The latest scandal to embroil President Donald Trump feels different from the Mueller investigation. The alleged misconduct regarding Ukraine does not require a 400-page report to understand. That’s because the harm to the public is readily apparent — Trump is trading our national security for his own reelection.
On Wednesday, Trump spoke at a news conference after disclosing a rough transcript of his July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. His performance was reminiscent of former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta after the Jeffrey Epstein indictment. He really just made things worse.
The transcript was bad enough. It reveals that when Zelensky mentioned his desire to buy more U.S. military weapons, Trump’s immediate response was, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” He then asked Zelensky to “get to the bottom of” the origins of the Mueller investigation, perpetuating his quest to show that it was a witch hunt. He then asked Zelensky to probe former Vice President Joe Biden’s alleged efforts to stop an investigation into Biden’s son. Trump urged Zelensky to work with Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, a private citizen with no accountability to the public.
And this request turned out to be no idle threat. Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid from Ukraine for months, releasing the money only after reports about a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s conduct became public. While further facts are needed, the delay tends to corroborate the theory that Trump was leveraging military aid for his requested “favor.”
‘Quid pro quo’ was clear
During his news conference, Trump tried to defend his comments in the phone call and failed in a number of ways. First, he claimed that their conversation contained no “quid pro quo.” Quid pro quo is a legal term that means “this for that.” It is often used when explaining bribery, as when a public official gives an official act in exchange for money or some other thing of value. We know that the whistleblower’s complaint comprises a “series” of acts, so the absence of a quid pro quo in any one conversation would not be surprising or dispositive.
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Moreover, no quid pro quo is needed to show an impeachable abuse of power by a president. But, in fact, the call did contain a quid pro quo. As soon as Zelensky brought up his desire to obtain weapons, Trump immediately demanded a favor. That’s a quid pro quo. As a prosecutor, I would have been very optimistic about my chances for a conviction with the strength of such evidence.
Second, Trump also claimed that Zelensky was never “pushed.” Bribery can be, and often is, committed without pushing anyone to do something they don’t want to do. A bribe payer is often quite happy with the official action that he can secure with his bribe. Anyone who has ever slipped some cash to a restaurant maitre d’ in hopes of being seated at a good table knows that sometimes paying for a favor brings satisfaction. You don’t have to be pushed to be solicited for a bribe.
Acting in his own interest, not ours
Third, Trump tried to equate what he had done with the conduct of several senators, who Trump claims “threatened the president of Ukraine that if he doesn’t do things right, they won’t have Democrat support in Congress.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., issued a statement later, explaining that he has told Zelensky to stay out of the 2020 election, and to “communicate with the State Department, not the president’s campaign.”
The difference between the statements to Zelensky should be obvious — Murphy’s message was intended to benefit the country, and Trump’s request for a favor was intended is to benefit himself.
In the end, Trump’s defense was utterly unconvincing. What makes this episode more compelling than the Mueller investigation is its readily apparent harm to the American people. Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine, a country that has been invaded by Russia, which still occupies part of its land. The aid was approved by Congress because it believed that it is in the national security interest of the United States to empower Ukraine to deter Russia from further military action. The reputation and credibility of the United States as a negotiating partner is eroded when we fail to fulfill our promises, or when we condition them on performing a personal favor for the president. By using military aid as leverage to help his own political campaign, Trump has harmed our country.