Now that the process of Presidential impeachment has been formalized in the House of Representatives, the evidence must be judiciously pursued. Unsurprisingly, the President, his spokespeople, acolytes, Republican Congressional leaders, and credulous partisans are doing everything in their power to thwart House Democrat’s efforts. Trump apologists are screeching deflections, distractions, equivocations, unpatriotic recriminations and a panoply of mendacities to undermine the House investigation and impugn existing (administration provided) evidence. This would be shocking if self-interest was not the conceptual tableau of Conservative ideology and if political entrenchment, a form of corruption carried out at the margins of democracy, was not the primary aim of Republicans.
Alas ‘poor’ Republicans, Americans were already waking up to the corruption you actualize, largely on behalf of and with the support of corporate and wealthy interests. Now, the President has underlined and highlighted the self-interested corruption writ in large bold font, and has emphasized the seriousness of political entrenchment with the exclamation point of his coercive phone call with the Ukrainian President. Most concerning though is the President’s increasing instability, on display in person and on social media. Instability, by a man who controls the power of the Presidency is an imminent danger to American democracy, i.e., the foundational ideas of freedom, openness and transparency, not just the political institutions resting on them.
As long as Congressional Democrats do not allow Republican’s mendacious rhetoric to divert the attempts at excavating and understanding the cause and effect underlying the accusations set out in the whistleblower complaint, additional unimpeachable impeachment evidence will be unearthed. However, archaeological investigations, even those of recent institutions, societies and milieus, are not quick processes. So, we must be patient while the digging goes on and trust in the process. When the artifacts and other evidence are presented, the President’s personal ruin will likely be marked by the imprimatur of House Impeachment, but his instability and overreach require his removal to save our democracy from ruin. That will require no less than 20 Senate Republicans to vote for removal. History will reveal whether Congressional Republicans ultimately choose self-interest or democracy.
While those of us with robust consciences and esteem for the common good wait for newly unearthed artifacts of Presidential abuse of power and corruption, we can steal moments of repose under the comforting knowledge that the truth usually wins out. At this point, further digging is needed only to demonstrate unequivocally, that the President was willfully using the power of his office for self-aggrandizement, not for the goals and protection of the nation. The Founding Fathers conceived of impeachment for cases of such political piracy. Further, keep in mind that continued investigation is likely to uncover evidence that other administration pirates, both elected and appointed, as well as private citizen pirates, are involved and culpable for impeachable or criminal actions.
Eventually, only the masts of the Donald Trump commanded corsair fleet will remain above waterline, revealing all the political pirates clothed in ragged shades of their own iniquity. Few if any pirates are stoic enough to go down with the ship. (In a measure of poetic justice, many pirates are notoriously poor swimmers because they opt for piracy in a last-minute attempt to evade accountability for misdeeds on land.) Besides, isn’t going down with the ship supposed to be the Captain’s final act. Regardless, America won’t have to rely on archaeologists to sift through the wreckage and historians to sort out the attributions long after Constitutional and legal remedies are moot. Rank and file pirates, clinging to flotsam, will offer knowledge of ill-gotten treasure to secure favor for themselves. One pirate’s grace is purchased with treasures which impugn another, and those who promise the greatest riches will earn the most generous grace for their own iniquities. So, even pirates otherwise insulated for their misdeeds, like Admirals and Captains, may be exposed and held accountable.
However, with an eternally news spinning President who is a completely shameless and depraved hybrid of showman and charlatan, it is important to review how we arrived at this binary moment of democratic ruin or perseverance. That of course is the ‘perfect’ phone call. Though the rough transcript of the July 25, 2019 interaction presents a fairly naked abuse of power, an extended analogy is instructive.
Imagine a homeowner, Mr. Smith, in the role of President Zelensky, seeking help to protect his land from a violently attacking neighbor, Mr. Jones, in the role of Russia. Mr. Jones has previously fenced off part of Mr. Smith’s backyard and claimed it for his own, just as Russia did in taking Crimea from Ukraine. Now imagine that the aggressive Mr. Jones, with the aid of other neighbors, is currently tearing down more of Mr. Smith’s fencing to claim more of Mr. Smith’s backyard, similar to how Ukrainian separatists, backed and stoked by Russia, are attacking eastern Ukraine. Who does the under-siege Mr. Smith turn to?
In America, a homeowner under such threat would call 911 for help. Now imagine the 911 operator, in a role akin to that of President Trump, as a dispenser of urgently needed aid, asks Mr. Smith for a personal favor before dispatching the police. Nothing could be clearer as an abuse of power. The operator is not absolved of abuse of power by the fact that the coercive force is applied by an outside party. Simply asking for the favor is an overreach of authority which infringes on democratic foundations. Then factor in the operator’s knowledge of pressure from an external force in prefacing aid on a favor, and the operator has committed a heinously coercive act of self-serving corruption. But the most egregiously anti-democratic aspect of the operator’s actions is that the operator is also running for political office and wants the coerced Mr. Smith to find or fabricate dirt on the operator’s political opponent, undermining the sanctity of free elections.
With that analogy in mind, the nuances of the ‘perfect’ phone call, and the prevarication-based defenses of Trump’s conduct on the call bloom into gothic black roses of mendacity. The call, which President Trump claims was a ‘perfect’ call, was so in one sense. The rough transcript shows it was a ‘perfect’ example of mafia-style wink and nod communication, where pressure is implicit from the broader context of explosive exogenous exigencies, and where the shared knowledge of those exigencies renders the need for explicit pressure from Trump unnecessary. In that light, Trump’s role on the phone call is as self-aggrandizing and threatening as any mafia boss and highlights the Constitutional betrayal in using the power of the presidency for personal gain. Nonetheless, Trump’s apologists offer multiple spurious evasions.
Many of Trump’s Republican apologists first retreat behind the imaginary bulwark that the absence of a quid pro quo during the conversation exonerates President Trump for abuse of power. While it is arguable that there was no quid pro quo, that does not exonerate the President for abusing the power of his office. In the first place, quid pro quo is not a necessary element of abuse of power. Simply seeking aid from a foreign government, when that aid is sought in order to harm a political opponent, constitutes abuse of official power for personal electoral gain, a measure of corruption rising to an impeachable offense.
For completely logical reasons, not legal ones, if quid pro quo were somehow a factor to consider in questions of abuse of power, there would be an exception for coercion. Quid pro quo involves a free exchange of favors or advantages between two parties. Favors can only be freely exchanged where neither party holds a coercive advantage over the other. Newly elected President Zelensky, and Ukraine, are vulnerable to the Russian wolves at their eastern border. Ukrainian rebels, financed and stoked by Russia, are waging war to separate territory from Ukraine. Ukraine desperately needs U.S. financial and military aid to maintain their territorial sovereignty in the face of these rebels. The prospect of a full-blown civil war on Ukrainian territory bestows a coercive advantage upon President Trump by virtue of his power to withhold aid, nullifying the possibility of a quid pro quo.
The next rhetorical battlement offered by the apologists is that Zelensky publicly (at the UN gathering) denied Trump had pressured him. Given the precarious territorial integrity of Ukraine, Zelensky simply could not risk any other statement. Especially when dealing with President Trump, who is known to be vindictive toward those who contradict his lies, disagree with, or otherwise undermine him. The early part of the call transcript, a downpour of excessive flattery and pandering directed at Trump, made it clear Zelensky understands which sticks and carrots motivate Donald Trump, and how. Ultimately though, the ‘absence of pressure’ argument fails because President Trump need not exert pressure on Ukraine since Russia was already doing so. Trump merely needed to float the idea that he would pull the chair out from under Zelensky as he settled into his nascent presidency.
Next, many apologists retreat to the rampart that President Trump did not clearly state that the U.S. was withholding military aid on the infamous call. While this is true, it must also be acknowledged that Trump had, prior to the call, unilaterally halted release of the nearly $400 million in aid. Zelensky was likely aware that the aid had been approved by both the U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense (DOD), and was certainly aware the aid had not been received by his country. That would put any reasonable person, whose country was on the verge of civil war, on high alert.
The judicious way in which Zelensky broached the subject of military aid indicates an awareness of his situation, which has been confirmed by texts provided to Congress by Ambassador Kurt Volker. Even for a comedian (Zelensky was a comedian who played ‘president’ on television in a previous life), Ukraine’s President demonstrated a diplomatic adroitness far exceeding Trump’s, by raising the issue of military aid obliquely and only after sufficient flattery. After Zelensky suggested that Ukraine was nearly ready to buy more military hardware from the U.S., Trump replied, with all the subtlety a corrupt and fearful narcissist can manage, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
That statement by Trump is the ‘wink’ directed at Zelensky. It is not insignificant that trump ‘winked’ only after Zelensky referenced purchasing military hardware. That clarified the relative positions of the two men, and in fact the two countries they represent, firmly establishing Ukraine as subordinate, and emphasizing Trump’s aim that Ukraine should act as agent to Trump’s role of principal. This is consistent with Trump’s preference for bullying, from a position of relative strength, over diplomacy. Thereby, with just a ‘wink,’ Trump could expect Ukraine to pursue investigative ‘favors’ on behalf of, and along lines determined by, Trump’s coterie of incestuous, overreaching and mutually protecting pirate Captains who have been travelling the globe seeking woven political fantasies, not just gilded treasures. Later in the call, after assigning conspiracy origins and gloating over the poor ratings of Robert Mueller’s Congressional testimony of the day before, Trump took a breath, and Zelensky offered his ‘nod’ of ascent to the devil’s bargain.
That responsive ‘nod’ included professions of desire for ‘personal relations’ and cooperation, and assurances that Mr. Guliani’s future visits would be welcomed. Finally, Zelensky demonstrated a surprising fluency in American mafia-shyster speak by referring several times to President Trump having ‘friends’ in Ukraine. Such a personalization of relations was probably meant just as much to flatter Trump, who needs to feel he is liked, but was the exclamation point on Zelensky’s coerced ‘nod.’ With that the deal, by which Trump had co-opted a foreign nation to do his domestic political wet work, was sealed, or so Trump thought…
Anyway, the final fortification the apologists fall back to is that the ‘favor’ was not clearly stated in the call. However, it need not have been spelled out in infinite detail during the call, because it was communicated, in depth, by Trump’s personal attorney, et al, at various times. Similar accounts of contact between Trump surrogates and the Zelensky administration were contained in the whistleblower’s report. One passage indicated that Trump’s demands had already been communicated to Zelensky’s team in May:
“multiple U.S. officials told me that the Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelenskyy would depend on whether Zelenskyy showed willingness to “ play ball” on the issues that had been publicly aired by Mr. Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani.”
Also, text messages between various American diplomats and Ukrainian officials prior to, and after the infamous call, spell out in more than sufficient detail, the parameters Ukraine was expected to meet. No amount of judiciously but disingenuously constructed contrary texts (see last text on page 9, date/time stamp: 9/9/19, 5:19:35 AM) after the call, could fool any but the most credulous partisans.
Throughout the extensive text communications, and the ignominious call, the goal sought by President Trump was made clear. Extort, at a minimum, an official statement, if not a documented affirmation that Ukraine felt it was necessary to investigate the Bidens for corruption, under the pretext of looking at a Ukrainian domestic company, and investigate previous Ukrainian officials for attacking the 2016 U.S. elections. However, what is striking in light of President Trump’s public assertions that he was concerned about Ukrainian corruption, are several glaring omissions in the communications.
Not once did a U.S. representative suggest prospective protections against corruption. Where were the discussions of legal or financial reform? How about discussion of reforming the government structure? Where was the concern for transparency of the Ukrainian political system? Likely, the irony was lost on Trump’s band of sodden pirates, inebriated on power and blinded by thoughts of their own exceptionalism, as they tried to extort domestic electoral interference from a sovereign nation, then tried to conceal the various attempts. If fighting corruption had been remotely on their agenda, they could have looked to the previously robust history of the United States, and our republic’s 232 years of Constitutionally guided experience overcoming intermittent bouts of corruption. Instead they engaged in newfound depravity and corruption in U.S. politics, and attempted to corrupt Ukraine in the process.
Unfortunately for the President and his band of pirates, there are still patriots in the United States. Thanks to those heroes, the deceptions are exposed. The arguments Trump and his apologists put forth are defeated, by logic, independent facts, and by admissions previously put forth as the administration was trying to pre-empt uncomfortable questions. Nonetheless, there are several critical uncertainties all Americans should consider.
First, will the impeachment inquiry lead to other members of the administration being impeached? The way news is breaking, perhaps the question should be how many other members will be impeached?
Second, and much more critically, will Congressional Republicans opt to be Americans first and Trumpians second by voting for removal of the President, if not others? If not, are the members of the GOP prepared for further overreach and abuse of office by the President, or worse by persons much more competent than Trump who may accede to the Presidency if only Trump is impeached? For those members of the GOP who choose self and/or party over America, are they prepared for their legacies to be marked by the brands of history they earn?
Finally, we must be prepared for President Trump’s merely chaotic behavior to devolve into frenzied and frantic vindictiveness at the prospect of impeachment, removal from office, or failing to be re-elected and facing prosecution. Is there a limit to the deterioration of the President’s words and deeds, and the resulting danger to democracy? Is there a limit to how much the Executive branch might usurp Congressional authority, beyond obstructing subpoenas and misappropriating funds in violation of Article I of the Constitution, if they are not fully held accountable?
Lord Acton’s line, ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ was a stern warning about allowing one person to approach that limit, but it fails to capture the dynamic through which absolute power is distilled in a system of checks and balances. Every failure to hold Executive branch abusers and usurpers of power accountable cedes more power to them. Democrats can only do so much on their own. That puts the onus on Republicans in Congress to decide whether the fate of our democracy is ruin or weary perseverance!