Has there ever been a time in our history when a pair of documents made public on consecutive days has had such a profound effect on our public life? The summary of the phone call between President Donald Trump and President Vlodymyr Zelensky, and the whistleblower’s complaint stemming from that event have produced a seismic shift in the political landscape. We have no idea how severe or long lasting the aftershocks will be or what will be the lay of the land once the impeachment process concludes. Thank God, it has begun.
Having gotten to the White House thanks to Russian interference in 2016, Donald Trump decided to employ a variant from the same playbook in seeking foreign assistance to undermine his likely opponent in the 2020 election. It might well have worked, if not for patriotic civil servants who became urgently concerned about Trump’s actions that screamed of an abuse of office for political gain.
What the complaint makes clear is how coordinated this extortion attempt was, involving administration personnel as well as Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s rogue lawyer. For nearly a year, Giuliana had been colluding with Russian-oriented Ukrainian figures in promoting the Russian-generated conspiracy tale that the Obama administration was behind the interference in our 2016 election. Giuliani was also bent on implicating the Bidens in the corruption that has plagued Ukraine. When the Trump forces were informed that the new Ukrainian president was willing “to play ball,” the phone call took place. A week earlier, a hold had been placed on the nearly $400 million earmarked for military aid for Ukraine.
In the conversation between the two presidents, Zelensky tries desperately to flatter Trump, telling him how great a teacher he has been to him personally; dropping the information that he stayed in a Trump hotel his last trip to the United States; agreeing that Trump did a good thing in replacing Obama’s ambassador to Ukraine. Finally Zelenski says: “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps.” Trump immediately responds: “I have a favor to ask you, though.” He then brings up the Mueller investigation which he terms “nonsense . . . but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.” He will have Rudy Giuliani, as well as Attorney General Barr get in touch with him.
Trump then brings up “the other thing, There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.” Zelensky assures him they will take the investigation very seriously. Trump ends: “I’m sure you will figure it out.” The following week several U.S. officials, including Giuliani, visited Zalensky to provide assistance on how he could “navigate” the investigations.
This is as damning a set of documents regarding a sitting president as one could imagine. No wonder that White House officials tried to make sure that the transcript of the phone call was secured in an electronic vault for ultra-classified materials. Not the first time incriminating documents had been secured there, the complaint notes.
In the release of these documents, one wonders whether the Trump administration and their allies thought they could just gaslight it, relying on the most literal parsing of the documents in order to dismiss their obvious significance. They had the confidence that, in the Age of Trump, what matters is the retention of power, from the White House to the Supreme Court to the state house. National security, the law, ethics, honor, country - none has any place in their judgment about political matters. Only power matters. If retaining power means complicity in the shredding of all the restraints that the Constitution provides and the law enacts to prevent the chief executive from acting as a king who is above it all, so be it.
What has happened this week is a hopeful reminder that the checks and balances devised by our founders, despite all the contrary evidence, have not become quaint relics of an outdated system of governance. Whether they will be sufficient to counter the assault on democracy and the truth that has put Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of the Senate and of so many state houses, we can only hope and pray and vote.
Robert Emmett Curran is a retired professor of history from Georgetown University who currently lives in Richmond.