the national interest

Trump’s Ukraine Scandal Is Hiding in Plain Sight

President Trump Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Appearing last night on CNN, Rudy Giuliani created a furor by openly confessing that he had pressured Ukraine’s government to investigate Joe Biden. The apparent revelation was enhanced by Giuliani initially denying the charge before conceding it. Asked by Chris Cuomo, “Did you ask the Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?” Giuliani replied, “No, actually, I didn’t,” before going on to explain how he did exactly that, prompting this exchange:

Cuomo: “So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?”

Giuliani: “Of course I did.”

But Rudy, in fact, confessed this months ago. Indeed, the whole plot has been sitting in plain sight, a gigantic scandal that has confounded the media and the opposition in part through its very nakedness.

In recent days, a seemingly new scandal materialized: reports of an intelligence whistle-blower encountering disturbing conduct by President Trump, and having his complaint quashed in apparent violation of the law. The complaint turns out to be related to the Ukraine scandal, which has been sitting in plain sight. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump repeatedly pressured his counterpart to work with Giuliani on an investigation of Biden. We are learning more details of a story whose broader contours have been clear for months.

We have known since last spring that Trump, working through Giuliani, is pressuring Ukraine to supply dirt on Joe Biden. The alleged misconduct by Biden concerns his work as vice-president under the Obama administration. The allegation is that Biden supposedly tried to sack a Ukrainian prosecutor who was propbing his son’s business in the country. The allegation against Biden is totally baseless. In fact, as Bloomberg News discovered, the prosecution was finished before Biden took a stance, the prosecutor was widely considered corrupt, his sacking was consistent with the administration’s pro-democracy agenda, and the Obama administration supported the investigation into Hunter Biden anyway.

Of course, the allegations don’t need to have any merit to them. The mere existence of an investigation is enough of a hook for mainstream news to treat the charges as an open question, and for conservative news to treat the guilt as preordained. And so Trump has been pressuring Ukraine to at least investigate Giuliani’s claims.

The fact that Trump is pressuring Ukraine into this is no secret. Last spring, Giuliani gave the New York Times a series of insanely incriminating quotes, such as, “We’re not meddling in an election; we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” and “There’s nothing illegal about it. Somebody could say it’s improper,” and “I’m going to give [Ukraine] reasons why they shouldn’t stop [the investigation] because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.” Note how the last line, Giuliani even concedes the interests of his client, Trump, differ from the interests of the U.S. government — while maintaining that he wants Ukraine to help both.

This agenda was no secret when Trump spoke to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in July. Ukraine’s public summary of a phone call between its president and Trump noted, “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”

And at the beginning of this month, when a reporter asked Vice-President Mike Pence if the administration was holding up aid for Ukraine as leverage to force it to investigate Biden, he did not deny it. Instead, he underscored the threat:

But as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption. And, fortunately, President Zelensky was elected decisively on an anti-corruption message. And he and I discussed yesterday that as he’s assembled his cabinet, and as his parliament has convened, that even in the early days, he informed me that there have been more than 250 bills filed for — that address the issue of public corruption and really restoring integrity to the public process.

I mean, to invest additional taxpayer [money] in Ukraine, the President wants to be assured that those resources are truly making their way to the kind of investments that will contribute to security and stability in Ukraine. And that’s an expectation the American people have and the President has expressed very clearly.

This is merely the damning evidence on the surface. The whistle-blower case involves some unknown evidence that may or may not add substantially to the already obvious guilt. Reporting so far has established that a member of the intelligence community was alarmed by a promise Trump made to a foreign leader, and that this concerned his pressure campaign on Ukraine. It’s possible Trump added an especially corrupt inducement, beyond the publicly known threat, in his phone call with Zelensky. It’s possible the whistle-blower is simply reporting the same conversation that has already been made public.

It’s also possible the conservation was with the leader of a different country — while we know it was about Ukraine, reporters still haven’t confirmed the call was with Ukraine. One could easily imagine, say, Trump asking Vladimir Putin to threaten Ukraine into smearing Biden.

Meanwhile, conservatives have quickly begun repeating Trump’s message on the matter. First, he insists the whistle-blower is “highly partisan.” He does not explain how he learned the identity of this alleged partisan, nor why his complaint was judged to be a “serious or flagrant problem, abuse or violation of the law” by the inspector general that Trump himself appointed. The logic of Trumpland holds that Trump is the party. Ergo, anybody who criticized Trump, however sterling their Republican credentials, is by definition partisan.

As if to test the devotion of his followers, Trump has proceeded to insist on both the innocuousness of his conversation and the need for its secrecy.

In sum, (1) if everybody saw what Trump said to the foreign leader, they would agree it was above reproach, and (2) no, you can’t see it.

His devotees are rewarding their faith. Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, dutifully asserts that whatever it was Trump said was “classified information that neither the press nor the public has seen, will not see, and that concerns an activity that, in itself, is perfectly proper and indeed constitutes the president doing his job.” We don’t know what Trump said — and, Trump willing, we never shall — but we know that it was proper and good.

The extraordinary corruption of Trump’s posture toward Ukraine was already public knowledge. All that remains is to locate the bottom.

This column has been updated.

Trump’s Ukraine Scandal Is Hiding in Plain Sight