It is by no means normal for a U.S. president to ask a foreign leader to launch an investigation into a political rival.
But thats exactly what happened during a July 25 phone conversation between President Donald Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine. Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son.
According to a reconstructed transcript of the call, Trump said to Zelenskiy: I would like you to do us a favor. … I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.
A bit later in the conversation, Trump explains that he wants the Ukrainians to find out if Biden, as vice president, pushed for the firing of Ukraines top prosecutor in charge of corruption cases. At the time, Bidens son Hunter sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Its never possible to know precisely whats going on in Trumps mind. But it seems clear that the favor he was asking of the Ukrainian president was finding dirt on Biden and his son.
Did Zelenskiy feel any real pressure to do this favor for Trump? We will never know. What we do know is that a few days before the call, Trump put a $391 million aid package for Ukraine on hold. There is no direct reference to that money in the phone transcript. However, the aid package was an issue of primary concern for both countries at the time.
Ive spent more than three decades covering corrupt and authoritarian regimes in Latin America, so the malfeasance of the Trump administration is very familiar. In many ways, Trump acts with the same sense of impunity that characterizes so many Latin American tyrants. He seems to think he can get away with anything.
But while it may be routine in other countries to ask a foreign government for dirt on a political opponent, it certainly isnt in the United States. Electoral laws clearly state that it is illegal for a foreign national to contribute anything of value, be it money or information, in connection with an election.
Thats why Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, has accused Trump of betraying his oath of office, and announced a formal impeachment inquiry. All of this may turn out to be little more than symbolic. Its very unlikely that the Democrats will get enough votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to actually force Trump from office.
Two things are clear, however: One, Democrats are now going after Trump regardless of the consequences; and two, the government will be gridlocked until the election on Nov. 3, 2020. The impeachment inquiry is just the beginning.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to learn nothing. He called Zelenskiy one day (one day!) after former special counsel Robert Muellers testimony to Congress on Russias interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sure, Mueller didnt find enough evidence to suggest that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton. But his report did confirm that Russias actions from conducting covert social media campaigns to leaking thousands of emails from Clintons team did indeed help Trump get elected.
Precisely at a time when our country is on high alert to prevent anything like this from happening again, Trump chose to ask another foreign power, in this case Ukraine, for help in his next presidential campaign. He just doesnt get it.
Trump lives in a world of his own. On Sept. 24, the day Trump authorized the release of the Ukrainian call transcript, he tweeted: You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call. Trump insisted that he had put no pressure on Zelenskiy and that the Democrats are engaged in the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!
None of this is normal. We reporters are often wrong when we make political predictions, and we have a poor record when it comes to Trump. But one thing I know for sure is that asking some favors can cost you dearly as the president now knows, too.