On one level, they’re right: I can state from personal experience working overseas for the U.S. government that this assertion is correct. During my career at the Central Intelligence Agency, I saw many instances where the U.S. government made U.S. assistance of some kind contingent upon a foreign country taking a specific course of action (or refraining from certain actions). On a number of occasions, as a CIA station chief abroad and later managing CIA stations from headquarters in Langley, Va., I used our intelligence relationship with a foreign partner in a similar fashion. Governments routinely discuss how and if intelligence will be exchanged, as well as who would benefit and why. Underpinning all these discussions is the idea of a quid pro quo: If we provide certain intelligence, we expect something (usually more intelligence) in return. This is normal. Healthy, even.
But Trump’s conduct in this case was very different from the normal sort of quid pro quo. Because here’s something I never did or saw as a representative for U.S. intelligence abroad: I never said to a foreign liaison partner, “We will provide you with the intelligence you want. But in exchange, we need something that will benefit the American president personally. Like any embarrassing dirt you all might have on one of his political rivals back home.”
This is precisely what Trump did during his conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The transcript of the telephone conversation, released by none other than the president himself, shows Trump specifically asking for derogatory information on one of his domestic political opponents, namely Joe Biden. The language is clear: “I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump said. Later, he continued: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.”
U.S. officials were sure Trump didn’t want to give money to Ukraine unless Zelensky agreed to investigate Biden, as sworn testimony from career senior diplomat William B. Taylor Jr. shows: “That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the president committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor said.
And Ukrainian officials certainly understood, too. The probability of the government of Ukraine failing to understand they needed to help out Trump personally to ensure continued U.S. aid in their ongoing struggle with Russia is close to zero. I traveled to Ukraine and met with Ukrainian officials myself a number of times right after the Maidan protests in 2013, and I can tell you that Ukraine has always clearly understood that assistance from the United States and other Western countries was immensely important. Ukrainian leaders understand that Russia poses an existential threat to them, and that Ukraine is not large enough or rich enough to fight Russia alone. Ukraine understands that it needs U.S. assistance if it does not want to be entirely absorbed into Russia by President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a significant part of Ukraine, is the obvious proof. It is not surprising that the Ukrainians would do almost anything asked of them to get the assistance they need to ensure their country continues to exist — or that Zelensky reportedly planned to announce a bogus investigation of Biden just to get the money, until news broke in Washington of the whole story.
But while the idea of a quid pro quo in these circumstances is certainly making the rounds in the news, Trump personally getting something in return for helping Ukraine is not the original sin. An American president — any American president — simply making a personal request of a foreign leader is wrong and probably worthy of impeachment. Any quid pro quo is less important than the simple fact of the president making the request. Even if the Ukrainians had somehow missed Trump’s unsubtle demands, the call would still have been grossly inappropriate. It represents an American president using his position of strength and influence — and indeed the prestige of the U.S. government — in an attempt to obtain political kompromat from a foreign leader. That act, in and of itself, is deeply corrosive to the broader interests of the United States.
Trump’s request was nothing short of horrific.
Imagine a scenario where such requests become normal and routine for all future presidents. Would we, as a nation that touts transparency, fairness and just government, be comfortable with presidents constantly seeking politically damaging information on one of his or her domestic political rivals? Would we be okay with any future president picking up the phone and asking any foreign government for any dirt they might have on American opposition figures? In my years serving abroad, I have certainly seen such behavior from foreign governments — but usually from countries that are not democratic, open societies like ours. During the Balkans wars, for example, it was not uncommon for the warring factions to share derogatory information on political opponents with their ethnic compatriots in nearby Balkan countries. But the United States certainly considers its democracy to be older and hopefully wiser than those still developing in the former Yugoslavia. I never saw anything close to this from the United States.
Now imagine how an authoritarian regime such as Putin’s Russia would judge a request like the one Trump made to the Ukrainian president. Putin mocks Western principles of democracy as nothing more than a deceptive mechanism by which American and other Western leaders pull the wool over the eyes of their citizens. Russia and other autocracies are eager to point the finger at the West, essentially saying, “Look, you are no better than what you accuse us of!” And what are we seeing in the state-controlled Russian press? Precisely that theme. After Republican House members attempted to storm the House Intelligence Committee’s proceedings recently, the popular Russian TV program “60 Minutes” noted, “Those are the people who are trying to tell us how to conduct ourselves!” The Russian host added, “Poor things, they’re so upset.” The same program recently featured an American public relations consultant saying, “All of our presidents break the law.” Maybe the next time Zelensky, or the leader of any government hoping for help from the United States, needs assistance standing up to Putin, they’ll think twice. Assistance from the United States, after all, might come with the price tag of providing personal favors to the White House. Might those leaders not look elsewhere for such assistance? Might they be forgiven for thinking this whole democracy thing America claims is so important is really kind of a sham?
Trump violated his oath of office in the simple act of requesting information from the Ukrainian president that would have helped Trump personally — full stop. Whether there was a quid pro quo does not matter. Trump was acting on corrupt motivations when he used his office to ask Ukraine for the favor of derogatory information on one of his political rivals. This fact alone is one that should outrage all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He did not say "What you're describing is a quid pro quo." A reporter said that to him in asking a question about Trump's call.