Career criminal Donald Trump just barely avoided prosecution earlier this year when special counsel Robert Mueller pulled his punches and refused to indict the president for either obstruction of justice or campaign finance violations in connection with the Trump-Russia investigation. Mueller’s decision not to indict Trump came despite overwhelming evidence in Mueller’s own final report that the president of the United States was guilty of a crime.
Most people who survive that kind of legal threat would lie low, at least for a while, and try to get back to some level of normalcy. But Trump is a habitual criminal, and his reaction to escaping Mueller’s investigation was to go on yet another crime spree.
In fact, Trump has been acting like a bank robber who beat one rap because of a technicality, and so decides to rob every bank in sight.
In the Trump-Russia inquiry, Mueller was able to prove that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win. But he never could prove, at least to his own satisfaction, that Trump or the people around him had colluded with Moscow in its election interference. Mueller did show that Trump campaign officials met with Russians in an effort to gather dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice in trying to make the whole Russian case go away.
But Mueller decided that he couldn’t prove that, by asking for opposition research from foreigners, the Trump campaign had violated the campaign finance law that bans accepting things of value from foreigners.
Mueller also built a conclusive case that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice, based on a series of actions seeking to derail the Russia investigation. But Mueller decided that, since the Justice Department has a long-standing legal opinion arguing that a sitting president can’t be indicted, he wouldn’t charge Trump with obstruction.
In the end, Mueller didn’t indict Trump for anything, and Congress decided not to try to impeach Trump in connection with the Russia probe. On July 24, Mueller testified before Congress about his investigation and final report. After his testimony, the special counsel quietly exited the scene, having let Trump off the hook.
The president was a free man.
So what did Trump do with his newfound freedom?
The very next day — on July 25 — he was at it again, this time with Ukraine.
Trump got on the phone that day with the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, and repeatedly sought his help in an attempt to damage Trump’s political rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. This time, there was no question, as there had been in the Russia case, about whether Trump directly sought the help of a foreign power to help him win an election. A summary of the call released by the White House on Wednesday proves Trump did exactly that.
The summary is based on notes taken by White House staffers who were listening in on the telephone conversation between Zelensky and Trump. The notes are not an exact transcript, and may soften or omit the most egregious statements by Trump.
But what is in the memorandum is bad enough. It shows that Trump repeatedly asked Zelensky to help him go after Biden. Trump asked the Ukrainian president to work with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and Attorney General William Barr to help them manufacture lies about Biden and his son Hunter’s involvement with a Ukrainian company.
Trump acts like a mob boss on the phone call. He demands Zelensky’s help and then observes that Ukraine’s economy will soon improve.
“I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it,” Trump said, according to the summary. “I’m sure you will figure it out. … Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, noted Wednesday just how much Trump’s language on the call sounded like it was straight out of the mafia playbook.
“The transcript of the call reads like a classic mob shakedown,” Schiff wrote on Twitter. “I have a favor to ask – Investigate my opponent – My people will be in touch. Nice country you got there. It would be a shame if something happened to her.”
On Thursday morning, after weeks of contentious back and forth, a complaint from a government whistleblower about Trump’s efforts to force the Ukrainian government to damage Biden was made public. The complaint shows that the phone call was just one part of a larger campaign by Trump and those around him to use the presidency for his personal political gain.
“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the complaint states. Trump “sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid,” the whistleblower wrote. “I am also concerned that these actions pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.”
For months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted calls to impeach Trump over the Russia investigation and other abuses of power and criminal activity. Pelosi worried that trying to impeach Trump would endanger House Democrats in competitive swing districts, and that any articles of impeachment would fail in the Republican-controlled Senate. Even if the House found grounds to impeach, Pelosi’s thinking went, Trump would remain in power.
The anti-climactic outcome of the Mueller probe proved to be the biggest obstacle. By concluding that he couldn’t prove collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, Mueller undercut the best argument for impeachment and convinced Pelosi that it wasn’t the right time to push for it.
But the Ukraine case has suddenly put impeachment back on the table. That’s because Trump’s effort to get the Ukrainian president to help him destroy his Democratic rival appears to be a clear abuse of the power of the presidency. In this case, Trump is damned by his own words. And the Ukraine case has a very simple narrative that is relatively easy for both Congress and the public to understand: Trump called a foreign leader and sought his help to damage a political rival.
Given the obvious set of facts in the Ukraine case, it would have been difficult for Pelosi to continue to avoid impeachment. To do so would have required turning a blind eye to what may be the most blatant criminal activity Trump has engaged in since taking office.
If Trump isn’t called to account for this, he would rightly believe he can get away with anything.