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A mantra shift: Donald Trump moves from ‘no collusion!’ to ‘so what?’

If anything, the president has grown even more defiant since Mueller found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between his campaign and Russia, almost as if having avoided charges, he is daring the establishment to come after him again.

By: New York Times | Washington |
September 24, 2019 2:15:08 pm
A mantra shift: Donald Trump moves from ‘no collusion!’ to ‘so what?’ President Donald Trump during a summit about protecting religious freedoms, during the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, Sept. 23, 2019. (The New York Times: Doug Mills)

Written by Peter Baker

The last time he was accused of collaborating with a foreign power to influence an election, he denied it and traveled the country practically chanting, “No collusion!” This time, he is saying, in effect, so what if I did?

Even for a leader who has audaciously disregarded many of the boundaries that restrained his predecessors, President Donald Trump’s appeal to a foreign power for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden is an astonishing breach of the norms governing the American presidency.

That his phone call with Ukraine’s leader took place literally the day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified to Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 election demonstrated that Trump took no lessons from that episode about the perils and propriety of mixing his own political interests with international relations.

If anything, the president has grown even more defiant since Mueller found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, almost as if having avoided charges, he is daring the establishment to come after him again. The man who once said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan without consequence seems to be testing whether he can do the political equivalent.

“What he’s learned is you can get away with just about anything if you’re willing to gamble and you have zero shame,” said Gwenda Blair, a biographer of the Trump family. “He had just outbluffed the old-school way of holding people to account, so what the heck, why not go for it in the phone call to the new, young and vulnerable Ukrainian president?”

Trump has openly acknowledged raising Biden during a July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine in which he urged the newly inaugurated government to crackdown on corruption. While Trump denied applying pressure to investigate Biden, he said it would “have been OK if I did.”

Likewise, he said that he did not threaten during the call to cut off $250 million in security aid if Ukraine failed to investigate Biden. But he also did not explain why he blocked the aid, and he quickly added that “we’re giving a lot of money away to Ukraine” and it was legitimate to want to ensure that an aid recipient was “going completely to be not corrupt.”

In speaking with reporters while in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, Trump was in a combative mood Monday, brimming with hyperbole and invective, at one point even casually saying that if Republicans had done what Biden had done, “they’d be getting the electric chair right now.”

Trump scored his lawyer’s rambling and confusing appearance on a CNN show on last week night like a boxing match. “Rudy Giuliani took Fredo to the cleaners,” he said, using a derogatory nickname for the show’s host, Chris Cuomo. And the president excoriated reporters in the room with him. “You are crooked as hell,” he charged.

Giuliani has been Trump’s point person in pushing Ukraine for an investigation, and in recent days, he has thrown out a dizzying series of allegations and conspiracy theories about the country involving Hillary Clinton, George Soros and others plotting to take down Trump in 2016.

But now it is Trump whose intervention with Ukraine is at issue, and whether it constitutes an abuse of power will fall to Congress to decide. After bulldozing past so many other controversies, Trump has now exposed himself to a greater risk of impeachment in the House than ever before, even if conviction in the Senate remains a remote possibility.

“I do regard this as a transgression by the president even more egregious and dangerous, and even more clearly calling for impeachment, than the many that have come before it,” said Laurence H. Tribe, Harvard law professor and an author of “To End a Presidency,” a book on impeachment.

“It’s difficult to imagine a purer example, even on the president’s own account of his conduct, of why the Constitution’s framers thought it essential to include the impeachment power,” he added.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor, said that if reports about the president’s actions were accurate, it would be “the latest and perhaps most disturbing example in a series of actions that display a profound disregard for presidential norms by this president.”

Plenty of questions remain unanswered, and Congress will now press for more information, particularly the release of a transcript of the call with Zelenskiy as well as the complaint filed by an American government whistleblower raising alarms. A clear focus of the inquiry will be the blocked aid.

Some critics said it did not even matter if Trump explicitly linked the two issues in the call; simply using the power and prestige of his office to lean on a foreign leader for help in a domestic political contest by itself could justify impeachment, they said. And suspending the aid, they said, appeared to be a corrupt exercise of presidential power to benefit himself, whether he mentioned it to Zelenskiy or not.

But Trump’s defenders said he was being targeted for partisan and political reasons, his every move interpreted in the most cynical light and distorted to tarnish his reputation, while adversaries like Biden are given a free pass.

The United States “routinely pushes foreign countries to launch broad anti-corruption initiatives as well to undertake criminal investigations or prosecutions of specific persons, both Americans and foreigners,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

“And we routinely back up such requests with threats and blandishments,” he added. “So, political issues aside, there is nothing inherently unusual about Trump’s request to Zelenskiy.”

Trump and his allies argue that Biden is the one who abused his power when he was vice president by threatening to hold up $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine unless it fired its chief prosecutor. At the time, his younger son, Hunter Biden, worked for a Ukrainian oligarch who had come under scrutiny by the prosecutor.

The ouster of the Ukrainian prosecutor, who was widely believed to be turning a blind eye to rampant corruption, was the consensus position of the Obama administration as well as European governments and international institutions at the time. No evidence has emerged to indicate that Biden acted to protect his son. However unseemly it might be for a family member to appear to cash in on the vice president’s name, no authorities in either country have alleged illegality by either Biden.

Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as White House communications director but has now broken with the president, said Trump was not interested in corruption but reelection. “He is going after Biden hard because he knows Biden destroys him in a general election, and so he will do and say anything to anybody to knock him out now,” Scaramucci said.

The furor that has developed in recent days will force the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the intelligence agencies and perhaps even the courts to confront once again the question of where the lines of political standards are drawn and whether Trump crossed over them.

In more than two years in office, Trump has kept his properties, which do business with the federal government and foreign officials, and has even proposed hosting next year’s Group of Seven summit at his Doral resort in Florida. He has repeatedly called on the Justice Department to investigate his political rivals, and he fired an attorney general who he complained did not protect him from Mueller. The president has even sought the repudiation of weather forecasters who contradicted his hurricane prediction.

In recent days, his lawyers have asserted that not only can Trump not be indicted while serving as president, but he cannot even be criminally investigated, a far more sweeping claim of immunity than ever found by courts. And Trump has made clear he sees no problem in accepting derogatory information from foreign governments, saying, “I’d take it,” even after the Mueller report.

That leaves the impression with allies and adversaries alike that Trump is focused on his own interests. “The president will say and do anything for his own personal pursuits and not for the benefit of the country,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

All of which, she said, has damaged the notion of America as a “shining city on a hill,” as Reagan put it, the country that would stand for principle even if it did not always live up to that aspiration. Now, she said, millions of people around the world “have now learned that the city is for sale, not unlike other kleptocratic regimes.”

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