Ukrainegate: A High Crime in Plain Sight

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I had a couple of things I intended to write about this week, but then—as has happened repeatedly during the End Times that are the Trump presidency—something absolutely mindboggling happened that blew it all away and could not be ignored.

BLAST FROM THE VERY RECENT PAST

This past June I published an essay here titled The End of Outrage in which I wrote the following:

Uh, didn’t we just spend two excruciating years trying to determine whether Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise, conspired with a foreign government to help vault him into the White House? And didn’t Donald Trump over the course of those two years swear up and down nearly every waking minute that he never did any such thing, that the mere allegation was a dirty lie by sore losers trying to delegitimize his presidency? And even now does he not continue to howl that there was “No collusion! no collusion! no collusion!”?

That happened, right? I didn’t dream it, did I?

All that only for Trump to go on national television with George Stephanopolous last week and volunteer that, sure, he’d do that, and what’s more, he didn’t see anything wrong with it.

It’s no wonder Emmet Flood wouldn’t let this guy sit down with Bob Mueller.

So to recap: after two years of work, Bob Mueller and the Angry Democrats (one of my favorite rockabilly bands) declined to indict Trump for conspiring with a foreign power, not because he didn’t or there was no evidence—he did and there was—but only because of legal technicalities and the special counsel’s meticulous and narrow interpretation of his remit. It all ended with a whimper not a bang.

Then Trump volunteered to ABC News that, irrespective of the outcome of the Russia investigation, he saw no problem with that sort of behavior. As I also wrote in June:

This of course is the classic evolution of a Trumpian self-defense:

1) I didn’t do it, and how dare you even ask!

2) Well, maybe I did do it, but I never said I didn’t, and anyway it’s not a crime,

And finally,

3) HELL YES, I ORDERED THE CODE RED!

And now, this past week, an even more explosive story broke exposing precisely that same behavior in plain sight.

If Mueller was looking for a smoking gun and failed to find it, Donald Trump just showed up holding a .38 special with a glowing orange muzzle spewing smoke like a Bob Marley joint.

ONE CHICKEN KIEV TO GO

The outlines of this new scandal are by now well known.

Let me be the millionth person to note that it would be hard to imagine a more outrageous abuse of presidential power than blackmailing an ally by withholding taxpayer dollars specifically allocated by Congress in an effort to force that ally to provide (or manufacture, if necessary) kompromat on a political opponent.

And it just got worse from there.

The administration inexplicably involved Attorney General Bill Barr and the Department Formerly Known as Justice, now more correctly described as Trump’s personal law firm and private police force. I say “inexplicably,” but the explanation was self-evident: with cover from the AG and the DFKNAJ, the acting DNI Joseph Maguire declined to obey the whistleblower law and forward the IG complaint to the House Intelligence Committee. At the time of this writing, the White House has yet to comply, or release tapes or transcripts of the phone call in question, thus openly flouting the law.

Which is weird, because they’re really not denying what happened.

Unlike Russiagate, there has been no need to dig for evidence in this case, because it’s all out there in the open. The White House has not denied the basic facts, only—incredibly—that they amount to any wrongdoing. In other words, they have leapfrogged forward to what, in the Russiagate scandal, proved to be a winning strategy: a Nixonian claim that, in effect, it’s not illegal when the president does it. No big whoop, nothing to see here folks, move along.

But Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, gave the lie to this shameless spin and summarized the situation very neatly:

If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning. Trump’s grubby commandeering of the presidency’s fearsome and nearly uncheckable powers in foreign policy for his own ends is a gross abuse of power and an affront both to our constitutional order and to the integrity of our elections.

There is no spin, no deflection, no alternative theory of the case that can get around the central fact that President Trump reportedly attempted to use his office for his own gain, and that he put the foreign policy and the national security of the United States at risk while doing so. He ignored his duty as the commander in chief by intentionally trying to place an American citizen in jeopardy with a foreign government. He abandoned his obligations to the Constitution by elevating his own interests over the national interest. By comparison, Watergate was a complicated judgment call.

So what we have witnessed over the past few days is the revelation of an absolutely astonishing abuse of power—an undeniably impeachable offense by any definition—all laid out for us on a silver platter. Wow.

The big question now is: will Congress do jackshit about it?

SEE NO EVIL

Let’s start with the Republican reaction.

For now, the GOP leadership is reflexively bleating, “Let’s see what was actually in the transcript of the phone call before we jump to any conclusions.” Fair enough—but also highly ironic, since it’s their leader blocking the release of those transcripts. (Trump himself said, he’d “love to” release them, which is a sure sign that he never will.)

More to the point, no matter what is revealed in those tapes or transcripts, the Republican Party will find a way to excuse it. For a preview, see the reaction of the GOP’s hardcore Kool-Aid brigade—Gaetz, Jordan, Hawley, et al—who are already blathering about a Deep State conspiracy, Democratic sour grapes over 2016, and how Trump was undoubtedly acting on behalf of national interests and not for his own personal gain (sorry—just threw up in my mouth a little). And the mainstream media, with predictable gullibility, is aiding them by treating the thoroughly discredited aspersions about Biden & Son with the same seriousness as Trump’s wrongdoing, presumably in the interest of some faux sense of objectivity, or just because they can’t resist gossip. They ought to be ashamed.

Meanwhile the DNI (sorry—acting DNI) made the absurd argument that the President of the United States is not subject to the whistleblower law because he is not part of the US Intelligence Community…..even though in May 2017, when Trump impulsively and unilaterally handed Top Secret/SCI intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, the White House claimed it was all fine because Trump was the head of that same Intelligence Community.

Then, of course, there is Rudy Giuliani, who has been scarce of late, but is always reliably trotted out when the White House needs someone to go on television and make the most insane argument humanly imaginable. They just send up the Batshit Signal and Rudy pulls on his cape and tights. So it was that America’s Erstwhile Mayor talked to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and in the space of fifteen seconds first denied talking to the Ukrainians about Biden, then bragged about it. This in an interview in which he also spread a crazy and long-ago-debunked conspiracy theory about Biden’s corruption involving the Ukraine, and denied that Trump had any knowledge of his communications with Kiev while simultaneously claiming the President was fully looped in. The only thing that didn’t come up were Godfather-based anti-Italian-American slurs.

This is not to say that the White House and its GOP amen corner are keen to have evidence of the Ukraine affair made public. The latter (at least) understands the scope of the transgression, and the stakes, even if they pretend otherwise. But it is much easier to carry on that charade in the absence of transcripts and tape recordings that make the wrongdoing crystal clear and truly undeniable.

The Republican leadership knows full well that Trump has—again—crossed the reddest of red lines, and would in any other era already be on his way out of the Oval Office. Their refusal to admit that and do the right thing bespeaks their shameful (and shameless) and by now well-established valuation of their own power over the principles they claim to hold dear, to say nothing of the well-being of the country. Of this Republican hypocrisy, Tom Nichols writes:

Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton had called his friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996, and asked him to investigate Bob Dole. Or if George W. Bush had called, say, President Vicente Fox of Mexico in 2004 and asked him—indeed, asked him eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal—to open a case against John Kerry……Is there any doubt that either man would have been put on trial in the Senate, and likely chased from office?

Or as anti-Trump conservative Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post:

I do not expect enough Republicans will vote to remove Trump under any circumstances. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and others have proved time and again that their fear of Trump and his base outweighs any assault on our democracy no matter how devastating. These are hollow little men who find it impossible to put country above partisan loyalty and ambition. They will come up with whatever justification is necessary to avoid crossing Trump, even at the expense of allowing the most egregious “High Crime and Misdemeanor” in our history to go unpunished.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO MOSCOW

Trump himself, of course, is not even that conniving, as he truly does not think there are any lines that he is rightfully bound by. In line with last week’s post, it’s important to remember that at its core this scandal was driven by Trump’s effort to win re-election, a perfect example of the out-of-bounds and even illegal measures I predicted that he would take to achieve that goal.

How brazen is our Insane Clown President? This brazen: even as he denied any wrongdoing, Trump took the occasion of that denial to publicly pressure Ukraine AGAIN, knowing the Kiev was listening as he told the US press, ““It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this—somebody ought to look into Joe Biden.”

This technique is known as “saying the quiet part out loud.” As the WaPo’s Ashley Parker writes, “The president wears shamelessness as a badge of protection, under the implicit theory that any alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view.” Not that MAGA Nation or the RNC needs much nudging to defend and excuse anything Trump does.

In fact, what Trump did in Ukrainegate is much much worse than what he did in Russiagate. In the latter case, Candidate Trump solicited and accepted illegal help from hostile foreign actors to help him win the White House, and failed to report offers of that help to the FBI and other authorities. (Oh, and also wantonly obstructed federal investigation into those matters.) In this one, President Trump actively extorted a foreign power to help him undermine a political opponent win an election….and used the massive power of the United States presidency to do so.

In the words of Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Never Trump conservative Max Boot, “It is hard to imagine a more glaring example of a “high crime and misdemeanor.”

Of course, the two scandals are really one. Ukraine is at the very center of Russiagate and many of the dirty little episodes associated with it, centering as it does on Putin’s goal of removing US sanctions imposed after his 2014 invasion of Crimea. That in turn was behind the change to the GOP platform regarding Ukraine during the 2016 Republican convention, Junior’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya et al at Trump Tower, Kushner’s proposal of a backchannel with Moscow, and Flynn’s Logan Act-violating phone call, not to mention Paul Manafort’s long entanglement in Ukrainian politics and service to its former strongman Viktor Yanukovich, whose ouster led to the Russian invasion of Crimea in the first place.

NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN PEOPLE

And what of the Democrats? In that same Atlantic piece, Nichols writes:

Until now, there was room for reasonable disagreement over impeachment as both a matter of politics and a matter of tactics. The Mueller report revealed despicably unpatriotic behavior by Trump and his minions, but it did not trigger a political judgment with a majority of Americans that it warranted impeachment. The Democrats, for their part, remained unwilling to risk their new majority in Congress on a move destined to fail in a Republican-controlled Senate.

Now, however, we face an entirely new situation….

The Democratic candidates should now unite around a call for an impeachment investigation, not for Biden’s sake, but to protect the sanctity of our elections from a predatory president who has made it clear he will stop at nothing to stay in the White House.

Apparently a groundswell for impeachment is building among Democratic lawmakers, including many who have heretofore been reluctant on the matter. Of equal if not more significance, Nancy Pelosi has now signaled that we have entered a new stage in which she is open to impeachment proceedings, after months of stalling, presumably for fear of jeopardizing her House majority in 2020.

Ironically, the sheer blatantness of this latest scandal may make it easier for Democrats to do what they should have done long ago. Rubin again:

A single article of impeachment based on an incontrovertible abuse of power would make Democrats’ job much easier. The difficultly that at-risk Republicans face in explaining to voters why they countenance such conduct begins to outweigh any downside for Democrats in pursuing impeachment, even if the eventual outcome is acquittal in the Senate.

That is the practical side; there is, of course, also an angle here that concerns pure on principle, as Elizabeth Warren summarized well in a tweet:

After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president.

Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida seconded the point:

There’s no equivocating on this, no electoral math to calculate. The President held back foreign aid to a nation he was pressing to investigate his political opponent. Do your job and impeach him, or get out of the way.

In a subsequent tweet, Jolly went on to say:

It’s clear that, for many, this isn’t the breaking point for trust in the President. That’s long broken or never was. This is the breaking point for trust in Congress. Legacies are being forged around this moment.

In other words, a show of Democratic backbone is more essential than ever, because it is very clear that Trump pulled this Ukrainian bullshit because was emboldened by having gotten away with a similar, previous crime, thanks largely to the timidity of House Democrats in pursuing impeachment over the Russia scandal, based on Mueller’s plenty damning report. It’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25 call to newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came exactly one day after Mueller’s anticlimactic Congressional testimony put a definitive end to the fantasy that the Special Counsel was going to bring Trump down all by himself.

Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, and Rachael Bade write in the Post:

Trump’s sense of himself as above the law has been reinforced throughout his time in office. As detailed in the Mueller report, he received help from a foreign adversary in 2016 without legal consequence. He sought to thwart the Russia investigation and possibly obstruct justice without consequence. Through the government, he has earned profits for his businesses without consequence. He has blocked Congress’s ability to conduct oversight without consequence. Now he is alleged to have leveraged taxpayer dollars and U.S. military might to extort a foreign government for opposition research on a political opponent, and it is unclear what consequences, if any, he may face.

Greg Sargent, also writing in the Post, puts an even finer point of the negative impact of that precedent:

President Trump and his minions went to great lengths in 2016 to coordinate with a foreign power’s interference in our election on his behalf. Then Trump engaged in extensive corruption and lawlessness to try to prevent it from coming to light…….he basically got away with all of it, thanks to Justice Department regulations that protect a president from indictment, and to extensive help from a handpicked attorney general who subscribes to a theory of presidential power that in effect places presidents above the law.

So why wouldn’t Trump try something very similar a second time around?

Similarly, Charlie Sykes writes in The Bulwark:

Trump thinks that he skated on the Mueller probe and he has watched the fecklessness of congressional Democrats who have repeatedly failed to hold him accountable for much of anything. He also has figured out that he never—as in never—has to worry about his own party showing anything resembling a conscience. He does not belong to the Republican party. The Republican party belongs to him.

So let that be a lesson to us. If we fail to hold Trump accountable this time, and instead let him get away with it yet again on this even more blatant violation of his oath of office, imagine how brazenly he will act going forward! Especially if he manages to win re-election—legally or otherwise—and what few guardrails still remain are then removed.

As William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution noted, “(Trump) appears to be daring the rest of the political system to stop him—and if it doesn’t, he’ll go further.”

INEVITABILITY

In a September 19th tweet, Trump reacted to the Ukraine allegations by asking, “is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”

Jesus, Don, if you’re gonna put a shotgun in our hands and stand us in front of a barrel of fish, you gotta expect that we’re gonna shoot.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it’s you whom we know are dumb enough to do exactly that, because you’ve done dumbass shit like that over and over again throughout your presidency. And gotten away with it. Which is precisely the problem.

Weirdly, since Special Counsel Mueller concluded his investigation and closed up shop, Trump has been more unhinged, inflicted more wounds on himself, and exposed himself to more existential jeopardy than ever. It’s almost as if the removal of that antagonist and the disappearance of the overarching threat of Russiagate has left him untethered. It will be very ironic if Trump is brought down by this scandal—not holding my breath, you understand—one in which he committed the exact crimes he miraculously dodged in the Mueller probe. Got a little greedy, I guess.

Way back in June 2017, in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I wrote about the “inevitability of Russiagate.” By that I meant that Donald Trump is such a pathological criminal, con man, and inveterate scumbag that it was inevitable he would eventually do something (or things) that would merit his removal from office. That partisan considerations have thus far precluded that removal does not change the veracity of the argument. And with the Ukraine fiasco, Trump has once again proved my point:

OF COURSE an administration as venal, immoral, self-aggrandizing, and contemptible as Trump’s would be involved in such crimes. It would be more surprising if they were not. This is an administration (and a campaign before that) whose stock-in-trade is lies, greed, xenophobia, racism, divisiveness, and wanton corruption on a scale never before seen in presidential politics, which is saying something. Are we surprised that such people might make secret deals with our enemies to gain power in exchange for favors and fealty to be named later?…..

Of course Trump would do such a shocking thing, and of course he would then try to squash the inquiry into it, and of course the venal and loathsome beast that is the modern Republican Party would stand by him and pretend it’s all OK. But the comeuppance that appears to be on the way (I’m not holding my breath) is, in the end, a matter of karma, if one believes in that sort of thing. Trump is a despicable, poisonous cretin with a long history of immoral, illegal, and unconscionable behavior in both his personal and professional lives. He is jawdroppingly unqualified for the presidency and should never have come within a mile of winning the Oval Office if there was anything resembling justice in this world. But he did. And as the cosmic scales now give signs of righting themselves, he may well get frogmarched out of that office in chains because of that very sort of behavior.

That said, I am not convinced that this scandal will be the one that finally brings Trump down, though of course it should. That would require a level of integrity, patriotism, and principle on the part of a critical mass of Republican politicians that they have consistently shown themselves incapable of mustering. On the contrary: I think the leadership of the contemporary GOP is so craven that it will once again close ranks and stand by Trump to the bitter end, no matter the gymnastics, yogi-like contortions, and general hypocrisy required to do so, to say nothing of disloyalty to the country they claim to serve.

Therefore I would argue that the real significance of this episode will be to take us into an even more fraught and dangerous new phase of our ongoing constitutional crisis, one in which blatant abuse of power and impeachable offenses have been committed in plain sight, abuses to which the White House cops (and even brags), and yet the president’s party refuses to do its duty and act in the national interest as the Constitution demands, and the opposition party refuses to stand up to it.

Max Boot again:

If there were any justice in the world, this would mark a turning point where Democrats find the courage to impeach and Republicans find the decency to stop defending the indefensible. Instead, so far we are getting a rerun of previous scandals characterized by Trump’s brazenness, Republicans’ servility and Democrats’ pusillanimity.

As long as Democrats do not proceed with impeachment—and perhaps even if they do—Trump has made clear that he will continue his all-out assault on the Constitution. And Republicans—who congratulate themselves on their alleged devotion to the Constitution—will not do anything about it except to cheer him on.

In short, we are at a severe crisis point for our republic—even more so than many of the numerous crisis points we have faced thus far. And it bears repeating yet again that, as absolutely stomach-turningly horrific as Donald John Trump is, the real villains here are his enablers and protectors in the Grand Old Party who are happy to simultaneously defend him and hide behind him, all in order to preserve their own anti-democratic chokehold on power.

Where is our Ellliot Richardson, our William Ruckelshaus, when we need them? Who is this new Deep Throat? Will he or she step forward and play the part of John Dean? And if not, what should we the people do about it?

Dithering over impeachment on the grounds of gamesmanship can no longer be condoned. We must demand that Congress acts, and if it does not, we must make our outrage deafening, even if it means getting out in the streets or launching a general strike that brings this country to a grinding halt. If we don’t, we will officially be an autocracy.

I return again to my June 2019 post, The End of Outrage:

I hesitate even to call (his comment to Stephanopolous) a gaffe, because he’s proud of it, but regardless of the uproar or lack thereof that Trump’s latest gaffe prompted, there is no reason to believe that it will deal him lethal political (or criminal) damage, or even mark a tipping point, death-of-a-thousand-cuts-style, that leads to his downfall. Which brings us to the crux of the issue, one that we have been continually returning to over and over in these pages:

A disturbingly large number of Americans—enough to put a chokehold on our representative democracy—simply do not care.

We know that MAGA Nation does not care, nor the GOP’s despicable leadership (if it can be called that). But for those of us who do care, now is the time to show it. The danger that we as a people have become numb to Trump’s daily assaults on the rule of law has never been greater than right now.

The sad reality is that, in the end, the checks and balances within our representative democracy only function properly when our elected officials act in good faith. When a sufficient number of well-placed people are acting in bad faith, the system breaks down. And right now it’s fucking broken.

I’ll give Professor Nichols the last word, because his words were very very good:

(I)f this kind of dangerous, unhinged hijacking of the powers of the presidency is not enough for either the citizens or their elected leaders to demand Trump’s removal, then we no longer have an accountable executive branch, and we might as well just admit that we have chosen to elect a monarch and be done with the illusion of constitutional order in the United States.

********

Photo: Ukrainian troops on parade, by Gleb Garanich/Reuters

4 thoughts on “Ukrainegate: A High Crime in Plain Sight

  1. Let’s hope that this latest outrage concludes with the end of the criminal Trump, the regressive Biden, and both their sleazy families. But also let’s hope that Mitch McConnell is found at the bottom of a barrel of Jim Beam, that Nancy Pelosi trades Wash DC for the seaside serenity of Pebble Beach, that Steny Hoyer and Jim Clayburn retire to hosting a perpetual, celebrity, tag-team bingo tour at community centers across Maryland and South Carolina, and that Ben Ray Lujan and Cheri Bustos skip together hand-in-hand into the corruption hall of fame.

    Like

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