Here’s a question that hasn’t gotten much attention in the recent torrent of words about President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy: Why did our president release details of the call, thus waiving his right to assert executive privilege over it? Did he genuinely believe the material was going to demonstrate his innocence? Evidently, he did.
But he was wrong. The call's rough transcript shows what many lawmakers and experts say amounts to at least an implicit appeal from Trump to Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on the family of Democratic rival Joe Biden. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promptly announced her support for an impeachment inquiry into the president.
Judging by Trump's Twitter feed, the impeachment caught him by surprise. He has to think it doesn’t matter where he gets his oppo (opposition research) — whether from conventional political operators or lowlifes, Americans or foreigners. Only if Trump thinks this way can he believe that there was anything exculpatory about his Zelenskiy phone call.
Consider that. We have here an individual, Donald J. Trump, who based his presidential run on the various versions and implications of “America First.” And it clearly wasn’t just campaign shtick.
As Trump put it just the other day in his U.N. address: “If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation.” The future, he said, “does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.”
This was a controversial theme to raise at the United Nations, which was founded after World War II in the belief that excesses of nationalism had brought about international disaster. But it was wholly consistent with Trump’s overall message. Lord knows that Trump’s immigration stance, in addition to whatever racist elements it may include, reflects the same brand of nationalism.
U.S. law also expresses an “America First” view, at least when it comes to federal elections. The law makes a sharp distinction between Americans — citizens or permanent residents — and, for want of a more delicate term, foreigners.
Under our laws,a non-U.S. citizen can’t make a contribution to a federal election campaign, period. A U.S. person can’t solicit such a contribution from a non-U.S. person. And “contribution” is broadly defined — as a “gift, subscription, loan, advance or deposit of money or anything of value given to influence a federal election” or a “payment by any person of compensation for the personal services of another person if those services are rendered without charge to a political committee.”
Additional rules are even more specific — providing, for example, requirements for verifying a contributor’s nationality if the money is from a bank outside the United States or even if the contribution has a non-U.S. postmark.
There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes research results may not be a “thing of value.” In general, though, the law’s message is clear: What part of "no" don’t you understand?
Trump, he of “America First,” seems genuinely not to understand the distinction. We got an indication of his incomprehension during the 2016 presidential campaign, when his son enthusiastically welcomed a promise of damaging information about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer (“if it’s what you say, I love it”).
Trump confirmed his cluelessness in a June interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, where he spoke encouragingly about opposition research from foreigners: “It’s not an interference. They have information — I think I’d take it.”
Trump then explained to Stephanopoulos how the world works: “When you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is.”
Well, that isn’t exactly the way it is. The widespread condemnation of Trump’s interview remarks included criticism from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a prominent Trump ally, who said that Trump’s view was simply “not the right answer.” Graham said, “If a foreign government comes to you as a public official, and offers to help your campaign [by] giving you anything of value, whether it be money or information on your opponent, the right answer is no.”
In response to the critics, Trump partly reversed his comments, saying they were “incorrect or badly stated.” But it wasn’t a disavowal. “Of course,” Trump said of dirt offered by a foreigner, “you have to look at it, because if you don’t look at it you won’t know it’s bad.”
But, he added, “You also give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that.” For Trump, that constituted a full-throated apology.
Now comes Trump’s Zelenskiy conversation, demonstrating Trump’s principles in action. Some people insist there’s no “quid pro quo” in the phone call, but not many. Somebody phones you, tells you how much he’s done for you, and complains that there’s been no reciprocity? You’ve got a quid that most public corruption prosecutors would die for. Then you ask for a “favor?” That’s the very definition of a quo.
Still, something important was missing from the Zelenskiy phone call: There’s no sign of what we think of as Trumpian nationalism. You want information about Joe Biden? The information is under the control of the Ukrainians? What’s the difference? Just go get it.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the man who has long wanted to build a Trump Tower in Moscow isn’t fazed by a national border. But it will be interesting to see whether the same is true of any of the folks in the Trump rally audience who chanted, “Send her back!”
- Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.” Her husband Leonard Garment was acting special counsel to President Richard Nixon for the last two years of his presidency.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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