There are some news stories so jaw-dropping that you have to read them two or three times to make sure you’re not hallucinating. So it is with a story in the New York Times in which Rudolph W. Giuliani announces to the world that he is going to Ukraine to pressure that country’s government to use its official resources to assist in President Trump’s reelection effort — by mounting an investigation he hopes will produce dirt on Joe Biden.
Yes, Trump is trying to collude with a foreign government in an attempt to aid his campaign by creating negative stories about a potential opponent. Again.
“Oh come on,” you’re saying. “You’ve got to be exaggerating.” I’m not. The Trump team is apparently streamlining its previous pattern, which was to try to secretly work with a foreign government on its campaign, angrily deny it when it’s revealed and then, when caught by incontrovertible evidence, insist that there was never anything wrong with doing it in the first place.
They’re now skipping over the secrecy and denial parts, and just doing it openly.
First, a bit of context. This has to do with two matters that have at various times and through various changes of government been investigated in Ukraine. One involves former Trump campaign chairman and current federal inmate Paul Manafort, who worked for since-deposed dictator Viktor Yanukovych before joining Trump’s 2016 campaign. The other involves Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who cashed in on his status as a vice president’s son to get a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings.
Last week, another New York Times report raised questions about conflicts of interest over Joe Biden’s work carrying out Obama administration policy with regard to Ukraine, which included pressing for anti-corruption reforms. There were questions about whether the removal of a prosecutor seen as an obstacle to reform would actually curtail an investigation into Burisma, but a Bloomberg News article reports that the Burisma investigation was long “dormant” by the time Biden was pressuring the Ukrainian government. (Erik Wemple sorts through the competing reporting here.)
But here’s what matters for the moment: Giuliani has repeatedly met with Ukraine’s current chief prosecutor in New York, with an agenda that couldn’t be clearer: to push the government of Ukraine to help Trump get reelected by (1) discrediting an investigation into his former campaign manager, and (2) restarting an investigation he hopes will cast a potential opponent in a negative light.
Giuliani has also been spreading a bizarre conspiracy theory in which the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a career diplomat, is engaged in an anti-Trump conspiracy with George Soros and the Democratic National Committee.
Which brings us to Friday’s article about Giuliani’s upcoming trip to Ukraine:
Mr. Giuliani’s plans create the remarkable scene of a lawyer for the president of the United States pressing a foreign government to pursue investigations that Mr. Trump’s allies hope could help him in his re-election campaign. And it comes after Mr. Trump spent more than half of his term facing questions about whether his 2016 campaign conspired with a foreign power.
“We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview on Thursday when asked about the parallel to the special counsel’s inquiry.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he said. “Somebody could say it’s improper. And this isn’t foreign policy — I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
The president’s lawyer just announced that he will be “meddling in an investigation” in a foreign country, which he admits is “improper,” because he wants that investigation to produce “information” that “will be very, very helpful to my client.”
This isn’t some kind of freelancing on Giuliani’s part. The earlier article in the Times reported that Giuliani called Trump to brief him during his meeting with the Ukrainian prosecutor, and Giuliani “acknowledged that he has discussed the matter with the president on multiple occasions.”
So to be clear: The president of the United States is, through his lawyer, pressuring a foreign government to mount an investigation in order to tarnish his potential general-election opponent.
And Trump has good reason to believe Ukraine will submit to his demands, because it has already done so, on the very topic of the Manafort investigation. A year ago, we learned that at the same time as it was seeking to buy sophisticated anti-tank missiles from the United States, Ukraine had frozen investigations of Manafort’s activities there. “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” said a member of parliament with close ties to the country’s president. “We shouldn’t spoil relations with the administration.”
The same thing is happening now, except in a much more explicit and direct way. And thanks to Giuliani’s big mouth, there isn’t any mystery or ambiguity about what’s happening.
This is like a crew of bank robbers stopping on their way into the bank to hold a news conference to announce that they’re going to hold the customers at gunpoint, tie up the tellers, blow the door to the safe, grab the money, then escape through the back entrance where their getaway car is waiting. Any questions?
I’ve argued that Trump is going to mobilize the resources of the federal government to destroy his eventual opponent. Trump has already told Sean Hannity that Attorney General William P. Barr is looking into what he called “incredible” charges involving Ukraine and Hillary Clinton, no doubt at his suggestion. This is only the beginning of what Trump is going to pull, and there’s every reason to think that he feels utterly unrestrained by law or ethics.
That Trump would do this at all is shocking and despicable. That he would do it so openly is proof that he really does think he can get away with anything.