We can now make an educated guess that President Trump probably knew the jig was up when he appeared on the White House lawn Thursday morning and announced that he wants Ukraine and China to investigate his leading political rival. This brazen presidential advertisement for more foreign interference took place as the House Intelligence Committee was receiving a batch of text messages recording for posterity that the administration’s Ukraine policy was predicated on trading a presidential visit and military aid for the investigations Trump wanted.
If he didn’t know by then, Trump almost certainly knew it at 9:00 p.m. that night, when he tweeted out his bottom-line position: He has an “absolute right” to push foreign countries to investigate anybody he desires, for any reason.
After a couple weeks of conservatives furiously throwing up every distraction they could imagine — insisting the issue was whistle-blower form had been changed, or that the House hadn’t properly voted to begin impeachment proceedings, or that Adam Schiff had paraphrased Trump’s remarks — we have gotten down to the issue at hand. Either Trump has lost all patience for his allies’ inscrutable evasions, or he has seen where the debate is going and is leading his party to the destination. Trump is claiming the absolute right to demand investigations of any American by any country.
The president exerts unilateral control over the most powerful government on Earth. He is announcing to every foreign state that American relations with his government — and, should he prevail, every future government — can and will be influenced by their willingness to put their judicial or quasi-judicial systems at the disposal of his reelection campaign.
It is almost impossible to imagine such a power could be used properly, even in a theoretical world in which the president was absolutely ethical and completely devoid of any political interest. Presidents don’t get to decide which American citizens are subject to criminal investigations here — why can they make such determinations for other countries’ legal systems?
In any case, even such an obviously problematic hypothetical has no bearing on the situation at hand. The pretext that somehow Trump is advancing the cause of good government by demanding international anti-corruption probes is a morbid joke. First, he is not making this demand of countries with open and fair legal systems that can be counted on to deliver reliable findings. He is not asking Canada or France. He is pressing notoriously corrupt states to deliver a predetermined outcome. For Ukraine or China to quietly investigate his charges and then announce Joe Biden did nothing wrong would be of zero or negative value to him. The favor he is bartering for is the insinuation of guilt.
And Trump himself is obviously indulging in corruption on a scale unprecedented in presidential history. No modern president has ever refused to disclose his tax returns, and no president in history has operated a global business empire while running the presidency. The entire corruption narrative he is driving about Biden is upside down. For all of Hunter Biden’s sleazy trading on his father’s name, Joe Biden’s intervention in Ukraine came down firmly on the side of reform. Trump and his camp allied themselves with the most corrupt elements of the Ukrainian polity, some of whom saw in Trump’s mania as a chance to gain American favor that would enhance their own internal power.
Trump is currently collecting payments at his properties from interested parties, domestically and internationally. His own children have struck business deals in China — a clear conflict of interest — even as Trump demands probes of Biden’s son for the same alleged sin, with no evidence.
His demands are not intended to clamp down on corruption, but to cheapen the currency of the language, so that he can more easily dismiss his own gross behavior as standard procedure. Either consciously or by instinct, Trump is emulating the foreign despots he admires, like Mohammed bin Salman, who have used the pretext of anti-corruption to discredit their rivals and consolidate their own rackets.
It is hardly necessary to imagine the possibilities for abuse this power invites. Trump is already exploring something close to the worst-case scenario right now, out in the open. Trump has started a trade war costing China hundreds of billions of dollars, and he is telling his partners that they can bid down the cost of a settlement by coughing up some political dirt. “One Trump ally outside the White House described receiving a message from Chinese government officials asking if Trump was serious when he suggested China open an investigation into Biden,” reports CNN, “The response: Investigating corruption is an easy way to earn goodwill with Trump.” Of course, the unstated coda is that the “corruption” needs to involve Trump’s opponents, not his own family.
Trump may be bearing a significant political price for his machinations, but they are already bearing fruit. He is being rewarded with headlines like this, from the New York Times — “Ukraine to Review Criminal Case of Firm Linked to Biden’s Son” — which deliciously combine terms like “Biden,” “criminal,” and “linked,” and inject them into the political bloodstream. If he can bear the political cost of the backlash, he has 13 more months to reap the publicity benefits from any of the 193-odd U.N. member states that would like to seize the opportunity to gain Trump’s favor.
This is an ongoing strategy Trump’s partisans are already lining up to endorse. Asked if he approves of Trump’s call for foreign investigations of Biden, Vice-President Mike Pence told reporters that he does. “I think the American people have a right to know if the vice-president of the United States or his family profited from this position as vice-president during the last administration. That’s about looking backwards and understanding what really happened,” he said, “And the president made it very clear that he believes — he believes our other nations around the world should look into it as well.”
“If there’s potential criminal activity, the president of the United States is our chief law enforcement officer,” says Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), assigning the president new powers to demand global investigations by whim. Conn Carroll, spokesman for Senator Mike Lee, asks, “So when did asking Ukraine to investigate Burisma for corruption become an impeachable offense exactly?” — as if everybody has always accepted the president’s right to tell foreign countries to investigate officials from the out-party. As the narrow legalistic defenses of Trump’s behavior collapse one by one, and the mountain of proof grows higher that U.S.-Ukraine policy was built around conditioning the relationship on the investigations, Trump loyalists will find no other place to stand.
The clutter has been cleared away and everybody faces the brutally simple choice that Trump presents. Either they hand the president the absolute right, now and forever, to use American foreign policy as a lever to discredit their political rivals, or they vote to impeach.
This column has been updated.