Last year, President Trump attempted, and very nearly pulled off, a scheme to extort Ukraine. Trump’s ask was simple: He wanted a foreign country to announce an investigation of a political opponent, believing the mere existence of the investigation would generate news coverage he could exploit.
Very soon after the Senate voted against removing him from office over this abuse of power, Trump set in motion a remarkably similar scheme. The target was not Ukraine but American governors, especially Democratic ones. The leverage was not military aid and a presidential meeting but federal coronavirus assistance. And Trump’s ask was not to rough up Biden but to praise Trump. The main difference is that it worked.
Trump’s reelection campaign is rolling out a seven-figure television spot featuring two quotes by Democratic governors, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, praising his handling of the coronavirus. The payoff to his latest extortion scheme is coming to your television screen.
Trump presented his terms to the governors even more brazenly than to Volodymyr Zelensky. Indeed, the dialogue in a mob movie is usually more subtle. Several weeks ago, Slate’s Will Saletan catalogued the president’s long and undisguised stream of messages to the governors. In short, Trump was explicit that he demands governors be “appreciative” of him, that he closely monitors their comments about him (“I guess they assume I don’t watch them. But I watch very closely”), that he views his cooperation with their states as transactional (“It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well also”), and that he recognizes their dependence on his generosity (they “need so much” from him).
His aides were also very clear about the value they placed on supportive comments from Democratic governors. “Joe Biden has a Democratic problem,” Kellyanne Conway boasted. “He’s got the Democratic governors of the two largest states, Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo, collaborating with and complimenting the White House’s efforts.”
Like Zelensky, the governors found themselves in the unfortunate position of staking the very survival of their constituents on Trump’s goodwill. In mid-April, Politico reported on Newsom’s unusually deferential posture toward the president. “Newsom is also raising eyebrows for the extent to which he now refuses to say anything critical of the president’s handling of the crisis … Newsom’s unlikely BFF status with Trump has helped him secure significant federal resources to tackle the public health crisis, some longtime politics watchers say.”
During the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s defenders offered up some tepid excuses for his misconduct: Trump was just concerned about corruption in Ukraine; aid to Ukraine wasn’t important enough to justify a remedy like impeachment; anyway, he relented in the end and didn’t get the investigation (because he was caught in the act). None of these excuses apply to his extortion of the governors. There’s no fig leaf of “corruption” to hide behind, Trump did get the praise he wanted, and the policy matter of helping states stave off a deadly pandemic is of the very highest order.
One might wonder, then, why this sordid behavior has not triggered a scandal of the same magnitude as the Ukraine scheme. One answer is that the Ukraine scandal emerged as the result of a cloak-and-dagger process: A suppressed whistle-blower complaint prodded Congress and the media to focus on a policy that had been lying around in plain sight. Another answer is that the magnitude of the ongoing crisis has blotted out everything else: We are all too seized with the much greater human and economic toll of Trump’s mismanagement to even worry about him jacking up some governors for political help.
There is also a third possibility. Having demonstrated its complete indifference to provable abuses of power, the Senate gave Trump full license to engage in more, and made plain the futility of holding him to the normal standards of presidential ethics. Even complaining about Trump dangling federal assistance as leverage for public favor seems naïve. Everybody knows it, and nobody seems to care.