Small “d” democracy
By Mark Lurinsky
We have “been very good to Ukraine … [but] I wouldn’t say it’s reciprocal.”
“I would like you to do us a favor though.”
The rapidly mushrooming fallout from this no longer secret July telephone conversation between Donald Trump and the new Ukrainian president, in which Trump blatantly demanded foreign interference to assist his reelection campaign by digging up dirt on Joe Biden has led any number of observers to consider it “the ultimate impeachable act,” well beyond the crimes that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report already laid at Trump’s door in great detail. 
Ukrainian President Zelensky and President Trump
There are several reasons why this is even bigger than the Russian interference case:
- As president, Trump has a constitutional duty to put the interests of the country above his personal and political self-interest. Although the Mueller investigation provided powerful evidence that Trump while in office carried out multiple obstructions of justice to suppress the Russia probe, the initial acts that gave rise to that investigation – Russia’s massive interference in our 2016 presidential elections and the Trump campaign’s repeated steps to welcome and profit from that interference – occurred before he took the oath of office.
- In the Russian interference case, Trump’s defenders could argue that his personal involvement, as reprehensible and unpatriotic as that was, was secondary to the Russian-initiated effort. In the current matter, Trump and his associates were clearly the initiators.
- Unlike the Russian interference case, which took several months after the 2016 elections to break out into the news, and years to be substantially investigated, we can see the current Trump-created crisis playing out in real time before our eyes, with hardly any veneer of denial about the basic facts coming from the White House.
- On the face of it, Trump has been using the official powers of his office, and his administrative control of at least a quarter billion in taxpayer supplied funding, to pressure the Ukrainians to illegally support his election campaign – a corrupt abuse of power.
We also know just in the last few days that these types of illicit machinations have gone well beyond just Ukraine, which I will say more about below.
Ukraine, and its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, are uniquely vulnerable to Trump’s demands. Well-armed pro-Russian separatists and the Kremlin’s army have besieged Ukraine’s eastern provinces since 2014, and Putin has illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. When Trump, the president of the country that is Ukraine’s lifeline for critical military aid, demands a “favor,” Zelensky can hardly afford to say no.
There has long been a bipartisan consensus in Congress and among Americans broadly that Ukraine—which is key to Putin’s effort to reassert Russia’s global power—needs American support to protect itself. What is at stake is the security of Europe, and, in the long run, the security of the United States European forces.
Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-NJ7) formerly the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, spells it out clearly: “We have thousands of troops in Europe … in part to deter Russian aggression. … [The Trump-blocked military aid to Ukraine] included Javelin missiles, anti-tank weapons designed to make sure that those Russian tanks cannot invade Ukraine and ultimately put our own troops in jeopardy.”
However, solidarity with this beleaguered U. S. ally has never been part of Trump’s agenda. According to recent reporting in the New York Times, Trump “has been dismissive of his own administration’s recommendations that he throw the full support of the United States government to Zelensky.” In May, a delegation of U.S. officials returned from the Ukrainian’s inauguration praising the new president and urged Trump to meet with him, “arguing that Mr. Zelensky faced enormous headwinds and needed American support,” since “the future of Ukraine…would be decided in the next six months.” Trump’s reply was that the Ukrainian political leaders are “terrible people…They’re all corrupt and they tried to take me down.”[ii]
Trump’s apparent antipathy to independent Ukraine, and his simultaneous sympathy with Putin’s Russia, which both date from before his term in office, have led him to downplay Russia’s military involvement in eastern Ukraine and, most recently to press for Russia to be reinstated to the Group of Seven despite the body’s existing sanctions on Putin’s government related to Ukraine.
While Congress mandated, and the Pentagon approved, two tranches of military aid to Ukraine in the spring, the White House held back the aid until less than three weeks before the close of the fiscal year and did not release the funds until September 11, after leading Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Armed Services Committee threatened to restrict other Pentagon spending if the administration’s hold was not resolved.[iii]
Even as additional documents proving Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine come out day by day, he has moved into maximum brazenness mode, telling a press conference that he also wanted China to launch an investigation into Joe Biden and his son. Trump’s latest declarations, which suggest to the public that the president believes he has an absolute right to break the laws against foreign interference in our elections, moved the Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jon Meacham to conclude that Trump is now running “a political shakedown racket.”
Moreover, if Trump has been seriously approaching, or intends to approach Beijing also for political favors against Joe Biden, this raises any number of other major questions, not least of which is what kinds of favors he might be preparing to give to China in return, perhaps in the form of one-sided concessions in the trade negotiations which begin their new round next week.
President Trump asking China to launch an investigation
What’s at stake?
With the approach of the 2020 elections, Trump has been desperately looking for every avenue, including illegal foreign support, to promote a number of false and malicious conspiracy fantasies that have been previously limited to sections of the far-right blogosphere.
With respect to former Vice President Biden, the outrageous claim is that while in office the VP demanded the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor general to stop an investigation into a corrupt Ukrainian company for the benefit of his son, Hunter. In reality, the removal of the prosecutor in question, Viktor Shokin, was unanimously demanded by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the presidents of France and Germany, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the U.S. State Department after they collectively determined that Shokin and his office were standing in the way of prosecuting corruption in the Ukraine, which was an obstacle to the effectiveness of western aid. Shokin, in fact, “was seen as a single point of failure clogging up the system and blocking [the prosecution of] corruption cases,” according to a former Obama administration official who spoke to New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.
Ironically, one of the principal beneficiaries of Mr. Shokin’s obstructionism appears to have been Burisima Holdings, the very same company that Joe Biden’s son became associated with at a later point. So the demand to remove and replace Shokin, a widely supported policy for which Biden became one of the administration’s messengers, arguably made a successful prosecution of Burisima more, rather than less likely, and in the process may have made Hunter Biden’s efforts on behalf of that company more difficult.
We could go on and on down the rabbit hole of Trump’s conspiracy fantasies, many of which involve the rabid right’s obsession with the so-called “deep state,” which generally translates into a slur they promote about career civil servants working in intelligence and law enforcement and others carrying on their duties in a non-political fashion.[iv]
The really scary part is how many high-level administration members on the public payroll have been pressed into Trump’s service to violate their official responsibilities by promoting these fantasies for political ends. We now know from a senior State Department official that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is known to have argued against releasing the partial transcript of the Trump-Ukraine phone call, was himself on that call. We know that Trump’s OMB head and now acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was the one who carried out Trump’s order to block the Ukraine military aid a week prior to the phone call.
We also know that William Barr—our attorney general—who was mentioned in the Ukraine phone call as someone Zelensky’s people should be in contact with, has for months also been pressing Australia, Italy, and the U.K. to come up with ammunition to discredit the Mueller investigation and attack the combined U.S. intelligence services’ conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
In sum, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Where we are now
As of this writing, a newly unified Democratic caucus in the House has unambiguously signaled its support for pursuing the impeachment inquiry to its conclusion, including articles of impeachment, as may be deemed appropriate. Those members and the former Republican Justin Amash (I-MI) now account for a majority in the House.
Speaker Pelosi announcing the Impeachment Inquiry
Donald Trump has immediately appealed to all Republicans to come to his defense and this initially got a less than enthusiastic response from a segment of House GOP members. It is quite likely that a good number of them may be in silent agreement with the Republican senators Mitt Romney (Utah) and Ben Sasse (Nebraska) who both said they found the phone call and the whistleblower’s complaint “troubling.”
Impeachment in the 21st century is, of course, uncharted territory. Trump could do Americans a favor of his own by following Richard Nixon’s example and resigning from office immediately, but I’m not holding my breath.
I would say, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that perhaps we aren’t yet at the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s abuses of presidential power, but maybe now we’re at the end of the beginning of removing him - one way or the other.
Here’s a suggestion: Reach out to your congressional rep, if you haven’t already done so, and tell them how you feel. Let them know if you approve of the way they have or haven’t stepped up in the crisis of an out of control president working against our country.
Mark Lurinsky has been an activist on matters of public policy since 1968. He is currently a member of BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group and is co-chair of the Healthcare Committee.
Under the blog title Small “d” democracy, Mark will continue to weigh in on the current issues that define how our country can become a more just, equal, and democratic society.
[i] Law professor Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general and George T. Conway III, the prominent conservative attorney, proclaimed in a Washington Post op-ed that, “If Trump did that, it would be the ultimate impeachable act,”
Conway, who is currently of counsel for litigation at a large mergers and acquisitions law firm, is a thirty-year veteran of the conservative legal group The Federalist Society. In the early portion of Trump’s term, he was on a short list for consideration to be the new solicitor general and also the assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s civil division. He is perhaps better known as the husband of Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway.
[ii] It is no big news that Trump repeatedly conflates being “corrupt” and “terrible people” with trying to “take me down”. It seems likely that Trump’s reference to Ukrainians working against him relates in no small part to his belief that some officials of that country were a source of information to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team on the crimes which his campaign manager Paul Manafort pled guilty to last year involving illegal lobbying for the previous pro-Moscow government of Ukraine, money laundering and other offenses.
Of course, Manafort’s close relationship to and information sharing with a pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch during his work on the Trump campaign was directly relevant also to the evidence of Trump’s collaboration with Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. By maligning Ukrainians, Trump is also seeking to promote a counter-narrative conspiracy theory to becloud America’s understanding of his involvements with the Russians.
[iii] A May letter from John Rood, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, to several congressional committees, obtained by NPR, “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purpose of decreasing corruption [and] increasing accountability.” While Trump’s public attempts to explain his several months blockade against the Ukraine aid package have continually shifted, the idea that the Ukrainians were somehow “too corrupt” to receive it has been a constant, and demonstrably false, White House talking point.
[iv] The second outrageous item that Trump specifically demanded from Ukrainian President Zelensky involves trying to bolster the concocted notion that Ukraine, and not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in the run up to the 2016 and then framed the Kremlin, possibly at the suggestion of Democratic Party operatives. Notably, Thomas P. Bossert, who served for fifteen months as Trump’s homeland security advisor at the beginning of the administration, told ABC News that story “is completely debunked”.
Other far right fantasies now echoed by leading Republicans are directed at attempting to impugn the intelligence community whistleblower, despite the fact that the key allegations of that complaint have already been confirmed by the released partial transcript of the Trump-Zelensky phone call. This particular line of attack, recently promoted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also falsely claims that the Michael Atkinson, the Intelligence Community Inspector General brought in by Trump in 2018 or others under his direction somehow manipulated the standard form used by whistleblowers to submit a complaint in order to benefit the current whistleblower. The Daily Beast duly investigated and also debunked that claim.