In the classic Mafia movie “Goodfellas,” Ray Liotta’s character muses about how he always wanted to grow up to be in the mob. “To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” What a failure of imagination. He didn’t even consider you could be both!
Like any crook returning to the scene of the crime, President Trump got nabbed asking for foreign help to attack an election rival, and this time he was caught orange-handed. The first time he did it, pleading for Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s emails in July 2016, Trump was only a candidate. This time, when he pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s son in exchange for U.S. aid money, it was as the president of the United States.
Trump and his proxies have barely attempted to deny the obvious this time, moving directly to the “so what?” phase. Instead of “no collusion!” it’s now “no quid pro quo!” But as anyone who actually read the Mueller report knows, there was collusion. And no one who read the released log of Trump’s call with Zelensky could miss the quid or the quo. Trump believes that if he doesn’t think something is wrong, then it’s not wrong, the law be damned.
Trying to barter American taxpayer money and U.S. national security interests for campaign dirt — which seems to be fictitious — was an abuse of power so blatant and so grave that Nancy Pelosi was finally moved to announce a formal impeachment inquiry.
Until now, the over-cautious speaker of the House had placed her 2020 political calculations over her constitutional duty to apply the rule of law to Trump’s growing list of crimes and misdemeanors.
As it always does, such an approach only encouraged further abuses. As I once wrote about Vladimir Putin, one of the many despots Trump so admires, such people transgress norms and laws easily, looking around each time to see what the reaction will be. If the response is weak, they take another step. Eventually, their sense of impunity overwhelms their sense of danger and they take a step too far.
When that happens, if they haven’t yet managed to destroy or neutralize the institutions designed to hold them accountable, you get the sort of crisis that is now unfolding.
Of course, it’s not fair to put all the blame on Pelosi and the other Democrats who have stood up to Trump mostly on Twitter. His true enablers have been the elected Republican officials who have tied themselves to the mast of Trump’s rotting ship and well deserve to go down with it. They chose power and party over country, even though it meant handing over control of the GOP to a cartoonish thug.
They have abandoned their oversight responsibilities as well as any pretense of traditional conservatism — things like deficits, free trade, national defense and not using the Constitution as toilet paper. Few Republicans even bother to pretend to hold their noses at Trump’s foulness, his reckless policies, and his eagerness to embrace some of the world’s worst tyrants.
It’s a shame that poor Ukraine has found itself once again squeezed between much larger powers. Zelensky, elected president in April, is a former comedian, but a background in tragedy would be more useful. His country has been at war with Russia since Putin invaded in early 2014, annexing the Crimean Peninsula and sending forces into Eastern Ukraine, where nearly 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed. Western support has been half-hearted, its sanctions and condemnations of Putin’s aggression followed by expanding economic deals that enrich him and his cronies.
Ukraine still needs support, including U.S. aid, so Zelensky was in an awkward position on the phone call with Trump. (In these pages in April 2016, I called Trump “a bully who targets the most vulnerable.”) Zelensky might be an inexperienced politician, but I’m sure he’s seen his share of Mafia movies, and perhaps even acted in a few, so Trump’s crude extortion attempt would hardly have been misunderstood. He responded the way so many other world leaders have learned to deal with Trump, by flattering him and telling him what he wants to hear.
It was hardly dialogue at the level of Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone. Trump didn’t stop at asking Zelensky for a favor — helping smear Biden in exchange for releasing the $250 million in aid to Ukraine that had already been mandated by Congress. Trump also revealed his ignorance of Ukraine with his comments about a dismissed prosecutor and his persistent delusions about shifting blame away from Russia for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee server in 2016. He even made a cryptic threat against the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. All this in five pages of a call summary that Trump and his team thought would exonerate him!
This follows another familiar autocratic pattern: When you can no longer credibly deny the facts, deflect to details, push alternative theories and slander the witnesses and accusers. For the full neo-Soviet disinformation campaign, toss in some whataboutism and flood the state news channels — aka Fox News — with your surrogates and sycophants. The goal is to get you to forget the facts, and that what Trump and Rudy Giuliani have already openly admitted to doing is enough to warrant impeachment.
More damning evidence of Trump’s extortion scheme came to light when the whistleblower complaint was released. The White House tried to cover up Trump’s incriminating exchanges with Zelensky by moving the call transcript to a classified electronic records system, not the sort of thing you do if you don’t think you have anything to hide.
The cover-up reveals that Trump has largely succeeded in surrounding himself with people loyal only to him, not the country. He also wants them all to be complicit, to know they will go down if he does. Unashamed as always, Trump attacked the whistleblower and made more thuggish threats. It’s a remarkable coincidence that everyone who points out Trump’s crimes is a traitor.
Watergate was a petty crime that led to graver abuses by the Nixon White House trying to cover it up. It was a small, domestic affair compared to the global Mafia syndicate we’re seeing in action today. Trump’s crime is not small at all and the cover-up is indicative of how bad things would continue to get if he’s left unchecked by legal action.
That Trump’s corruption always comes back to Russia is no coincidence. He’s been getting talking points from the Kremlin since he was a candidate in 2016, and there is little doubt that whomever he and his emissary Giuliani were dealing with in Ukraine are on Putin’s team, just as Trump’s jailed campaign chief Paul Manafort was. Recall that the first smoking gun of Russian influence on Trump was editing the 2016 GOP platform to remove a line about the need to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine.
Trump was already in the gutter, but Giuliani’s deranged cheerleading for Trump, and his role as a fixer on his behalf, complete a steep fall from 9/11 grace. We should now discover who was paying Giuliani’s fees for his services in Ukraine, at least once the White House makes up its collective mind on whether he was coordinating with Mike Pompeo and the State Department or not. This deniability and blurring of public/private lines are also typical of the corrupt autocracies the Trump administration often emulates. The buck stops nowhere.
Waiting for the 2020 presidential election to solve this crisis presupposes that the election will be an honest one, something that was hard to imagine even before Trump was again caught seeking foreign interference on his behalf.
It’s pointless trying to imagine the depths Trump will go to in order to win reelection because such people have a limitless ability to shock. Trump has no sense of social norms or public service or duty to anything or anyone but himself. He is terrified of losing power and his bluster about welcoming an impeachment fight is the rage of a bully whose victim finally punched him in the nose.
This is one of the most serious threats American democracy has ever faced because it strikes at its core: that no one is above the law. I strongly disagree with pundits claiming that impeaching Trump is a distraction, or that it will backfire. You either fight like hell for the rule of law or you abandon it to its enemies. If the country is so far adrift from its democratic moorings that it’s no longer possible to condemn flagrant corruption during an election campaign, just award Trump his second term now and pray that it’s his last.
I’m not politically naïve. I’ve seen with my own eyes what happens when you start making concessions on principle with a president who has no principles. Every single member of Congress should be on the record for all to see. It’s time to pick a side, and those who choose Donald Trump over the law of the land will not be forgotten, or remembered kindly.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation.