In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign learned Russia was working to help him win, and many of its members actively sought to exploit that assistance. In 2020, now possessing the powers of the Executive branch, it’s pressuring a foreign government to assist Trump’s reelection campaign. The effort consists of Trump’s agents lobbying Ukraine to smear his political rivals.
The smear campaign is being run by Rudy Giuliani, who — perhaps operating on the theory that a massive scandal boasted about in the media by its perpetrators is less damaging than one uncovered by investigators — is broadcasting his scheme. “There’s nothing illegal about it,” he tells the New York Times. “Somebody could say it’s improper.”
Well, yes, they could. It’s grossly, terrifyingly improper.
Giuliani is trying to get Ukraine to pursue two investigations: one against the last Democratic presidential nominee, and another against the leading candidate to be the next one. The first is based on murky charges that have circulated on the right that Hillary Clinton’s campaign conspired with Ukraine to gin up the Russia investigation. (This presumes that without Clinton starting it, there was no serious evidence to investigate Trump’s connections to Russia, which is absurd on its face.)
The second is based on charges that, during his time as vice-president, Joe Biden improperly used his power to benefit his son, Hunter. The Times laid out this accusation in a lengthy report last week. The charge is that Hunter Biden was working for a Ukrainian energy company that was being threatened with prosecution, and Joe Biden demanded Ukraine fire the prosecutor.
But Bloomberg News investigated this claim and thoroughly debunked it. Bloomberg reveals that the prosecution of Hunter Biden’s client had already been shelved at the time Joe Biden was calling for the prosecutor to be removed. And, as the Times acknowledges, the prosecutor Biden called on to be fired was widely considered to be corrupt, and the Obama government supported the prosecution of Hunter Biden’s client anyway. There is no quid, no pro, no quo in this story. Biden acted completely in line with administration policy, and his actions had no bearing on his son’s interests.
So why would Ukraine pursue baseless charges? Because its government has a strong interest in mollifying Trump. The Times reported last year that Ukraine halted its cooperation with the Mueller probe because it couldn’t risk provoking Trump. “The cases are just too sensitive for a government deeply reliant on United States financial and military aid, and keenly aware of Mr. Trump’s distaste for the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign, some lawmakers say.”
Having used that leverage defensively to get Ukraine to withhold cooperation into the probe of his campaign, Trump is now using it offensively, to gin up charges against his targets. His involvement and interest in the effort is transparent. During one of Giuliani’s meetings with Ukrainian officials, he “called Mr. Trump excitedly to brief him on his findings.” Giuliani tells the Times that his work has Trump’s “full support,” and he is making the president’s interest extremely clear to Ukraine’s government. “I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop [the investigation] because that information will be very, very helpful to my client,” he says.
Trump is already burbling excitedly about the project. “I’m hearing it’s a major scandal, major problem,” Trump said on Fox News. “I hope for [Biden] it is fake news. I don’t think it is.”
Unlike the Russia scandal, this episode is one that Trump’s reelection campaign can undertake with the benefit of advance planning and some lawyering (Giuliani being at least technically a lawyer, or at least having the benefit of legal counsel he can consult). On its face, there is nothing illegal here. Trump is leveraging his power as president to compel a dependent foreign government to smear the opposition party. It’s just something no president has ever thought to do before. The powers legally available to a corrupt president and a party that has turned a blind eye to his violations of governing norms may be more terrifying than anybody has considered.