Fiorella Beccaglia Managing Editor
Over the few two weeks, the American people have learned that President Trump orchestrated a scheme to get what he called a “favor” from a foreign leader by withholding a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, against his own administration’s policy and the bipartisan wishes of Congress. And yet the details of the Ukraine story didn’t neatly map onto some Americans’ idea of obvious presidential misconduct. One persistent question for many is whether President Trump was really doing all this for himself, rather than in pursuit of the American national interest. That’s a really important question right now and is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Rudy Giuliani, who was behind the Ukraine operation, stated publicly that he was seeking investigations damaging to Mr. Trump’s political rival as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, and to advance Mr. Trump’s personal interests. Multiple impeachment witnesses have testified that Mr. Trump did not care about systemic corruption in Ukraine, a longstanding focus of American foreign policy, including in the Trump administration. And of course, there is the summary of Mr. Trump’s July 25 “perfect” call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Despite Mr. Trump’s exhortations that Americans“readthetranscript,” it is not an excuse. In fact, it shows the most direct evidence to date that Mr. Trump was seeking a bribe: When Mr. Zelensky brought up the military aid, Mr. Trump appeared to condition it (“do us a favor though”) on the announcement of investigations into Ukraine’s supposed interference in the 2016 election and the purported corruption of Mr. Biden and his son.
Also, the President’s more honest defenders don’t deny the basic story here. Instead, they argue that asking for help from a foreign government for personal political gain is just not that bad. Mr. Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were “inappropriate” and “not how the executive should handle such things,” said Representative Will Hurd of Texas, but he shouldn’t be impeached for them. I think that’s a very shallow argument, and the framers of the Constitution did not intend for the executive to have so much power, and listed bribery as one of the offenses for impeachment.
Why were the framers so concerned about bribery and foreign influence? Because they had plenty of evidence, under British rule, of the damage it could do. They were designing the world’s first attempt at large-scale republican self- government, and they knew the success of the nation would depend on elected leaders who represented the people’s interests, not their own. In other words, Americans agree to give their elected officials power over them, and those officials agree to exercise that power on Americans’ behalf. If the nation’s leaders don’t respect that deal, they break the trust that self-government and democracy depend on. The testimony so far indicates that it’s even worse in this case. It suggests that the President wasn’t simply soliciting a bribe but doing so to try to rig the next election. It should go without saying that representative democracy cannot work if its leaders are cheating to keep themselves in power.
Also, the argument that there’s nothing to worry about because Trump’s Ukraine scheme didn’t work in the end misses the point. If the President is allowed to get away with this obvious attempt at ignoring the will of the 2020 voters, what’s to stop him from trying again? In July 2019, Mr. Trump said that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” Those are the words of a tyrant, not an American president. As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, people who claim they have no problem with this sort of talk should ask themselves how they would feel if it were coming from President Obama.