President Trump and Ukraine: Why He Almost Got Away With It (and Why He Didn’t)

A few weeks ago, when the Ukraine scandal initially broke, I almost wrote an article about President Trump being “impeachment proof.” With the US House of Representatives poised to hold its first official vote on the impeachment process, I’m glad I didn’t put that particular “hot take” out there at the time. The crux of that article would have been the old adage: “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” and my basic point was that Donald Trump tends to get away with his “crimes” (both figurative and also literal) largely because he doesn’t attempt to cover them up.  Through shrewd strategy or simple narcissism (I’m going with more of the latter), he tends to flaunt his misdeeds publicly, or at the very least dismiss them in ways that attack his accusers – often directly and personally – while deflecting on the substance of their accusations. Even in light of the current impeachment process, I still think this point is generally valid, and actually helps to explain why the Ukrainian scandal may end up doing more damage than the Russian scandal did.

The charge that then-candidate Trump and multiple members of his campaign team colluded with Russian operatives in a concerted effort to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor – which, need I remind you, is blatantly illegal for several reasons – seemed on its face much more flagrant, widespread and criminal than the Ukraine situation.  With Russia, we had multiple contacts between Russian operatives and people extremely close to Trump, including (among many others): Trump’s son, Don Jr.; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; his campaign manager, Paul Manafort; his foreign policy advisors Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos; and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen).  Many of these people were proved to have committed crimes and punished accordingly, including Flynn and Manafort.

And this was all in the context of a very large and impactful criminal enterprise: the hacking of the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign aides by Russian forces, with the subsequent publication of emails from these hacks in an effort to damage and discredit Secretary Clinton’s campaign. This was combined with Russian hacking of the voter registration systems of most of the US and a larger effort to spread disinformation through spambots and social media, all of which may very well have had a decisive effect in a very narrow loss by Clinton to Donald Trump. Wait, how did this all not result in more criminal charges? Oh yeah: because the administration was allowed to successfully stonewall the investigation.

In contrast, the Ukraine case has, so far, involved a specific chain of events that is less overtly criminal (misuse or abuse of power is not necessarily a crime, although that does not mean that it isn’t an impeachable defense according to legal experts) involving a smaller cast of characters and having less of an impact (some embarrassment to the Biden family aside, Joe Biden has probably come out ahead in this story as the target of an attempted political hit-job; Hunter Biden has not been drawn into any legal trouble even if he admitted to using “poor judgment” when getting involved in Ukraine, and the military aid that Trump held up was ultimately released).

So, why did the Mueller investigation, after a number of high-profile convictions and nearly two years of evidence-gathering and interviews, go nowhere in the end, to the extreme disappointment of Trump’s detractors on Capitol Hill and elsewhere? And why, in contrast, is the impeachment process continuing full steam ahead despite attempts by Trump and his allies to alternatively dismiss, discredit, and disrupt the process?

The Russian collusion was, ironically, done so blatantly that it obscured the criminal nature of the enterprise.  The Mueller investigation largely declined to implicate now President Trump or his son because it could not demonstrate that they intended to commit crimes, even if their actions violated both the letter and the spirit of laws against foreign influence in US elections.  This question of intent also permeated enough of the public’s perception of these events to insulate the Trumps from widespread condemnation: Surely a presidential candidate wouldn’t publicly announce criminal collusion in the middle of news conference, so when Trump called for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, surely he was only joking and didn’t mean for them to do it (even if they actually did it almost immediately after his request, and even if he was likely tipped off concerning other hacks before they became public).

This strategy of publicly declaring his malfeasance has been a fairly consistent one for President Trump. It is, for lack of a better term, a form of political gaslighting, a strategy for not just deceiving his audience but making them question the very reality of what they clearly see and hear.  He’s blatant and upfront about, say, wanting to hack Clinton’s emails or, I dunno, seize oil from independent countries like Iraq and Syria. During his campaign, Trump famously quipped that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” (a point resurrected this month when his lawyers disturbingly and hilariously argued that as President, he could do just this without facing prosecution, to which the presiding judge essentially responded “yeaaah, no.”).  The context stated in this scenario is important: “in the middle of 5th Avenue” i.e. in public.  Trump has essentially been shooting in the middle of 5th Avenue for years now, with few legal or political repercussions.

In contrast, when it came to Ukraine, Trump (or, more likely, people on his staff) saw the misuse of power inherent in his quid pro quo demand to Ukrainian President Zelensky (and saw through the obvious flaws of merely insisting that a quid pro quo isn’t one by saying “this is not a quid pro quo”) and sought to bury the conversation behind high levels of security clearance.  This is what fueled the idea that whistles needed to be blown and demonstrates that there was a knowledge of corruption within the administration concerning the action.  If you (or your subordinates) are covering it up, then it must mean that there’s something to cover up.  He would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling aides.

After the whistleblower accusation first hit the public, Trump and his aides tried to revert to the “everything out in the open” strategy that had worked so well before.  He’s repeatedly called the conversation with Zelensky normal and “a perfect call.” Acting Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney admitted to the quid pro quo but dismissed it as no big deal.  The problem, however, is that these two strategies – cover up and hope no one finds out, or put it all out in the open and claim you did no wrong – are mutually exclusive. You can’t logically follow both strategies simultaneously, and doing them sequentially essentially causes the two approaches to negate one another.

So far, the prevailing narrative concerning impeachment has been the substance of the matter: abuse of power for personal gain, in this case harming political rivals.  In the context of an administration that consistently uses its position for the personal gain of President Trump’s organization and family – to the extent of attempting to deny that the emoluments clause exists (more political gaslighting, although I wouldn’t dismiss the alternative explanation that Trump literally has not read the Constitution) – this narrative is a strong one.  Seriously, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, both of whom have nebulous and extremely far-reaching “advisory” roles in the White House solely based on their family connection, just had their freaking wedding anniversary celebration at Camp David.  At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if the President starts renting the White House to foreign dictators through Airbnb (might as well make money off of it during those many days when he’s not in town) while Eric Trump sells the Declaration of Independence on Ebay (though not, of course, on Amazon).

Trump and his allies, meanwhile, have attempted to shift the focus to the process, claiming that impeachment is being used as a secretive and unfair “witch hunt.”  Pelosi’s move to conduct a formal vote undercuts that counter-narrative, but it was Trump’s own people who initially brought process into play when they classified the Ukraine call.  Especially for an administration that has done so much out in the open – including actively courting Vladimir Putin, the Saudi royal family and a host of other dictators, to the point of deferring military decisions and ceding large amounts of American geopolitical influence to such actors – actually attempting to cover up something looks really bad.  The cover up, in other words, is proof of the crime.

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