial reports, and they never did. Meanwhile, how do you determine whether, as Trump claimed, he had once been one of the best young baseball players in New York?

As his biographer, I put time into checking Trump’s claims and discovered that many, like the one about his baseball prowess, were false. But these lies didn’t threaten the whole country…

Now they do, but Trump has finally met his match:

What Trump seems to have ignored is that the American President operates in a system designed to check abuses – and that the government he heads might be filled with people of conscience. As this scandal unfolds, the administration will come to learn the meaning of accountability. For Trump personally, it will be the first time.

And it may be his last. He will be impeached, not convicted, just impeached, and Frank Bruni has a warning about that:

How vulnerable will drawn-out impeachment proceedings make him feel? How impotent? How desperate? To flex his power, vent his fury or distract the audience, what would he do? He’s untethered by scruple. He’s capable of anything. Maybe it’s not just a culture war that he’d whip up. Maybe it’s the real thing.

Certainly he’d do all he could to persuade Americans of the nefariousness of Democrats, and absolutely his strategy would be to smear the people, the procedures and the institutions arrayed against him as utterly unworthy of trust. If holding on to power meant ruling over rubble, so be it. Trump is beholden only to Trump, and he’d simply declare the rubble gold dust.

Of course he would. This is all about getting something for nothing. And that was the nation’s choice. There’d be no price to pay for this man’s utter disruption of everything. But there’s always a price to pay.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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