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.
Hubris, the Greeks tell us, can be the final downfall of the mighty, especially the mighty whose most salient trait is extreme arrogance.
Which brings us to this moment in history, and to President Donald Trump, who is now facing a formal impeachment inquiry after spending the first half of his presidency successfully trying to avoid one.
How to explain the President’s behavior? How is it possible that after the country was torn apart by the Russian interference in the 2016 election and its aftermath, and after Trump himself endured almost two years under the searing spotlight of an investigation into that very thing, how is it possible that he could reach out to another country and – according to a whistleblower complaint – attempt another round of election interference? How is that possible?
Yes, the President and his supporters deny that’s what he was doing. I suggest we all read the White House memo reconstructing the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the now-declassified whistleblower complaint and see what we think it indicates.
Zelensky, sitting on Wednesday next to Trump, the world’s most powerful man, pleaded “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved” in the US election, adding “I think and you read (in the transcript) that nobody pushed me.”
If Trump did demand that Zelensky launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a top challenger in the 2020 elections – as appears evident from the White House transcript – it would constitute a display of hubris worthy of Euripides.
Trump himself perfectly encapsulated the depths of his hubristic delusion when he famously declared “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He just may be engaged in a metaphorical test of that theory.
Trump may survive the impeachment process because Republicans in the Senate have shown little inclination to defy him. But if he does fall, it will be in large part because he has believed the oleaginous praise he demanded. He bought his own over-the-top marketing campaign about himself.
Who can forget those nearly unwatchable televised early Cabinet meetings, where normally-dignified figures went around the table singing his praises, describing the “incredible honor,” the “blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda” and be allowed to work with such a leader. And how could Trump fail to be dazzled by the steady diet of obsequious Fox anchors, who day after day claim he may just be the best president in the history of the United States, bringing “sunshine beaming” through the White House, as Fox Business’s Lou Dobbs put it.
Of course, Trump has not needed much outside help to think highly of himself. He declares himself a “very stable genius.” His Twitter feed is a torrent of adulation for the President, some of it quoting others, some provided by Trump himself (punctuated by reports of his unprecedented victimhood.)
Self-esteem, we’re told, is a good thing. But we are also reminded to measure “everything in moderation.”
Trump has apparently come to believe that he is so brilliant, so talented, so invincible, that he could get away with defying every norm, every practice, every institution of the democracy he is charged with leading. And, why wouldn’t he? After all, he won the 2016 election – though, we’ll note, not the popular vote – despite what all the experts said. And he did it after openly, publicly, asking Russia for help.
When the depths of Russian efforts to help Trump became known and fully, incontrovertibly documented, Trump still managed to survive. He survived the Mueller investigation, and continued to refer triumphantly to the scandalous episode of Russian interference to help him win as a scenario cooked up by his political adversaries, calling it to this day “The Russia Hoax.”
Not only did he pull that off, he managed to convince a significant portion of the country that his lies are the truth and that the truth-tellers are the “enemies of the people.”
All of this has fueled his hubris. And energized by it, he picked up the phone on July 25, the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in Congress, and called President Zelensky – a political novice who had played a president on TV.
When Zelensky told him Ukraine needs to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles to defend against a Russian-backed war, Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor.” It sounds exactly like a suggestion of tit for tat or, in impeachment parlance, a quid pro quo.
By then, Trump had already held up the transfer of $400 million in urgently needed aid to Ukraine, a move that was exasperating and mystifying to members of Congress, which had approved the aid. But the reason for the holdup is becoming increasingly clear.
We might never have learned about all this were it not for the player who stepped on the scene in the manner of the hero in a Greek tragedy, the whistleblower. It is disheartening to know how many people in the administration have been aware of the alleged misdeeds of this presidency, and opted to keep quiet. But such are the flaws of humans. Whether or not they anger the gods, they remain a source of disappointment to those who try to do right.
Fortunately, an occasional brave man or woman rises to the challenge and, at great personal risk, takes actions to save the rest of us. That is the definition of heroism, and that is exactly what the whistleblower did. The whistleblower has given us in excruciating details an account of what happened in the White House, including the fact that the transcript of the July 25 call was not handled like a normal communication.
Instead, it was allegedly placed in a high-security computer system managed by the National Security Council, reserved for the most secret material, “such as covert action.”
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That looks very much like a cover-up. And, according to the whistleblower complaint, it was “not the first time,” it had happened.
The interactions with Ukraine by the President and some members of his team, notably his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, often seem more The Sopranos than the classics. And in the end, Trump may end up not only escaping removal by impeachment but also winning reelection in 2020.
It’s a reminder that despite the crushing repercussions of hubris and the inspiring actions of a hero, this is, above all, a tragedy for the entire country.