A bad day for the president, from Roger Stone’s criminal conviction to Marie Yovanovitch’s moral conviction.
When he was running in 2016, Donald Trump told me that he reminded himself of another presidential candidate — someone, Trump said, who was also tremendously good-looking, a former entertainer and a Democrat-turned-Republican.
The vainglorious Trump felt he was the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
It is true that, like Reagan, Trump has reshaped his party in his own image, fully inhabiting it. But Reagan’s great mission was to thwart the Evil Empire, taunting that he would put a Star Wars shield in the sky. He wanted democratic ideals to supersede authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union.
Trump’s more sinister and incomprehensible aim is to help the Russians whenever he can.
While Reagan’s legacy will be helping to tear down communism and that wall, Trump’s legacy will be turning Republican lawmakers into dupes assisting Russia as it undermines our democracy — and democracy around the world.
Privately, many Republicans say that they do not buy into all of Trump’s deeply disturbing, topsy-turvy policies toward authoritarian regimes. Trump began echoing the Kremlin talking points during his campaign, saying about Vladimir Putin’s Crimea annexation: “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
But G.O.P. pols go along publicly because they are recreants, slavishly trying to hold onto voters who are more intensely aligned with Trump than old-style Republicans.
Republicans may be winning the impeachment battle on Fox News but they are getting clobbered by the classy diplomats demonstrating true patriotism in the hearing room. Republican members of the Intelligence Committee risibly struggle to back up Trump on his demented conspiracy theory — belied by the consensus of the entire U.S. intelligence community — that it was Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 election to help Hillary, rather than Putin who meddled to help Trump.
Nancy Pelosi never spoke truer words than when she chided Trump, “With you, all roads lead to Putin.”
Reagan would be stunned to find Republican members of the House at war with the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. — all to bolster Trump’s tender ego. Their preference seems to be to allow Russian meddling again if that’s what’s necessary for Trump to prevail a year from now.
Despite Republican efforts to throw up a smokescreen, despite their complaints that they are being muzzled even as they pose questions, it is clear that the president was putting his own political interests — looking for dirt on Hillary and the Bidens — above national security and using shady henchmen to do it.
It’s laughable that Donald Trump was concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Rather, the most corrupt president ever was determined to export his own corruption to Ukraine.
The longtime civil servants made clear that history in Ukraine is still being written, that soldiers are dying in the “hot war” between Russian and Ukraine and that subjugating U.S. policy to Trump’s petty, paranoid actions may yet deprive us of a valuable ally.
Alluding to Rudy Giuliani and his indicted cronies, former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch said: “Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old corrupt rules sought to remove me. What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador. How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign, corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”
Because Republicans are now dupes to dictators and sleazy foreign businessmen.
Republicans tried to minimize the former ambassador’s ordeal at the hands of her bosses, suggesting it was a matter for H.R. and noting that she now has a sweet gig at Georgetown University. Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley sarcastically riposted that Yovanovitch getting ousted at the pinnacle of her career no doubt felt “like a Hallmark movie.”
Trump told Ukrainian President Zelensky that “the woman was bad news” and added ominously that “she’s going to go through some things.” In another call, Trump introduced his favorite subjects — beauty pageants and Eastern European beauties — telling Zelensky: “When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people. Ukraine was always very well represented.”
In an aria of oblivious self-destruction, the president further intimidated Yovanovitch just at the very moment that she was testifying about how she had felt intimidated by the president.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he tweeted, seemingly blaming her for Black Hawk Down. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him.”
In testimony Friday afternoon, another State Department aide said that he too overheard Trump on a call with Ambassador Gordon Sondland of the European Union pressing for investigations and that Trump was reassured by his man in Kiev that Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do what it takes. Oh, high-level diplomacy.
Democrats know Moscow Mitch will squelch them in the end but hope they’ll get through to enough independents and suburban Republicans to deny Trump a second term.
No matter how many decent Americans come forward to expose his sordid behavior, will Trump be hauled out of the White House kicking and screaming while a celebratory Baby Trump balloon flies overhead?
The answer to that: Nyet.
When then-candidate Donald Trump urged the Russian government to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, in 2016, his own running mate Mike Pence turned on him, warning the Kremlin of “serious consequences” if Russian hackers had interfered in the election. The leader of Trump’s party in the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, advised the “devious thug” Vladimir Putin to “stay out of this election.”
When Trump said he would accept damaging information on a political opponent from another country, this past June, Republican lawmakers reprimanded the president. “If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value, the answer is no,” said Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top allies in the Senate.
But something significant happened yesterday. Standing before reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump urged two foreign governments—including one that his administration and members of his party have identified as a potential existential threat to the American way of life—to intervene in the 2020 U.S. election by investigating what he alleges was wrongdoing by the man most likely to challenge him for the presidency. In a twist on Richard Nixon’s infamous declaration that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump signaled that when the president does it openly and unabashedly, that must mean it is a perfectly normal use of power rather than an abuse of it.
Implicitly, he was daring his fellow Republicans to say otherwise. And thus far they mostly have not, choosing instead to either cheer on the president or stay silent on the matter. Just like that, a democratic norm stretching back to the founding of the republic is collapsing before our eyes.
In his remarks, Trump called on the Ukrainian government to open a “major” corruption investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter—saying out loud what he had quietly conveyed to the Ukrainian president in a phone call now at the center of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. Then the president went much further still, encouraging the Chinese government, which is embroiled in a trade war with the Trump administration, to launch a probe into the Bidens’ business dealings as well.
Beijing is unlikely to comply with Trump’s wishes, but that doesn’t make the president’s move any less striking. With regard to China, Trump wasn’t just exploiting his foreign-policy making powers to target Biden and possibly violating the law by asking for something of value to his campaign from a foreign national, as appears to be the case with Ukraine. He was also turning for help in his reelection bid to an authoritarian adversary. In both instances, Trump was attempting to assign investigations into his domestic rival not to his own law-enforcement agencies but to those of Ukraine and China, ranked 77th and 82nd out of 126 countries, respectively, in a recent global survey of the rule of law.
What’s more, Trump has cast the solicitation of political assistance from whichever foreign power is forthcoming as a routine “duty” and “absolute right” of his office. “As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time,” he wrote on Twitter today. Trump’s concern about corruption, however, happens to focus solely on a case affecting his personal political interests and one he claims to have already cracked despite a lack of evidence.
In the face of all this, Republicans have largely joined ranks with the president or held their fire. Asked whether Trump’s China comments were appropriate, Pence deferred this time around to his boss, noting that the American people have a “right to know” whether Biden or his family “profited from his position,” and that Trump clearly believes “other nations around the world should look into it as well.” Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican leader in the House, has yet to say anything about the president’s overture to China, instead pressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suspend her impeachment inquiry, because of flaws in the process. Graham, who says he has “zero problems” with Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, has gently pushed back against the president’s latest salvo in his campaign against Biden while defending it as an understandable response to persecution. “I don’t want to go down that road,” Graham told The Washington Post regarding a Chinese probe of the Biden family, but Trump “feels like everyone is coming after him all the time and he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Some have even taken this moment to recognize Trump’s trademark boldness. “It’s classic Donald Trump,” The Wall Street Journal’s editor at large, Gerard Baker, crowed on Fox News yesterday regarding the president’s China gambit. “He doubles down.” Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who noted that he doesn’t “trust” China and would rather the Bidens be investigated domestically, nevertheless downplayed the president’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart as “Trump being Trump.”
Congressional Republicans such as Cory Gardner, Lisa Murkowski, and Thom Tillis, who all expressed disgust several months ago about Trump’s openness to accepting compromising material about an opponent from foreign sources, have as of this writing not directly addressed the propriety of Trump’s call for China and Ukraine to scrutinize the Democratic front-runner in the race for the White House. (The Atlantic reached out to two dozen Republicans who sit on relevant foreign-affairs committees in the House and Senate regarding their reaction to Trump’s message yesterday and its national-security consequences. All either declined to comment or did not respond to the queries.)
Some Republicans have criticized Trump’s appeals to Ukraine and China, but for now they are the exceptions. The senator from Utah and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement that the president’s actions were “wrong and appalling,” and that “when the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.”* The senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse told the Omaha World-Herald that “Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.” Will Hurd, a congressman from Texas who is not seeking reelection, told CNN that “a president of the United States shouldn’t be doing” what Trump did, adding that “we’re in a tight and complex trade negotiation with China now, and so you’re potentially giving them something to hold over your head.”
But for the most part, Trump’s no-holds-barred approach to politics now seems to hold sway within the Grand Old Party. Short-term calculations have eclipsed long-term considerations, such as how Republicans would feel if a Democratic president mimicked Trump’s actions to take down a GOP rival. What divides Americans (partisan politics) has overwhelmed what unites them (a commitment to democracy that, say, China doesn’t share).
At its most fundamental, what Trump questioned yesterday was who gets to have a say in how the American people choose their political leaders. He did so in a manner that would have alarmed the Founding Fathers and is largely without precedent in modern American history. (Perhaps the closest analogue is the Nixon campaign’s outreach to the South Vietnamese government to thwart efforts at ending the Vietnam War and boost his chances in the 1968 election. But even in that case Nixon was not directly involved in the scheme to the extent Trump has been in his.)
Over the past two weeks, the question at the heart of the Ukraine scandal has morphed from whether Trump pressured a foreign government to investigate and implicate his likely challenger for the presidency to whether doing so is right or wrong. The president, facing off against an opposing team, sought to recruit a third team watching from the sidelines to his side. When the whistle blew in response to the blatant infraction, Trump’s defiant response was to try to enlist yet another team and to declare that these are simply the new rules of the game. So far, most of his teammates have discarded the old rules and rallied behind their captain.
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including President Trump’s comments about willingness to accept foreign opposition research, the status of election security legislation, candidate lineups for the upcoming Democratic presidential debates and the politics of Democratic socialism.