“America first” was the slogan that helped Trump win the presidency. But he doesn’t seem to believe it’s the tactic that will help him keep it.
Love your nation. Celebrate its sovereignty. Never buy into the misguided idea that someone else’s country should tell you how to run yours. President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week was an ode to chest-thumping nationalism. But in one specialized field of human endeavor, Trump seems to believe that America is not nearly great enough: sliming political rivals.
As a presidential candidate, now and in 2016, Trump has tried to outsource opposition research to countries whose legal systems are awash in corruption or tainted by political influence.
Three years ago, he looked into a bank of TV cameras and implored Russia, “if you’re listening,” to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted State Department emails. (Russia was listening and, we’ve since learned, hopped right to it, as Robert Mueller’s investigation showed.) Trump now faces an impeachment investigation in the House for pressuring Ukraine to dig up damaging information about the 2020 Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Heedless of the impeachment machinery whirring on Capitol Hill, he stood outside the White House on Thursday and told reporters that he’d like to see the Chinese investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter in their country.
In so many other arenas, Trump has denounced and ditched international cooperation. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which Barack Obama had negotiated. He’s questioned whether the NATO military alliance is worth the price. “America first” was the slogan that helped Trump win the presidency. But he doesn’t seem to believe it’s the tactic that will help him keep it.
Trump sees foreign-policy priorities as bargaining chips, advancing or discarding them as his needs change. In an example from 2017, he dialed back public criticism of China because he wanted the country’s help ending North Korea’s nuclear program. That summer, his aides had drafted a speech aimed at intellectual-property theft, which they viewed as a bedrock Chinese trade practice. At Trump’s insistence, they eliminated virtually all references to China in hopes of not offending its leadership at a time when he was coaxing them to lean on North Korea.
These sorts of calculations fall within the bounds of traditional statecraft. What happens, though, when Trump tosses domestic politics into the mix? What if China agreed to plow forward with an investigation into the Bidens at Trump’s behest? Could that induce Trump to go softer in U.S.-China trade talks—negotiations that influence the price of consumer goods, the livelihood of American farmers, and employment levels? When a president conflates personal politics with the national interest, we’re left to wonder.
If Trump was worried about possible corruption involving Americans overseas, he could turn to his own country’s investigators for help examining their dealings. There is, of course, a law-enforcement agency with a long tradition of investigatory work here in the sovereign United States: the FBI. It would be an abuse of power for Trump to order the FBI or the Justice Department to fast-track an investigation into any political opponent, but he would be within his rights to pass along what information he may have, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, told me.
But Trump doesn’t want the bureau on the case. He’s spent much of his presidency savaging the FBI and the broader U.S. intelligence community, airing baseless accusations that they spied on him during the 2016 election. In an interview with ABC News in June, Trump was dismissive of the notion that it’s wrong for foreign governments to provide dirt on political opponents, and that the right thing for campaigns to do when they’re contacted is to involve the FBI.
“But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it,” Trump told the network’s George Stephanopoulos.
Trump conveyed his disdain for the bureau’s leadership—officials he appointed—when Stephanopoulos reminded him that FBI Director Christopher Wray had recently testified to Congress that campaigns should report instances of foreign interference in U.S. elections. “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly it doesn’t happen like that in life,” Trump said. What’s wrong is not only saying, as Trump once did, that you’d accept help from foreign countries in an election, but strong-arming them into tarring a political opponent. After he said he’d like China to probe the Bidens, the Federal Election Commission chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, retweeted a message she’d sent over the summer that it’s illegal to solicit something of value from a foreign national as part of a U.S. election.
“Is this thing on?” Weintraub wrote, cheekily, using a microphone emoji.
Between the entreaties made to China and Ukraine, it’s clear the blowback from 2016 has not made the president any more cautious, and he continues to blur the lines between his own interests and his duties as head of state. Take the batch of text messages released by House Democrats late Thursday night. Right before a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, sent a message to a Zelensky aide. The note suggests that a summit meeting between the two leaders was conditioned on Ukraine’s willingness to investigate a discredited theory that Russia might not have been the ones that pilfered Democratic emails in the 2016 race.
Writing that he had “heard from the White House,” Volker told the aide that if Zelensky would agree in the call to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016,” the administration would “nail down” a meeting between the presidents.
The texts show Ukraine was reluctant to go along with the scheme, which smacks of a quid pro quo. In one note in July, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat there, wrote that Zelensky was “sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.” Yet Ukraine may have decided that defying Trump is too risky. New reports show that Ukraine’s prosecutor general is reviewing how the country handled an investigation into the energy company Burisma Group, on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That inquiry could ostensibly lead to the sort of renewed investigation into the Bidens that Trump wants done.
There’s no obvious parallel to a president so brazenly enlisting foreign countries in schemes to discredit political rivals. As a Republican candidate in the 1968 presidential race, Richard Nixon took steps to sabotage then-President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to reach a Vietnamese peace deal. Using private surrogates, Nixon delivered a message to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he delayed, he might get better terms in a Nixon presidency. Nixon’s aim was to deprive the Democrats of a breakthrough in the war that might tip the election in Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s favor. Johnson would later complain that the ploy amounted to “treason,” as the author John Farrell described in his biography of Nixon.
But Nixon was only a candidate at the time, a private citizen. Trump is a sitting president.
“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty,” he said in his U.N. speech. In the months leading up to that address, we now know, he was compromising U.S. sovereignty and weakening its democracy, all to extinguish the chances of a campaign opponent. In the week after the speech, nothing’s changed.