“Nice little country you’ve got there. It would be a shame if my best friend Vladimir burned it down.” That’s the essence of the threat that Donald J. Trump, the world’s most incompetent gangster, delivered to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over the phone last July.
Incompetent, among other reasons, because he keeps getting caught. Seemingly persuaded of his impunity, Trump turned U.S. foreign policy into a protection racket for his own political benefit.
With the Russian wolf at the door — Vladimir Putin’s army occupies Ukraine’s easternmost provinces — Trump presented that country’s newly elected president with a hard bargain. Zelensky either needed to deliver up doctored evidence against Trump’s political rival Joe Biden, or risk forfeiting $400 million in military aid voted by Congress. Money the president had previously embargoed with his customary dubious constitutional authority.
“Previously embargoed,” as in a couple of days before Trump’s call.
Trump alibis that he withheld the money because the Europeans weren’t doing their bit. But that’s the usual balderdash. Preventing Putin’s Russia from swallowing up Ukraine, a fragile new European democracy, is an existential issue for our NATO allies. (Most of whom, it’s worth remembering, sent troops to fight and die in Afghanistan after 9/11.) The European Union alone has sent more than $16 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea.
But it turns out to be harder than Trump thought to run a shakedown out of the White House when not everybody who works there is a “made man” loyal to the godfather. Because that’s what it’s come down to with these latest revelations from a “whistleblower” inside the administration: Either you support Trumpism or the U.S. Constitution. You can no longer pretend to support both.
Of course, much of the Republican Party has been converted into an authoritarian political cult elevating its hero above our democracy. His sheer audacity is exactly what much of Trump’s celebrated “base” loves about him — united in resentment against anybody they suspect thinks them “deplorable.” (Thanks a lot, Hillary.) Hence, Trump now asserts that the “whistleblower” lacks patriotism and loyalty to the United States — meaning himself, the living embodiment of the nation.
However, some Trumpists’ faith may yet waver.
So was Trump coarse enough to put the threat in so many words? We may need to have an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate to find out. But probably not. Once an experienced shakedown artist like Trump has maneuvered his pigeon into a defenseless position, honeyed words and professions of mutual loyalty are the way to go. See how nice the godfather can be when he gets what he wants? Don’t you want to keep making him happy?
The money remained sequestered, however, until a couple of weeks ago, when The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal began nosing around. Otherwise, Ukraine would have been out of luck.
But the law’s not stupid: A threat needn’t be explicit to be a crime. Canceling military aid followed by a friendly call letting Zelensky know exactly how to get back in Trump’s good graces would be enough to trigger bribery laws. Federal statutes make it a crime for a government official to express “specific intent to give or receive something of value in exchange for an official act.” Courts have ruled that negative information about political opponents constitutes “something of value.”
Which, of course, it is.
Ironically, the reason that special counsel Robert Mueller declined to prosecute Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and the rest regarding the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton was that he wasn’t sure he could prove they knew it was a crime.
This time, that alibi won’t fly.
Indeed, it appears likely that Mueller’s legalistic pussyfooting may have emboldened the president. Trump made the ill-fated call to Ukraine’s president on July 25, one day after the special counsel testified before Congress. As Michael Tomasky puts it, “Trump clearly watched Mueller, saw that he was a patsy, and decided he could do anything.”
The Ukraine caper, however, involving, as it does, presidential power, isn’t merely far worse than anything Mueller uncovered about the Trump team’s conniving with Russian intelligence operatives back in 2016. It’s also — and this could prove crucially important — a single, discrete event that’s a whole lot easier to understand. A thousand gangster films, from the “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos,” have given Americans a pretty good idea how protection rackets work.
There’s never been a graver political scandal in U.S. history. Think about it: a president withholding military aid from a country under attack by Russia in order to force its government to launch a criminal investigation into his opponent’s family.
It’s bribery and it’s treason, both of which Article II of the U.S. Constitution stipulate as grounds for impeachment and removal.
Political calculations aside, Congress has no choice but to proceed.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org