Not for the first time, President Donald Trump has revealed the fragility of this country's democratic system. Three years into his presidency, the evidence of a weakened system is all around. It has happened in plain sight.
The latest involves the president and Ukraine. Based on what has so far been reported, the president asked, encouraged or demanded that the leader of a foreign government undertake an investigation designed to produce information that could damage a potential 2020 campaign rival.
Whether this also involved a quid pro quo is in question. The full story is not yet known. The biggest reason the details are not known is because Trump's White House and the Justice Department, which is supposed to operate independently, have so far prevented Congress from obtaining the information that could help reveal what is missing.
Over the past few days, reporting first by The Washington Post and later by other organizations has provided the outline of a disturbing story. Unless there is substantial countering information, it portrays a president abusing his powers purely for political gain.
The outlines are these: According to multiple reports, on July 25, the president spoke on the phone with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In that conversation, he pressed the Ukrainian leader to reopen an investigation into a company that at one time had Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden, on its board.
Shortly after that phone call, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump's personal lawyer, met in Spain with an adviser to Zelensky. Giuliani further pressed the Ukrainian government to pursue the investigation involving Biden's son, as well as one about alleged Democratic involvement with Ukrainians affecting Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman who is in prison.
Meanwhile, during this period, $250 million in military assistance for Ukraine, money appropriated by Congress, was, for a time, held up. Was that directly connected to Trump's efforts to pressure the Ukrainians? That question also remains unanswered.
The contents of the Trump phone call prompted someone in the government to file a whistleblower complaint, an unprecedented grievance aimed at the president. The inspector general for the intelligence community found the whistleblower's charge credible and urgent, in which case the information should have been relayed to Congress. That hasn't happened because the White House and Justice Department are fighting it.
That is roughly where things stand as of the weekend. Congress will fight for the information, and a lengthy court battle could ensue. That would be par for the course, as Trump's White House and Justice Department have consistently and persistently resisted any efforts by House committees to obtain documents and testimony from administration officials for various investigations into corruption or abuse of power. Resistance has been the posture of the administration ever since Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 midterms and began to launch their investigations.
Trump and administration officials see these investigations as pure harassment, just as Trump complained that the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was a witch hunt, until he, wrongly, claimed that the Mueller report had totally exonerated him. White House resistance has prevented Congress from carrying out its constitutional authority to provide oversight of the executive branch.
Trump has responded to this latest case as he has in previous instances when he has been challenged. He has cast the whistleblower - though he says he does not know the identity of the person who filed the complaint - as a partisan Democrat in an attempt to discredit the allegations of wrongdoing.
He also has refused to say what he said in the call with the Ukrainian leader, other than to assert that whatever it was, it was totally appropriate. "It doesn't matter what I discussed," Trump said. And with statements and weekend tweets, he has redoubled efforts to draw attention away from himself and shift it to Biden and Biden's son. "Someone ought to look into Joe Biden," he said Friday.
America's democratic system, the world's oldest, is said to be resilient, with institutions strong enough to defend against runaway actors and with checks and balances designed to prevent too much power from building up in any one place or with any one person. Earlier in Trump's presidency, that appeared to be the case. Right now, however, that is in question.
When the president asserts executive privilege to prevent testimony before Congress by a private citizen who never was on the government payroll - as happened last week when Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee - it is clear how much Trump is prepared to test his belief that his powers are unlimited. "I have the right to do whatever I want as president," Trump once said, and that appears to be the basis upon which he is operating.
Three years into his presidency, Trump has helped to reveal the weaknesses of the system. In the executive branch, and especially in the White House, there are few if any officials willing to challenge and check the president. To the extent that administration officials could do that, those who tried are gone. He has also demonstrated the degree to which Congress is dependent on a president who operates with at least some respect for the norms of the system created by the Founding Fathers.
In a Saturday tweet, the president claimed that this latest story is a "witch hunt" by his desperate opponents. At least part of the electorate probably fully agrees with the president on that assertion. Already it's easy to see the partisan battle lines forming.
In the case of Russia and the 2016 election, Trump campaign associates were certainly open to accepting damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but Mueller said there was not an illegal conspiracy on that question. On the issue of abuse of power, Mueller laid out possible evidence but stopped short of encouraging Congress to move to impeach the president.
The Mueller investigation did not deliver an ironclad case against the president. That is an important cautionary warning in the absence of additional information about this episode. Before all the information is out - if it ever comes out - this is quickly becoming another partisan conflict, more fodder for the coming presidential election.
If it is simply reduced to that, to noise along the campaign trail, then the most important issues will be obscured or ignored, which are how much stress the system already has taken and how much more it can take.
ATHENS - Greeks, banned from smoking in nearly all public places, smoke in most of those places nonetheless.
They smoke inside police stations and government buildings. They smoke in sports arenas. They smoke in family restaurants and late-night bars. They smoke at the music venue where Maria Pavlopoulou - a cancer survivor who has puffed her way through breakups and financial distress - now spends her Friday and Saturday nights singing oldies in the cigarette haze.
"Of course, I realize it's an addiction," said Pavlopoulou, 53, who then took a pouch of tobacco from her purse and rolled her next cigarette. "But smoking makes me feel that I'm well."
In a country that has been stressed to the max over the past decade, tobacco is the main vice. Nearly two in every five Greeks ages 15 and older smoke daily, the highest rate in Europe. World Health Organization numbers put Greece among the heaviest smoking countries globally.
But as the lingering signs of economic crisis recede at last, the new Greek prime minister, a devoted anti-smoker, has said the country is ready to begin a different kind of recovery: improving its health by following the smoking ban that was made into law a decade ago but then summarily ignored.
When his government took office in July, for the first time in memory, staffers and politicians stopped smoking inside the Parliament building.
The notion of enforcing a health law is, by itself, a sign of how post-crisis Greece may be changing.
Greek authorities have a long, tormented track record of creating regulations - whether about parking or tax collection - and looking the other way. In the case of the smoking ban, furious bar and restaurant owners rebelled when it was imposed, saying they couldn't afford to chase off customers during what became a historic recession.
But advocates for the ban say that if Greeks are now able to rally behind any law, it should be one that can help reduce medical costs, stem an epidemic and bring the country up to the health standards of much of the rest of Europe and the United States.
"Clean air is a basic need," said George Balafoutis, a Microsoft cybersecurity architect who launched a website listing the bars and restaurants nationwide - 464, as of now - that are already smoke-free.
Enforcing the law, though, means confronting a nationwide addiction.
Smoking starts early for Greeks, and kiosks sell cigarettes right in front of schools. Even the healthiest Greeks can't easily get away. American basketball coach Rick Pitino, coaching a Greek club earlier this year, criticized fans for smoking inside the arena, saying they were "self-centered" and didn't "care about young people and the athletes who are breathing it in."
At one cancer clinic in Athens, doctors say half the patients continue to smoke during their treatment. At another hospital across town, those lighting up in front of an outdoor sign that tells them not to include patients, relatives and staff.
There among the smokers, a 67-year-old with an IV drip and circulation problems said she was told earlier that day by her doctor to stop. A 70-year-old said he was smoking "a little more than usual today" because his daughter was having surgery. A 56-year-old said he was smoking because he was on his morning break; he'd liquidated his construction company in 2011, spent five years unemployed and then found a job at the hospital pushing gurneys.
"I started smoking in the army - like most guys," the hospital staffer, Anestis Aslanides, said with a shrug.
While other countries consider restrictions on vaping, based on reports of a mysterious lung illness and emerging evidence that flavored nicotine liquid is hooking children, the risks of traditional cigarettes are far better understood - and more widespread.
The World Health Organization says more than 8 million people die every year from tobacco, including 1.2 million non-users who are exposed to smoke secondhand.
Because of its failure to enforce the ban, Greece has far and away Europe's smokiest restaurants, bars and workplaces. According to 2017 European Commission data, 78 percent of Greeks say they're exposed to smoke when they go out to eat. In most European countries, that figure is below 10 percent.
The initial Greek antismoking law actually came in two attempts - a patchwork version in 2009, which never took hold, and then a more forceful version in 2010, which called for a complete ban on smoking in all indoor public spaces, excluding casinos and some large music venues. Businesses that violated the law could face fines of up to 10,000 euros.
The country's U.S.-born, socialist prime minister at the time, George Papandreou, said the ban would help "make our country viable - not just its economy but in everyday life." But by 2015, according to Greek media, a government hotline to report violators was defunct. By 2016, Greece's deputy health minister was smoking his way through a news conference.
Now, the new conservative government has said it is time for the country to change. It intends to start following through on fines for violators. One pulmonologist advising the government, Panagiotis Behrakis, said he is also pushing for a campaign describing secondhand smoke as a "human rights violation."
Already, Greeks abide by non-smoking rules in some places: on the Metro, for instance, and in department stores. Trendy new restaurants have opened with smoke-free rules, and the percentage of smokers has fallen slightly in recent years. Polls suggest most Greeks are in favor of enforcement.
But following laws in Greece has never been that simple.
"I was two times pregnant during the parliamentary session, and I suffered tremendously," said Niki Kerameus, Greece's new education minister. "I couldn't find a place in Parliament where I wasn't exposed. If we don't start enforcing the laws where they are actually voted, what hope is there for anybody else?"
Some experts note, with curiosity, that Greeks are better at following smoking bans when they leave their country.
"When you see them abroad, they respect - completely - the regulations and laws," said Pagona Lagiou, an adjunct professor at Harvard University and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Athens Medical School. "At home, they are not doing quite so well."
As a result, it is the Greeks who have lived abroad and returned who are sometimes the most alarmed. Balafoutis, 39, started the website that tracks smoke-free venues after moving from New York City to Athens in 2016. He said rediscovering Greece's smoke-filled nightlife gave him a sense of "shock and despair," and the more he thought about the disregarded smoking ban - "a law being ignored in plain sight!" he said - the more he came to see it as a telltale for some of Greece's deeper ills.
"Think about it," said Balafoutis, who by day designs cybersecurity programs for banks, government branches and pharmaceutical companies. "If they ignore this, what other laws are they cutting corners on. Cleanliness? Quality of meats? How they treat workers?
"Fix this," he said, "and more fixing will happen."
But some Greeks would prefer to continue smoking and put off dealing with some of their broader stresses.
Pavlopoulou, who moonlights as a singer, said she realizes she should stop smoking. In her day job, she works 12-hour shifts at a cardiologist's office. She handles paperwork for insurance claims. The smokers always pay more.
"It's the No. 1 factor," she said.
Still, as Pavlopoulou tells it, through much of her life, cigarettes have been her comfort. She smoked when her mother died, and she smoked when helping several unemployed siblings during the economic crisis and she smoked throughout her treatment several years ago for bowel cancer. Maybe that cancer was related to smoking; maybe it wasn't - Pavlopoulou isn't sure. But she remembers the cigarettes she smoked in the months after her treatment, after the numbness and the other side effects from chemotherapy, after the panic attacks and the dizziness. She was forced to cut out red meat and fast food and soda, and when at last she went out with some friends, she was worried about whether she might die, and whether she could be her old self.
"To have a cigarette," she said, "made me feel part of life."
She has kept her view on cigarettes in the years since, smoking a pack a day, and the venue where she sings - small, smoky - is one of the joints that has fully ignored the ban. On weekend nights, Pavlopoulou shares the stage with several other singers for four-hour sets, playing in front of a mostly older crowd that she says is probably not ready to change.
"Let's not forget," Pavlopoulou said by way of explaining, "that Greeks have been through a lot these last years."
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The Washington Post's Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.