The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Ukraine scandal would be a bigger deal if Trump wasn’t constantly attacked

President Trump on Monday at the United Nations in New York. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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There’s a lot we still don’t know about President Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There is one thing we do know: This budding scandal would probably have more political impact were it not for the last three years’ worth of relentless attacks against Trump.

A sitting president should not use U.S. foreign policy to dig up dirt on a political opponent. At best, it puts the United States in that country’s debt; at worst, it threatens U.S. interests if that president alters policy in favor of that foreign benefactor. If last week’s revelations had come during a normal presidency, it would force all Americans to decide what type of person sits in the Oval Office.

But this is not a normal presidency. Trump has been relentlessly attacked every day since his inauguration. He has been accused of treason, breaking the law with impunity, running concentration camps along our southern border and a million other things. The past three years have consisted of little else besides leading political, social and media figures yelling that he is unfit for the office he holds.

This cacophony has predictably led to much of the public tuning the noise out. Trump-leaning voters have become used to the steady bombardment and decided that they’ve had enough. They now see their man under attack and believe that they and their values are under assault. And when you’re at war, the last thing you do is listen to the enemy’s propaganda.

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As a result, what should be a shocking and damning revelation instead appears to be just the latest in the never-ending campaign to bring Trump down. The president’s defenders will surely note in the coming days that the U.S. intelligence community has been at war with Trump since before he took office and see the latest leak as just another salvo launched from the depths of the so-called deep state. The past three years have trained them to rationalize and spin with the best of them.

The fact that the affair involves former vice president Joe Biden makes it even harder for the basic facts to sink in. It doesn’t matter that Biden was part of an international effort to remove Ukraine’s top prosecutor rather than a lone wolf trying to help his son Hunter. The fact is, it looks bad, just as Bill Clinton’s meeting with then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch on an airport tarmac at the height of Lynch’s department’s investigation of his wife stunk to high heaven. Our hyperpartisan politics mean everyone leaps to the worst conclusion about their opponents, Trump-haters and Trump-lovers alike.

Democrats who want to get to the bottom of the Ukrainian affair need to be very careful. They cannot act as they have for the past three years, announcing sweeping conclusions based on few facts. Instead, they need to play against type and underplay everything. For once, they and the anti-Trump chorus need to let the facts speak for themselves.

I doubt they can restrain themselves. The most virulent Trump foes already see this as vindication of their views and are predictably bleating out their condemnations. But that just plays into the president’s hands.

Trump will try to deflect attention away from him and onto Biden. He will try to portray himself as a victim persecuted by a howling cabal as he alone tried to unearth the truth about Washington’s deep corruption. Most Washington readers probably just rolled their eyes at that thought, certain such a gambit will fail. But they shouldn’t be so sure; Trump partisans will buy this in an instant. And Biden’s obvious penchant for gaffes and difficulty speaking under pressure could easily yield moments that Trump will seize upon to prove his point.

The allegations against Trump are too serious to ignore. Let’s hope that they are investigated with the seriousness and impartiality that alone can bring credibility to the ultimate findings.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Giuliani has got to go

The Post’s View: Trump tries to force Ukraine to meddle in the 2020 election

Max Boot: This may be the worst Trump scandal yet

Jennifer Rubin: Questions the media should ask about Trump and Ukraine

Anne Applebaum: Welcome, Americans, to the Ukrainian swamp