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.