Trump had suspended nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine before his call and, according to the whistleblower complaint, Zelensky was at some point told that a meeting with Trump depended on his willingness to “play ball.”
This approach seems inherently corrupt, as American norms go. But does it break any laws? Trump skates so close to the edges of illegality in nearly everything he does that it’s almost impossible to believe he’s still skating.
But would Trump at his most clueless pursue such a reckless course of action without checking the legal boundaries? Surely, after two years of investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Kremlin, he would steer clear of a potentially criminal maneuver. Or, is corruption so widespread in the White House, as the whistleblower suggested, that the president felt he could do whatever he wanted? After all, former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was unable to find sufficient evidence of a conspiracy with Russia.
Apparently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has decided there’s enough there there to pursue an impeachment inquiry, even knowing that the Senate likely won’t confer its imprimatur. There simply aren’t enough votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to see an impeachment through, as was similarly the case following the then-Republican-controlled House impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.
To most minds, Trump’s alleged appeal to a foreign government for political help in the 2020 election is far more egregious than Clinton’s lies under oath about “sexual relations” with an intern. It’s obviously wrong on its face to solicit foreign interference in a U.S. election, but that’s not precisely what Trump did with Zelensky. Rather, during the July 25 call, he asked Zelensky to investigate whether Biden tried to intercede on behalf of his son Hunter Biden during a Ukrainian corruption investigation of a gas company that included the younger Biden on its board of directors.
The answer seems to be “no.” According to multiple reports, the investigation into the gas company had been dormant before then-Vice President Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion from Ukraine if the country’s prosecutor general didn’t resign.
But, Trump, the master of messaging, has managed to connect Joe Biden’s name to Ukrainian corruption, even if there’s no evidence to support it. Biden has dismissed the allegations as a “smear,” which seems accurate. For his part, Zelensky told Trump in July that he would appoint a prosecutor general who would look into the Biden matter. But at a joint news conference in New York on Wednesday, the Ukraine president said Trump had not “pushed” him to do anything.
While Middle America mutters economy, economy, economy, Washington and the media will busy themselves the next several weeks with the impeachment drama. This is not to dismiss the importance of Trump’s dubious overtures to Ukraine nor his endlessly offensive, corruption-smelling conduct. Everything he does and says carries the whiff of wrongdoing. But legality and ethics are separate entities, a distinction well understood by the wicked and the shrewd.
It would seem for now that we’re in the early phase of a political match-up between Biden and Trump in which the message — not the good — usually wins. Trump knows this in ways Democrats don’t, which is always his advantage. As the late GOP chairman and ruthless political operative Lee Atwater once told a political science student: Unless you can sell your message in two minutes at a truck stop, it either was wrong or wouldn’t work.
For now, the Democratic Party message is still in the bottle.