It was in the national interest of the United States that Ukraine, under siege by our Russian nemesis, be given the full quantum of military aid extended by Congress. It was in the political interest of President Trump that Ukraine aggressively investigate credible allegations of corruption and conflict-of-interest against former Vice President Joe Biden, a favorite among the Democratic candidates seeking to run against Trump in 2020.
The national interests of the United States and the political interests of the president are not the same thing. If President Trump conflated them in his discussions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, that was a failure of judgment.
But have we lost our capacity to say conduct is censurable without turning it into something it is not – such as effective immunity for Biden and grounds for Trump’s impeachment?
Don’t get me wrong. It is not my purpose to minimize the politicization of American foreign relations. To the contrary, I just wrote a book, "Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency." In many ways, it is a "cri de coeur" for a restoration of a vital American norm. Incumbent administrations must not wield the awesome powers of the presidency, especially the powers to conduct foreign affairs and gather foreign intelligence, out of sheer partisanship.
My purpose is to place the potential wrong in context.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, it is proven that Trump used his enormous influence over Kiev, or worse, his control over the release of defense aid Ukraine needs, strictly to better his electoral chances against Biden. That would be an abuse of power.
It would also make the 45th president, well, the 45th president in American history to exercise his powers under the influence of his political standing. That is particularly true of presidents seeking reelection, even if we suspect that most exploitations of foreign relations power for electoral advantage have been less crude than Trump’s alleged squeezing of Ukraine.
On that score, we must note that Trump denies exerting pressure and Ukraine denies that it felt pressured. Moreover, reports indicate that while the president urged his counterpart, repeatedly, to look into Biden’s alleged corruption, Trump did not explicitly tie that request to a release of $250 million in U.S. defense aid – although that aid, previously approved by Congress, was being slow-walked for reasons the administration has yet to explain.
Still, even if we assume that the president delayed the aid in order to spur Kiev regarding Biden, that hardly means Biden’s conduct and patent conflict-of-interest do not rate scrutiny.
In one of his notorious speak-first-think-later flourishes, Biden openly bragged that, as President Obama’s vice president, he threatened to withhold $1 billion in financial aid Kiev desperately needed as a quid pro quo to extort Ukraine’s government into firing a prosecutor.
As the invaluable investigative journalist Peter Schweizer outlined in a Fox News column, this prosecutor was investigating a Ukrainian natural gas company that had put Biden’s son, Hunter, on its board under circumstances strongly suggesting it was currying favor with the then-vice president. Hunter Biden was lavishly compensated, notwithstanding that he had no discernible expertise in the energy sector.
Ukraine, moreover, is no one-off. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer (who hired me as a prosecutor more years ago than either of us would care to remember), has pointed out that Hunter Biden accompanied Biden on Air Force Two for a trip to China about U.S. government business that apparently turned into an eye-popping $1.5 billion windfall for the then-vice president’s son. That is, Biden proved quite accommodating as the Obama administration’s point-man on relations with Beijing, and Beijing quickly made an astonishing injection of capital into an investment firm started by Hunter Biden and Chris Heinz (the stepson of then-Secretary of State John Kerry).
As Schweizer details in his important book, "Secret Empires," the Communist Chinese government became a partner in the venture, as did a Massachusetts-based consultancy firm headed by James Bulger – son of the powerful former Massachusetts state senator Billy Bulger, and nephew and namesake of the notorious mobster Whitey Bulger.
That Trump may have been ham-handed in raising Biden allegations in the context of U.S.-Ukrainian relations does not mean Biden should get a pass. Indeed, if these activities involved a son of Donald Trump rather than Joe Biden, The New York Times and The Washington Post would already have assigned the usual five or 10 alpha-journalists apiece, and we’d already have been treated to the usual breathless hourly updates on CNN and MSNBC.
Obviously, a president can be in the wrong without being impeachable. Impeachment is a political remedy. It is a nonstarter in the absence of broad, bipartisan public support, which is plainly lacking in Trump’s case.
Political wrongs, if they are established, must be measured against the conduct of past presidents. Extensive investigations are underway of the Obama administration’s exploitation of foreign relations and foreign intelligence powers to influence the 2016 election – favoring Hillary Clinton and targeting Trump. Presumably, these investigations are inquiring into the relationship between the Obama administration and Ukraine. That relationship involved not only dropping an investigation of Hunter Biden’s company, but revving up an investigation of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman. (At least, he was until media leaks sourced to Ukrainian officials resulted in his ouster.)
If Trump abused his powers, he was wrong to do so. It will make his reelection bid more difficult. But let’s not pretend he would the first to play this unsavory game.