“Read the transcript,” Trump regularly demands on Twitter. Well, I did read the rough and incomplete transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which Trump claims was “perfect,” and I’ve also been plowing through the transcripts of the closed-door House interviews of various witnesses. My conclusion is that Trump’s conduct is better described as bribery than as extortion.
Federal law states that a public official is guilty of bribery if he or she “directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for . . . being influenced in the performance of any official act.”
You don’t have to be a lawyer to see that all the elements of the crime are present.
Obviously, Trump is a public official. I suppose there could be debate about whether his demand to Zelensky — “I would like you to do us a favor though” — was direct or indirect. It seems straightforward and unambiguous to me.
We know that Trump was demanding or seeking something of value for himself. He asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, which would benefit Trump by soiling the reputation of the potential Democratic nominee who, according to the polls, would fare best against him in the coming election. And Trump asked Zelensky to pursue a conspiracy theory that would relieve him of the onus of having won the 2016 election with Russian help.
We know of two official acts that Trump made contingent on the “favor” he was asking for: release of nearly $400 million in military aid, which Ukraine desperately needed; and a face-to-face meeting with Zelensky.
William B. Taylor Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — who next Wednesday will be one of the first witnesses to testify publicly in the impeachment probe — told House investigators that he understood the aid was being withheld until Zelensky announced the investigations Trump wanted. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told the House in amended testimony that he saw the same tit-for-tat deal being arranged, or at least sought.
That leaves only the question of whether Trump was acting “corruptly.” Anyone who claims there is any doubt about corrupt intent should have to explain why Trump spent months trying to make this transaction — which former national security adviser John Bolton reportedly called a “drug deal” — not through regular diplomatic channels but by using his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, as a non-official emissary. Apologists also must explain why Giuliani was being assisted by two shadowy Soviet-born businessmen now facing federal charges for allegedly conspiring to funnel foreign funds to U.S. politicians.
The Constitution leaves it to Congress to decide what meets the “high crimes and misdemeanors” threshold for impeachment and does not require the president to have committed a statutory crime. The charges that were being prepared against Richard M. Nixon before his resignation cited instances in which he “misused” his executive power and the agencies under his control. What Trump did with the Ukraine funding, which had been duly approved by Congress, was clearly a flagrant misuse or abuse of power.
But it was also a plain, old-fashioned crime. It was bribery.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who is leading the impeachment inquiry, is an experienced prosecutor. Given all the information he has uncovered so far, he obviously knows what he’s doing.
But it is important that the public understands both the process and its findings. Testimony transcripts are long and dense. The truth can get lost in the weeds unless it is distilled and highlighted in language that everyone can understand. And not everybody knows Latin.
If a traffic cop asked for money to tear up a speeding ticket, that would be criminal and the cop should be fired. What Trump did to Ukraine was essentially the same thing. No quids or quos about it, he should be impeached and removed.