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.
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.
WASHINGTON—President Trump defended a conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart as “totally appropriate” and reiterated his call for Kiev to investigate his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, as lawmakers look into the president’s and his lawyer’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to undertake such a probe.
Mr. Trump declined to say whether in a July conversation he had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to have his government investigate Mr. Biden, the former vice president and now Democratic presidential candidate. But, Mr. Trump told reporters Friday: “Somebody ought to look into that,” referring to Mr. Biden.
Any probe of Mr. Biden centers on the then-vice president’s efforts to seek the ouster of former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, who had investigated a private Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Group, of which Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was a board member.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has accused Mr. Biden of acting to protect his son, even though Mr. Shokin had already completed his investigation of Burisma Group before he left office. Mr. Biden has said he sought Mr. Shokin’s ouster because he wasn’t doing enough to investigate corruption.
Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, told Bloomberg News in May he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Biden or his son.
Mr. Trump, during an event at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said he didn’t know the identity of the whistleblower. But he also accused the whistleblower of partisan motivations and said his conversation with Mr. Zelensky “couldn’t have been better.”
Asked whether the whistleblower complaint involved the July call with Mr. Zelensky, the president said: “I really don’t know.”
Michael Atkinson, the Trump-appointed inspector general of the intelligence community, met Thursday morning with the House Intelligence Committee in a closed-session. Mr. Atkinson declined to tell lawmakers the substance of the complaint or if it involves the president, but he did say it involves more than one episode and is based on a series of events, according to multiple people who attended or were briefed on the meeting.