There is a striking symmetry between the charge that Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia to sway the outcome of the election and the Democrats’ current effort to impeach President Trump. Both involve our relations with countries that Americans do not think of very often, but over which the elites obsess.
The rhetoric in each case is crafted carefully to turn conservatives’ patriotic instincts jiu jitsu-style against the president. And both cases feature overwrought rhetoric that transforms the ordinary and the unremarkable into “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The official Russian interference story became more grim in the retelling. While there were hacking efforts against the DNC, and Hillary campaign advisor John Podesta was a victim of a phishing scam, this is fairly modest stuff. Anyone who has used the internet is aware of the risk of hacking and accustomed to ignoring suspicious emails. None of these efforts affected the election process itself.
In addition to these events—that may or may not have originated from the Russian government—there were also official Russian information operations, which included social media content designed to amplify divisions between Americans.
As a consequence, a vanishingly small number of people may have seen an advertisement or two. To call these actions, which hurt no one and changed no votes, a “digital 9/11” or the equivalent of Pearl Harbor is ridiculous and grotesque.
There was also an outreach effort to the Trump campaign by two Russians that went nowhere—this face-to-face outreach was sui generis and may very well have been part of a CIA plot to entrap then-candidate Trump.
That’s it. Trump didn’t “collude,” had nothing to do with any of it, and “it” was not that big of a deal. There was no changing of votes, hacking tabulating equipment, or any other action that directly affected the election process.
Mere influence of elections through speech is not corrosive to our democracy. Media figures, politicians, and educational institutions have promoted cosmopolitanism and internationalism for decades. We were supposed to travel to that hip café in Bratislava and meet the native peoples of Peru.
Following the cosmopolitan spirit, public relations efforts from other countries are a normal part of American political life, and they are eagerly reported by our media. We heard from former Mexican President, Vicente Fox, that he didn’t want Trump to be elected. Mexico’s government also engaged in direct efforts to defeat candidate Trump. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry said that other countries’ leaders wanted George W. Bush gone and told him so in secret. No one thought any of this was foreign interference or a threat to our democracy.
Direct foreign lobbying is permitted because we assume foreign nations and businesses have an interest in the goings-on in America—the world’s preeminent power. While foreigners cannot vote, nor can they legally donate to American political campaigns, our system presumes that we may benefit from hearing what they have to say.
The premise of free speech is that the truth is best found in a “marketplace of ideas” and that truthful speech can counteract bad speech. On this basis, America still has Radio Free Europe, some 28 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. And America funds numerous non-governmental organizations in other countries, including Russia.
The Establishment Hates Russia
It’s true that Russia is neither England, France, or Mexico for that matter. We are not at war with Russia, but our relations are less-than-friendly.
Western elites’ chief problem with Russia is that it has not complied with the script Western advisors provided after the downfall of Communism. Russia was supposed to embrace the ever-changing kaleidoscope of modern values, including capitalism, secularism, multiculturalism, and sexual liberation.
Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia did exactly that, but these reforms led to chaos during the 1990s. A handful of oligarchs became rich by looting the country, while prosperity declined and gangsters ruled the streets. Vladimir Putin restored law and order, as well as Russia’s ability to project power abroad. Now Russia is a moderately authoritarian county that is largely white, nationalist, conservative, and increasingly Christian. As such, it is an obstacle to the Western elites’ desire to make the whole world look like San Francisco.
In addition to a conflict of values, the United States had friction with Russia over Ukraine and, before that, over Georgia. By way of context, in 2014 the Obama Administration and its CIA director, John Brennan, engineered a coup in Ukraine against its democratically elected, pro-Russian president. Russia responded with a bloodless takeover of Crimea, an ethnic Russian province of Ukraine with historic significance to Russia.
Provocative actions, unsurprisingly, tend to provoke.
But even taking into account Russia’s lack of liberal bona fides, no one talked quite like this about China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or even when Bill Clinton’s campaign was embroiled in the Chinese fundraising scandal in 1996. Certainly, no one said it was a “virtual Pearl Harbor” or that Clinton was a literal Manchurian candidate. Perspective and context are completely absent.
The hostility of the ruling class to Trump, coupled with their hostility to all that a nationalist Russia represents, has allowed them to describe a relatively small intrusion and social media trolling exercise as a “digital 9/11” and all the rest. Such inflammatory rhetoric conflated a genuine horror with something far more benign and from which our system is fairly resilient. Robert Mueller tried in vain to connect Trump to it, but no such connections were forthcoming.
Impeachment Effort Rooted in Horror at the Mundane
As with the anti-Russian propaganda, a similar sleight of hand is at work in the impeachment effort. Consider the facts. There was a call between Trump and the newly elected leader of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky. This, by itself, is completely normal.
Some months prior to the call, Congress allocated funding for Ukraine—a substantial sum of $300 million that included military aid—to shore up Ukraine’s defenses against Russia. This kind of funding is somewhat unique; the United States does not give military aid to many countries, and few get funding at this level. Like all spending, the mechanics and timing of it, once appropriated by Congress, are largely in the hands of the executive branch.
Another important factor largely unexamined by the American press is that the new Ukrainian leader is more pro-Russian than his predecessor. Zelensky has announced his intention to follow the Minsk accords, which were supposed to bring an end to fighting in the east, but failed to be observed by either side.
One rightly would expect any American president to ensure that the money will not support an unfriendly government. By way of analogy, President Trump stopped F-35 sales to Turkey, and President Obama stopped the sale of F-16s to Taiwan.
The paeans to the stalwart Ukrainians also fail to mention that Ukraine has a significant corruption problem. Whatever happened between then-Vice President Joe Biden, his son, and the Burisma gas company is a symptom of its political culture and its entanglement with major American political actors. The former darling of the West, Yulia Tymoshenko, was imprisoned for her natural-gas-related corruption. Ukrainians also have endured the theft of $5.5 billion from Privat Bank by the various oligarchs connected to it—5 percent of their GDP! One of those oligarchs has substantial business ties to Ukraine’s new president. It remains to be seen if his promises of reform, like those of his predecessors, leave Ukrainians disappointed.
Ukraine’s political arena appears, in fact, to have certain features of a money-laundering operation, where increasing American antipathy to Russia is part of the scam. The more anti-Russian feeling there is here at home, the more money goes to Ukraine, which then sloshes around various connected officials’ pockets.
Some portion of the loot gets doled out to western political advisors like Paul Manafort, Paul Begala, and Tony Podesta. This in turn gets recycled into the American political system to generate more anti-Russian feeling, encouraging Congress to open its coffers even further.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for example, had open and direct cooperation with Ukraine in 2016, back when candidate Trump was saying sensible things about having better relations with Russia. What money changed hands and between whom for this direct connection remains unknown.
If the concern is foreign collusion, it appears the only country anyone is worried about is Russia. Our allies get a pass, not-so-democratic countries in the Middle East get a pass, the cartelocracy of Mexico gets a pass, and even Communist China gets a pass.
The Zelensky Call Showed Trump Was Doing His Job
Trump’s impeachment foes allege that he allowed personal considerations to interfere with his dispensing of aid to Ukraine by demanding an investigation of Biden and his son in order to benefit himself politically. But isn’t it reasonable for Trump, who has toed the U.S. line on Russia, to see if the new leader of Ukraine is an honest partner, to see if this substantial sum of money is going to get siphoned off through the country’s endemic corruption, and, finally, to see if he was dealing with someone who is working with corrupt elements in the American government to undermine him as president? The talk of “quid pro quo” imports the language of campaign finance law into the operations of foreign policy, conflating goods done for the country with activity undertaken solely to benefit a candidate.
There is always something expected when foreign aid is dispensed. It is not meant to be a gift; it is supposed to advance the national interest. The fact that there may be an incidental benefit to Trump from a Ukrainian investigation of Biden is irrelevant.
The United States has an interest in reducing corruption in Ukraine, particularly if we are providing Ukraine’s government hundreds of millions of dollars. Almost anything a president does can be deemed to have this dual effect of benefiting his political fortunes. Didn’t Obama benefit when Osama bin Laden was killed? Or when he dispensed money to ACORN and other allied political groups?
The premise of the quid pro quo theory of impeachment is similar to the flawed reasoning of lower court rulings regarding Trump’s travel ban or the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census. These courts said, in effect, that Trump’s subjective motives rendered his use of a statutorily authorized power impermissible, even if it might be authorized if it had sprung from what they deemed a permissible motive.
In effect, this appropriates authority to make foreign policy to persons not elected and therefore not delegated that authority by the sovereign people of the United States.
A common law principle sheds some light on this expansive interpretation of election law: no one exercising his rights does actionable harm to another. In other words, a mixed motive cannot convert an otherwise lawful act into an unlawful one. Here, the president is acting within the scope of his foreign policy power. The mind-readers who see something untoward in the transcript can’t escape the fact that Trump has control over the manner and conditions of dispensing foreign aid.
The people elect presidents because of their policies, their character, and their presumed fidelity to the country as a whole. We wouldn’t expect any president not to enforce a law, simply because its enforcement might harm some opponent. Indeed, we would expect the opposite. The channeling of such ambition is precisely what the framers intended when they wrote the Constitution.
It’s not Trump’s fault that Biden and his family are knee-deep in Ukrainian corruption, nor is Trump duty-bound to ignore these circumstances in disbursing $300 million in foreign aid. His confidence in the normality of his actions led him quickly to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky. As with the earlier Russian interference story, Trump’s enemies are exaggerating what is entirely normal and trying to turn disagreements over policy and tone into “high crimes and misdemeanors.”