The Whole Team is In on It

President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting on July 16th, 2019. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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September 23, 2019 11:40 a.m.
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The only reasonable response to the President’s effort to force Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election is to demand the President resign and be prosecuted for criminal abuse of power after he leaves the White House. The President has deserved to be impeached for years. But last week’s revelations have an immediate bearing on the President’s foreign policy team and his top advisors at the White House.

As I’ve noted in posts below, simply on the basis of what are now undisputed facts, the President committed a grave abuse of power: the President repeatedly pressured a vulnerable foreign government to intervene in the 2020 election campaign, both through personal demands in at least one phone call (July 25th) and repeatedly through his personal ambassador, Rudy Giuliani. The White House is disputing that he explicitly stated a quid pro quo in which he would release congressionally approved military aid in exchange for election interference. But this is a non-point. Both literal military aid ($250 million) and perhaps as important the diplomatic and symbolic weight of US military backing are existential concerns for Ukraine, which has had part of its territory annexed and other regions occupied by Russian proxy forces. If a man is dangling by his fingers on the ledge of a skyscraper and you stand over him asking if you can buy his house for half its value, the threat that you won’t help him back off the ledge doesn’t need to be stated explicitly. It’s obvious. The parallel here is pretty much exact.

But the call in question, which took place on July 25th, was almost two months ago. There was apparently no effort to stop what was happening or sound an alarm by anyone at the White House or administration. It is basically a given that the top members of the President’s national security team would be read in on a call like this if indeed they weren’t on the call while it was happening. On top of this, at least according to Rudy Giuliani, the State Department assisted him in arranging meetings with Ukrainian government officials. So he not only issued threats and demands on behalf of the President, he had the assistance of the diplomatic corps. Finally, we don’t know who the intelligence community whistleblower is. But however this person found out about the call and other related activities, this means pretty clearly this wasn’t some secret the President was keeping just between him and Rudy Giuliani. Nor is this the first we’re hearing about a broader effort involving Giuliani. Josh Kovensky and other reporters have been reporting for months on Giuliani’s efforts and he was apparently behind the firing of the US Ambassador to Ukraine back in May.

The point is that something this egregious happened. It directly involved in the President in explicit demands to a foreign leader. Some or all of the President’s top advisors and certainly his top foreign policy team (National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, et al.) knew this was happening. And they were apparently okay with it. At a minimum, they allowed it to happen and participated in it and made no attempt to stop it. There is only a story because some unknown whistleblower decided to blow the whistle. Just as importantly, a Trump appointee, Inspector General Michael Atkinson, decided to force the matter by informing Congress of the existence of the whistleblower complaint even though administration officials prevented him from disclosing its substance.

This all has pretty dramatic implications beyond this one bad act. Many have assumed or at least left open the possibility that the President’s advisors keep him from participating himself in the most egregious wrongdoing. Maybe he has underlings like Rudy Giuliani or Corey Lewandowski do things outside government channels. Maybe the Saudis just know he’ll be happy if they pump millions of dollars into one of his hotels. We hear that the President often makes outrageous or nonsensical suggestions in staff meetings. But his advisors know to discreetly ignore these directives.

Apparently none of this is the case.

This new episode suggests that the President can personally commit the most egregious wrongdoing, clearly impeachable offenses, in full view of his most senior advisors, and we hear nothing about it. We only know about this because of this whistleblower, who is him or herself now being attacked publicly as a Deep State partisan. Could Trump have made financial demands of Gulf monarchies to help his private businesses? Could he have asked Vladimir Putin for election assistance in 2020? Given that the demand on Ukraine was considered acceptable and is now being affirmatively defended, there’s no reason to think that these actions wouldn’t have been deemed acceptable and within the President’s purview as well.

Why would a demand for election assistance from Ukraine be acceptable and ones of Russia or Saudi Arabia wouldn’t? Why would demands for assistance to his personal businesses be worse than ones for election interference? (To me, they’d be less problematic. The President profiting personally from the presidency is wrong but it’s less damaging to the country than preventing a free and fair election.) Clearly I can hypothesize any kind of wrongdoing and say that it’s now possible and that his team would go along with it. But that’s the point: whatever in extremis guard rails we may have been thinking existed, at least for what the President does in full view of the chiefs officers of state, clearly don’t exist.

We know the President wants to do all manner of bad acts and sees nothing wrong with them. This new development suggests he probably has, that his top advisors know about those bad acts and decided it was okay.

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