Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
The Trump-Ukraine story might seem complicated and there is much that we still have to learn, but the implications are clear: President Donald Trump apparently betrayed his country, and now, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced, his actions have triggered a formal impeachment inquiry.
His administration refused to share with Congress an urgent whistleblower complaint by an intelligence agent (although sources familiar with the matter say it may be released Wednesday), so we don’t yet know the full details.
Still, media investigations have revealed the main outlines of the story: In July, Trump withheld military aid while pressing President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to look into discredited allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s leading challenger in the 2020 election. Trump has acknowledged that he spoke with Zelensky about corruption and about Biden.
Trump would have us believe that this is all perfectly normal, and that his withholding of the military aid had nothing to do with his desire for an investigation of Biden. (On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that he would release the “complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky” Wednesday.)
But none of this is normal. In fact, if Trump was trying to make a deal with the President of Ukraine, it was a crass move that put his personal political interests above those of the country he swore to serve.
Trump’s actions toward Ukraine are likely a violation of anti-corruption laws, on top of his apparent violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act. More importantly, Trump’s behavior constitutes a violation of his oath of office, of his vow to “protect and defend” his nation, of the trust of the American people and of the most fundamental duties he accepted when he became President of the United States.
The apparent extortion of Ukraine is far worse than his solicitation and acceptance of Russian help to win in 2016. We’ll see what the transcript of the call reveals, but it’s worth noting that CNN reports the call is only part of the whistleblower complaint. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff says that the whistleblower wants to testify before the committee.
When candidate Trump asked the Kremlin to help him defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016 – saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” – it was a despicable move to solicit assistance from a hostile power to influence an American election. But at the time Trump was a private citizen, without access to the vast power and resources of the executive branch.
This time, the President has engaged in what looks very much like extortion: demanding help smearing Biden in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid, and pressuring a desperate country to interfere in the 2020 US elections to help Trump tarnish the Democratic frontrunner.
On Tuesday, Trump again insisted he’d done nothing wrong and offered a new explanation for why he had withheld military aid, claiming that he’d done so because “Europe and other nations” were not contributing to helping Ukraine. That claim is false, and wouldn’t justify the administration in pressuring Ukraine to investigate an opponent, or refusing to comply with a whistleblower law.
To all appearances, Trump has put pressure on Ukraine by hijacking $250 million dollars of US taxpayers’ money that Congress had voted to give Ukraine so it could strengthen its defenses against its aggressive neighbor, Russia – the country that helped Trump win the presidency in 2016.
The White House and Congress clashed bitterly over Trump’s refusal to release these approved funds. After all, Congress made a decision based on what it believed was in the best interest of US national security. Trump did release the money – after the whistleblower complaint was filed and was declared an “urgent concern” by the nonpartisan inspector general.
When Trump told President Zelensky last July to investigate Joe Biden and his son – Trump made the demand about eight times in one conversation, according to the Wall Street Journal – he was, at minimum, implicitly threatening that Ukraine’s relationship with the United States, including military aid, was at stake. Whether or not he phrased it in such crass terms is only marginally important.
In pressuring Ukraine like this, Trump is leaving the country with a crushingly difficult choice. At the moment, the country is doing battle with Russian-backed, Russian-armed rebels, just five years after Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea, and Russia continues actively assaulting Ukrainian sovereignty.
On the call with Zelensky, Trump insisted that Ukraine deal with his attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to Ukraine’s summary of the call, Trump expressed optimism that the new Ukrainian government would forcefully pursue “corruption cases” which inhibited the interaction between the two countries. In the White House description of the call, which does not appear on the White House website, Trump congratulated President Zelensky on the latter’s election and “discussed ways to strengthen cooperation.”
There was no mention of investigations in the White House description of the July call.
A crucial, disturbing aspect of this scandal is that it breathes life into Trump’s unsubstantiated accusations against Biden. Trump loyalists are telling Fox News viewers that there’s a real scandal here, even though Ukrainian prosecutors insist the former Vice President did nothing wrong.
In addition to breaking faith with US voters and undermining the US national interest, the apparent extortion attempt may well qualify as criminal conduct under the Hobbs Act, a statute that bans public officials from demanding something of value in exchange for carrying out the duties of their office.
Trump, to all accounts, demanded something of value from the Ukrainian President: namely, help tarnishing his political rival. And he did not carry out the duty of disbursing legally mandated aid until September 11, weeks after the whistleblower had filed his complaint.
Along with Pelosi, another central figure who has been reluctant to call for impeachment appears to be changing his mind.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he is not yet sure whether the Ukraine call was the subject of the whistleblower complaint, but that if a sitting president’s telephone call with a foreign leader “involve(d) potential corruption or criminality,” or was used for “political advantage against our nation’s interest,” then that would be the gravest violation yet of this presidency – or perhaps of “any presidency.”
If that is indeed what happened, and the signs strongly suggest it is, then Trump’s behavior makes Watergate look like petty pickpocketing.
Trump likely betrayed his country, and he did it on the world stage, using taxpayers’ money and toying with American security. What could be worse?