Do us a favor though: Before we provide lifesaving equipment, praise the president.
A more public-service-oriented president might view a viral pandemic as a time to prioritize saving lives and providing services and funds wherever needed. But to President Trump, the coronavirus outbreak is just another opportunity for a shakedown.
This should have been obvious, given how he exploited another country’s crisis.
Last summer, as Ukraine was desperate for aid that Congress had appropriated but that the Trump administration had frozen, Trump held his “perfect phone call” with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump told Zelensky, per the rough transcript: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
He then asked for Zelensky’s help in smearing a domestic political rival.
To many voters, this exchange, involving a faraway country, may have seemed no different from the usual horse-trading that U.S. officials conduct with counterparts abroad. Trump calls himself a brilliant dealmaker, after all; maybe this episode was just another boring political negotiation.
It wasn’t, of course. It was about extracting a favor designed to help the president’s personal interest, rather than his country’s.
In December, during the impeachment hearings, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan offered an analogy explaining why Trump’s extortion attempt should be troubling.
“Imagine living in a part of Louisiana or Texas that’s prone to devastating hurricanes and flooding,” Karlan testified. “What would you think if, when your governor asked the federal government for the disaster assistance that Congress has provided, the president responded, ‘I would like you to do us a favor. I’ll meet with you and send the disaster relief once you brand my opponent a criminal’?”
That hypothetical might once have seemed ludicrous. Now, like the Onion’s March joke about Trump someday recommending bleach ingestion, it looks prophetic. To be sure, the current disaster isn’t weather-related, and the quid pro quo demanded doesn’t involve branding Trump’s opponent a criminal, per se.
Nonetheless, Trump appears to be salivating over the personal “favors” he might wring from distressed parties now needing his help.
In late March, for instance, he suggested that provision of medical supplies to states would be conditional on praise from governors. “It’s a two-way street,” he said on Fox News. “They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that.’ ”
Days later, in a White House press briefing, he urged Vice President Pence not to call governors who were insufficiently “appreciative”: “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
Last week, when asked about helping the troubled U.S. Postal Service, he issued another crisis-enabled ultimatum: no aid unless the USPS quadruples prices on packages.
“If they don’t raise the price, I’m not signing anything,” Trump told reporters. He specifically and repeatedly mentioned the need to raise prices on Amazon.
Which, again, isn’t a surprise. Trump has allegedly sought before to use his office to punish Amazon — through antitrust, government procurement and, yes, postage rates. This appears to be because Trump is unhappy with coverage in The Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. While pressuring the USPS to jack up prices is likely to hurt rural Trump voters, and possibly increase financial stress for the agency, doing so still might be his best chance to retaliate against a perceived political foe.
Meanwhile, in the weeks since that initial ventilator shakedown, states and counties have begun facing severe fiscal strain. Revenue shortfalls are worsening, and Trump has so far refused to endorse more federal relief.
Initially, White House aides said Trump was withholding aid to maintain pressure on states to reopen. This week, Trump offered another precondition for assistance: If state and local officials want money, they must first get rid of “sanctuary city” policies. This would of course be a major political win for Trump, even if it potentially makes life in these cities more dangerous.
Once upon a time, Americans might have dismissed Ukraine’s troubles as irrelevant to their lives. Well, we’re all Zelensky now.