Trump’s legal team in that effort deployed defenses to try to persuade the Senate to vote the way it ultimately did. Among them was an argument used by Trump attorney Patrick Philbin, who said that in situations in which there might be both a personal motive for acting and a legitimate public interest, the president couldn’t be held to account. Another Trump attorney, Alan Dershowitz, took this much further, arguing at one point that “public interest” could include a president’s own reelection bid.
Philbin — and others — didn’t go that far, but he did, near the end of the trial, argue that in situations in which there was a “purely private pecuniary gain” — a “personal family, financial interest” — impeachment would be warranted. He was talking about former vice president Joe Biden, warping the facts of Biden’s actions in office for a rhetorical point. But that argument also seems as though it might apply to a tweet from Trump on Thursday afternoon.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is meeting with Trump at the White House to discuss the administration’s decision last week that it would remove New Yorkers from several programs aimed at speeding security checks at airports and the border. The suspension of those programs for New Yorkers was predicated on New York’s immigration laws, including a policy in which the state wouldn’t allow the Department of Homeland Security to access driver records. A memo published last week by BuzzFeed News reveals that DHS staffers viewed the freeze on travel programs as a way to punish the state.
On Thursday morning on CNN — the network that employs Cuomo’s brother, Chris Cuomo — the governor said that he would allow DHS to access some driving records if the suspension was lifted.
“I’m cooperating,” he said. “Will you now stop doing what you’re doing, which is gratuitous and retaliatory?”
Trump’s tweet clearly focuses on this dispute. His mention of “National Security” is a reference to DHS’s position, framing its focus on illegal immigration as a function of security. Trump appears to offer Cuomo specific ways to resolve the conflict: “stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment, start cleaning itself up, and lowering taxes.”
Real estate values are obviously near and dear to Trump, but the other suggestions he made to Cuomo get much closer.
“Unnecessary lawsuits and harrassment” clearly refers to lawsuits filed against Trump by New York Attorney General Letitia James. James has sought Trump’s tax returns and worked to shut down Trump’s problematic nonprofit foundation. Trump complained about the state’s targeting of him earlier this month.
Then, of course, Trump complains about the state’s taxes. When he revealed in October that he would be making Florida his permanent residence, he complained about city and state taxes in New York. Even after “moving,” Trump has substantial real estate interests in the state that would benefit from a tax cut.
And that’s the rub. Trump is hosting New York’s governor at the White House as Cuomo seeks to reverse a federal policy that affects New York residents. Before he arrived, Trump was explicit about what he wanted from the state: lower taxes, fewer homeless people and no more investigations of himself. The state, he said, “must” do these things … or else?
It’s Ukraine all over again — but this time, with “a personal family, financial interest” of the sort that Trump’s lawyers deemed beyond the pale.
What this does at the very least is raise questions about why the suspension was put into place and what it would take for it to be lifted. Trump can and probably will argue that his tweet addressed things he wanted from New York that are distinct from the motivation for punishing New York state, but the tweet makes it impossible to accept that at face value.
For good measure, Trump tosses in a disparagement of Cuomo’s brother. Last summer, Chris Cuomo was videotaped confronting a heckler who called him “Fredo,” a reference to a character from “The Godfather.” Chris Cuomo has been critical of some Trump policies and helped expose some of the Ukraine scandal in September in an interview with Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. Trump, apparently viewing the conflict with New York through a personal lens, salted the governor’s wounds by disparaging a member of his family.
This tweet makes it impossible to separate the Trump administration’s approach to policies in New York from Trump’s personal views of the state and its leadership. The interests of the government collapse into the interests of Trump himself. This is what House impeachment managers argued Trump was doing in Ukraine, forcing his attorneys to engage in various gymnastics to rationalize what he was doing. In this case, Trump is explicit — perhaps having learned that it wouldn’t matter.
During the course of the impeachment trial, the House managers specifically questioned what Trump might feel empowered to do should he be acquitted.
“What we have alleged in this case is that the president solicited a personal, political benefit in exchange for an official act,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said during the Senate trial, “solicited dirt on a political opponent in exchange for the release of $391 million in military aid — solicited dirt in exchange for a White House meeting.
“And if this Senate were to say that’s acceptable, then precisely as was outlined in that question, could take place all across America in the context of the next election and any election,” he continued. “Grants allocated to cities, or towns, or municipalities across the country that the president could say, ‘You’re not going to get that money Mr. Mayor, Ms. County Executive, Ms. Town Supervisor — unless you endorse me for reelection.’ The president could say that to any governor of our 50 states. That’s unacceptable, that cannot be allowed to happen in our democratic republic.”
Jeffries couldn’t have known how quickly an eerily similar situation would emerge.
Update: James replied on Twitter.