Jessica Tarlov: Trump is abusing his power for personal and political gain

Political partisans are very good at certain things, including mental gymnastics. We can explain away almost anything that doesn’t support our party, candidate or worldview. Hyperbole and “whataboutism” are almost second nature. It’s not always pretty, but that’s the reality.

That said, there are moments in time when the mental gymnastics aren’t worth it. This is one of those times.

President Trump has abused the power of his office to benefit himself to the detriment of the public good, which is an impeachable offense. If mental gymnastics were an Olympic sport, Republicans desperate to defend Trump would all be gold medal contenders

WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT HAS BEEN DECLASSIFIED AND CONTAINS NO 'SURPRISES,' GOP LAWMAKER SAYS

Trump’s request that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “do us a favor” in looking into alleged corruption of a political opponent – former Vice President Joe Biden – is clear cut in the summary notes of the July 25 call between the two presidents that was released Wednesday by the White House.

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And we are now learning that Trump reportedly made a discussion of Biden a precondition of the phone call with Zelensky – an obvious abuse of power.

ABC News reported Wednesday that “Ukrainian officials came to recognize a precondition to any executive correspondence” between Zelensky and Trump was a commitment to discuss the involvement of Biden (Trump’s potential 2020 election opponent) and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine.

TRUMP'S UKRAINE CALL TRANSCRIPT: READ THE DOCUMENT

ABC reported: ‘"It was clear that [President Donald] Trump will only have communications if they will discuss the Biden case,"’ said Serhiy Leshchenko, an anti-corruption advocate and former member of Ukraine's Parliament, who now acts as an adviser to Zelensky. ‘This issue was raised many times. I know that Ukrainian officials understood."’

As a legal standard, we don’t even need a quid pro quo to impeach, though it is present in the notes of the call. Against the backdrop of nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine that was frozen by Trump before the call – and that Ukraine urgently needed to defend itself against Russian aggression – the two presidents had this exchange, according to the White House’s rough summary:

Zelensky’s quid: “Thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” (Javelins are anti-tank missiles).

Trump’s Quo: “I would like you to do us a favor though….”

There’s more, of course. Trump’s mention of reciprocity; his request that Ukraine investigate  Biden; and his mention that his people (Attorney General William Barr and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani) will be in touch with Ukraine all read like a classic mob shakedown.

As journalist Ryan Lizza put it: “Anyone who has ever listened to the Gotti tapes will recognize the subtlety here.” I’ve heard the tapes of the late Mafia boss and Lizza is spot on.

And by the way, why was Trump using his personal attorney rather than U.S. government officials to deal with a foreign country? This was not only highly inappropriate, but ironic, given that Giuliani made his reputation as a crusading U.S. attorney in New York City by prosecuting Mafia figures.

What’s more, we know what lengths the Trump administration at first went to avoid allowing the whistleblower complaint against Trump regarding his call with Zelensky becoming public. The Washington Post reports that acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire threated to resign over concerns that the White House may force him to stonewall Congress when he testifies Thursday morning.

Maguire has denied the resignation threat publicly, but released a letter emphasizing his commitment to protecting whistleblowers and has pushed the White House to make explicit whether it would assert executive privilege. He is no doubt caught in a fight between Congress and the White House.

Buckling to pressure from Democrats, the Trump administration turned over the whistleblower complaint about the Trump-Zelensky phone call to select members of congressional intelligence committees Wednesday afternoon, along with related documents. And Wednesday night Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said on “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox News Channel that the whistleblower complaint has been declassified, though it was not immediately publicly available.

In announcing the beginning of a formal impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was clear that the Trump-Zelensky call isn’t the only instance by Trump of impeachable conduct, but is the most easily digestible. She’s absolutely right.

I have been against the idea of a formal impeachment inquiry since we saw the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That isn’t because I don’t believe that President Trump obstructed justice. I think it’s quite obvious that he did, and I wish that Justice Department guidelines allowed for Mueller to make a decision one way or the other on charging Trump with obstruction.

The Mueller report was enough for dozens of Democrats to get on board with impeachment, but not Pelosi and certainly not a majority of moderate House Democrats who either found the argument for impeachment not compelling or felt the politics were too dangerous for Democrats.

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Things are different today and there is little ambiguity. Impeachment remained unpopular before now, with the latest Quinnipiac poll showing that only 37 percent of Americans supported impeachment, with 57 percent against. And while 73 percent of Democrats were supportive, we know that the country is made up of more than just Democrats and that the politics of impeachment remain perilous.

But it remains to be seen what impact the rapidly unfolding revelations on Trump’s efforts to use Ukraine to hurt Biden’s candidacy will have on public sentiments about the need for impeachment. We’ll get a better reading on this when new polls come out in the next few weeks.

It’s important to remember that these are perilous times and things change, as they did during impeachment hearings for President Richard Nixon in 1974, when public support for impeachment grew dramatically.

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Today we have a president who is abusing the power of his office for his personal and political gain, putting his own interests ahead of America’s. He clearly should not be entrusted with the highest office in the land. The mental gymnastics to avoid coming to that conclusion are too much to ask, even of the biggest partisans.

I know that the prospect of a Democratic president feels like an intolerable nightmare to millions of Americans, but the prospect of supporting a man with so little regard for the office of the presidency and the American people is an intolerable nightmare we are all living through today.

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