The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If we legitimize Trump’s behavior, it’ll be open season on our politics

President Trump arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters Tuesday.
President Trump arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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Our nation’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, does not seem to know what’s wrong with asking another government to conduct an investigation of an American politician who happens to be a political opponent of the U.S. president. Here’s what’s wrong.

Start with the basic problem of asking another country to conduct an investigation of one of our political candidates, or of any U.S. citizen, for that matter. Setting aside for a moment the propriety of using U.S. power and influence to serve a president’s narrow political purposes, how could we ever be sure such an investigation was conducted fairly? Or whether it was conducted at all? We have no control over the manner of another nation’s investigation, no way of monitoring the behavior of another country’s law enforcement officials, no control or insight into what standards they might apply and what investigative methods they might use. We would have to accept the word of another government without having any assurance the finding was valid. It’s a safe bet that many would not trust even Britain or France to investigate a U.S. citizen’s behavior — though they would have every reason to. After all, millions of Americans don’t even trust the FBI. But Ukraine?

With all due respect to Ukraine’s struggling democracy, would Pompeo place his own fate in the hands of the Ukrainian justice system? If not, why would he trust the results of any investigation the Ukrainians might conduct?

Only certain kinds of countries would even accede to the kind of request President Trump and his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani made, and they are precisely the countries whose judicial systems are least trustworthy. No U.S. president could ever ask Britain or France or Japan or any other deeply rooted democracy with an impartial justice system to investigate an American whom those governments had not already decided on their own to investigate. Much less would such governments be willing to investigate a U.S. president’s political opponents at the president’s behest. The only kinds of countries that would conceivably succumb to such pressure — and it is to this Ukrainian president’s great credit that he did not — are precisely those whose judicial systems were already corrupt and easily manipulated for political purposes. Again, how reliable could such an investigation be? Why would we not expect it to produce whatever answer was most conducive to that government’s interests? The U.S. president wants an investigation to prove that his opponent is dirty. Okay. Done. He’s dirty. Now release the aid.

But that is just part of the problem. Consider what it will mean if we decide that what Trump and Giuliani have already acknowledged doing in Ukraine becomes an acceptable practice for all future presidents. Sending the signal that other governments can curry favor with a U.S. president by helping to dig up dirt on his or her political opponents would open our political system and foreign policy to intervention and manipulation on a global scale. Every government in the world wishing to influence U.S. foreign policy will have an incentive to come to a sitting president with information on his or her potential political opponents.

That information might be related to investments or other financial dealings in a particular country, as in Ukraine. Or it might have to do with the behavior of a particular individual while traveling abroad — who he or she sees and what he or she does. Other governments will therefore have an incentive to conduct surveillance of political figures traveling through their countries on the off chance of gleaning some bit of information that could be traded in Washington for some favor. Nor would other governments be limited to what they can see in their own countries. They would have an incentive to dig into the lives of potential opposition politicians in the United States, through monitoring their social media and other Internet presences, their bank accounts and other personal information — as already happened in 2016, and which Trump openly welcomed then, too.

Today, foreign leaders come calling with golf clubs and promises of greater market access to win a U.S. president’s favor. What if they came with secret transcripts and videos, or promises of investigations? In the high-stakes game of national security, if other governments discover that one of the currencies of relations with the United States is dirt on opponents, they will do their best to arm themselves. If we legitimize this kind of behavior by a U.S. president, if no price is paid for this kind of conduct, it will be open season on the American political system.

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