Michael Gerson: Trump's call with Zelenskiy did present a corrupt quid pro quo

Michael Gerson: Trump's call with Zelenskiy did present a corrupt quid pro quo


WASHINGTON — The impeachment of President Trump has reached an early point of absurdity.

Just about everyone in Washington believes that a quid pro quo — in which Trump used American clout to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden — would be impeachable (or at least, as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham recently put it, "very disturbing"). And just about everyone in Washington believes that Trump used American clout to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden. Which Republicans such as Graham deny was a quid pro quo.

It is a nakedly deceitful position.

No one disputes that Trump froze hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine shortly before his call to Zelenskiy. No one can dispute that this created massive leverage with a beleaguered client country. No one disputes that Trump reminded Zelenskiy of American largess three times in the released version of the call. No one disputes that Zelenskiy assured Trump of Ukrainian reciprocity. No one denies that Trump found this insufficient and asked for further favors: the investigation of a political opponent and his son, as well as of a crackpot theory that Ukraine was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. No one can dispute that the fulfillment of those favors would have been regarded as politically advantageous by the president.

At least this far, the facts are generally conceded. But a few questions remain.

First, was this a corrupt quid pro quo? This seems to be what Mick Mulvaney denied in his press conference last week. He claimed that it is the ordinary course of diplomacy for a president to use aid as leverage. "We do that all the time with foreign policy," he said. "We were holding up money at the same time for, what was it, the Northern Triangle countries ... so that they would change their policies on immigration." In the Ukrainian situation, Mulvaney argued, the president was (among other things) pressuring Zelenskiy to fight corruption.

It is an argument Trump has tweeted as well: "As President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!"

But this, of course, is not an "absolute" right. The president should not target investigations for selfish or corrupt purposes. For example, it is perfectly legitimate for the IRS to broadly enforce tax laws; it is an abuse of power for a president to order the IRS to investigate a list of his political enemies. In the case of Ukraine, the president was not urging a fight against corruption for the benefit of the Ukrainian people. He was asking for the investigation of two people for his own benefit. Trump has managed, with typical ethical creativity, to use the fight against corruption as cover for his own corruption.

A second question: Was Trump involved in a provable quid pro quo? It is the emerging Republican contention that the legal demonstration of a quid pro quo should require an explicit blackmail threat from the president. The goal is to set a standard so high that it is practically unreachable — like demanding that the judge personally witness a murder before a conviction can occur. Some Republicans are essentially contending that a real quid pro quo requires chanting the Latin words during the deed. They may eventually insist on a signed document stamped with the words quid pro quo by the White House counsel's office.

Whatever strategy Republicans adopt, the smoking gun has already been revealed. It is the rough transcript of the Ukraine conversation that the White House initially parked in a classified computer system but released after the call was exposed by a whistleblower. A common-sense reading of that text reveals a president of the United States involved in a politically motivated shakedown of a foreign leader.

This is a quid pro quo. It is a corrupt quid pro quo. It is a proven quid pro quo. In the end, there is only one question: Does it rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors"?

Here is where well-intentioned Republican legislators will struggle. They know that foreign powers such as Russia have influenced American elections by subterfuge. They will determine if an American president can encourage foreign influence on American elections without consequence.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.


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