A few weeks ago, Republicans were still insisting that Donald Trump’s diplomatic posture toward Ukraine did not involve any quid pro quo — and if such a thing had happened, it would be bad. “There was no quid pro quo, you’d have to have that if there was going to be anything wrong,” said Senator Charles Grassley on September 25.
At a briefing today, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney blithely described just such an arrangement. “What you’re describing is a quid pro quo,” asserted a reporter. “We do that all the time,” replied Mulvaney. “Did he also mention to me the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about it. But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money … I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Technically speaking, “Get over it” is opinion, not news. In any case, the old defense line that Trump did not use American foreign policy as a lever for his political interests has been totally overrun. Most recently, Gordon Sondland, the E.U. ambassador who has carried out Trump’s policy, has admitted it was built around trading diplomatic recognition for Ukrainian investigations into Americans Trump wishes to discredit. Trump has openly proclaimed that he has an “absolute right” to demand any country investigate any American for any reason he chooses.
Through sheer amoral shamelessness, Trump has created a new power for the presidency to commandeer the legal systems of foreign countries for his political benefit. In some ways, this resembles another right he has seized, to use his office to leverage private profit. (Mulvaney affirmed this right as well, proudly announcing that next year’s G7 summit will be held at a Trump-owned property.) Mulvaney’s matter-of-fact manner is merely a tonal shift announcing to his fellow partisans that they can stop denying Trump uses foreign policy to gin up overseas investigations of his domestic rivals and start defending it.
Mulvaney’s bald-faced confession reportedly came as a shock to the rest of the White House, and the White House counsel’s office officially informed reporters it had no involvement with his televised confession. (When the lawyers publicly say one of their clients has admitted guilt without their permission, it does not mean the confession is retracted.) Several hours after his statement, he “walked in back,” in the Washington parlance – or, as would would phrase it in standard English, reversed himself:
But of course Mulvaney literally said, “Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, that’s why we held up the money.” If the normal pattern holds, we’ll likely learn Mulvaney had to issue his humiliating reversal after Trump was angered by news coverage of his confession. But there’s no ambiguity in his original statement statement – which, in any case, merely confirms what numerous other figures have said openly and in testimony.
The primary question left to be resolved, or not, is whether Trump’s political interests were the only ones at stake. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was being paid by Legitimate Businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have ties to the Russian Mafia. Unlike the American Mafia, Russian organized crime operates with the permission of, and in conjunction with, the government. Russian mobsters are not always advancing government policy, but they often are.
That fact is worth bearing in mind when considering some of the new reporting on the sources of Giuliani’s financing. Over the last day, Reuters, NBC, and Time have all reported that Parnas and Fruman were themselves a financial pass-through for Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch with links to Russia. CNN reported yesterday that Giuliani is the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. A counterintelligence investigation is not the same thing as a criminal investigation. It is designed to identify subversive threats by foreign intelligence services.
This may sound shocking, but it follows naturally and almost inevitably from the known facts of the case. Trump turned his foreign policy in the region over to a lawyer who was not vetted by, and is not paid by, the U.S. government. (Sondland further affirmed that Giuliani was specifically empowered by Trump: “My understanding was that the president directed Mr. Giuliani’s participation, that Mr. Giuliani was expressing the concerns of the president,” he testified.) Giuliani is being paid instead by interested parties who likely operate in at least tacit coordination with Vladimir Putin.
Congress may not have the means to produce proof of the ultimate source of Giuliani’s financial backing. The FBI may not get it either — and if it does, it may not publicize it, because counterintelligence investigations, unlike criminal ones, do not necessarily result in charges and trials. Still, the public facts of Giuliani’s role are themselves highly damning.
We know beyond any doubt that American policy was corrupted by Trump’s political interests. The primary mystery is whether it was also corrupted by Russia’s.
This column has been updated.