Can a U.S. President offer a bribe to a foreign head of state and get away with it?
That is the question that will be answered by Congress in the coming weeks as part of the impeachment proceedings over President Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine.
Cut through all the smoke and talking points coming from the president’s defenders and the case before Congress is really quite simple.
Forget about the whistleblower, whose identity at this point could not be more irrelevant. The whistleblower blew the whistle. Once blown, the president’s crime was there for everyone to see. The very notes of President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which were released by the White House in September, provide clear basis for believing that President Trump offered Zelensky a $400 million financial inducement (the release of military aid that Trump had frozen) for announcing an investigation into one of Trump’s leading political opponents.
That evidence has only been bolstered by a steady stream of current and former diplomats who confirmed through both direct and indirect eyewitness testimony in recent days that the president was focused on “deliverables” in exchange for the release of military aid as well as an invitation for a politically important White House visit.
In other words, it was the quid pro quo (I’ll give you this, if you’ll give me that) at the heart of the crime of bribery.
While we often view bribery as centering on an exchange of money, bribery can involve any number of inducements, financial, political, or even sexual.
It would be easier to understand Trump’s crime in this case if money had been involved. If, when Trump told Zelensky, “I would like you to do us a favor though…,” he then asked for $10 million in a suitcase, we would all easily recognize the crime for what it was.
In this case, however, Trump wasn’t looking for money he didn’t need, he was offering to use his office to give Zelensky something Ukraine desperately needed in exchange for a political gift that was potentially worth much more than $10 million to President Trump.
Some have suggested that this kind of thing happens all the time in the real world. Those claims are made by people who have no idea how the U.S. government actually functions. Without doubt, the United States has long used its political and financial influence to pressure other countries to take certain actions. That’s called foreign policy. Yet, in those instances, the representatives of the U.S., whether it’s the president, secretary of state, or an ambassador, are advocating an outcome that has been discussed and vetted by informed government officials and is consistent with the interests of the United States, not the narrow interests of the individual who is representing the United States.
In this instance, the Congress had already overwhelmingly approved the aid to Ukraine to help that politically allied nation fight a separatist revolt instigated and backed by Russia. The U.S. foreign policy apparatus, including the State Department, was fully behind the aid and recognized its critical importance. Officials were rightfully stunned and confused when President Trump, on his own, refused to release the aid. Once it became clear that Trump was doing so in order to use the aid as leverage or inducement to get the Ukrainians to announce an investigation into Vice President Joe Biden and his son, alarm bells went off. It wasn’t just a single whistleblower. We now know that National Security Advisor John Bolton and others were rightfully alarmed and made sure that lawyers for the National Security Council were informed. Bolton, according to eyewitnesses, referred to the whole sorry episode as a “drug deal,” making no bones about his view of the legality of this obvious quid pro quo.
The only question that ultimately matters, of course, is whether Congress cares enough to do anything about it. We know what our Founding Fathers would have done. The U.S. Constitution specifically authorizes impeachment upon a finding of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
If a president can use the levers of power inherent in their office to gain foreign political or financial favors, and not be held accountable by Congress, we are on a slippery slope to the death of the American experiment in self-governance. In the aftermath of the first Constitutional Convention, an interested citizen famously asked Benjamin Franklin if the founders had delivered a monarchy or a republic, and Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Congress, in the next few months, will help to answer the question inherent in Franklin’s sage words.