With Trump, all roads lead to Moscow

Author : Jesse Wegman

Source : The New York Times

Monday’s congressional hearing and the inspector general’s report tell a similar story
12:20, 10 December 2019

When it comes to Donald Trump and Russia, everything is connected.

That’s the most important lesson from the two big events that played out Monday on Capitol Hill — the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on President Trump’s impeachment and the release of the report on the origins of the F.B.I.’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

One of these involved the 2016 election. The other involves the 2020 election. Both tell versions of the same story: Mr. Trump depends on, and welcomes, Russian interference to help him win the presidency. That was bad enough when he did it in 2016, openly calling for Russia to hack into his opponent’s emails — which Russians tried to do that same day. But he was only a candidate then. Now that Mr. Trump is president, he is wielding the immense powers of his office to achieve the same end.

That is precisely the type of abuse of power that the founders were most concerned about when they created the impeachment power, and it’s why Democratic leaders in the House are pressing ahead with such urgency on their inquiry. They are trying to ensure that the 2020 election, now less than a year away, is not corrupted by the president of the United States, acting in league with a foreign power. “The integrity of our next election is at stake,” said Representative Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Nothing could be more urgent.”

Related: U.S. House's Judiciary Committee invites Trump to impeachment hearings

On Monday morning, lawyers for the Democrats on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees presented the clearest and most comprehensive narrative yet of President Trump’s monthslong shakedown of the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for Mr. Trump’s personal political benefit. They explained in methodical detail how the president withheld a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in crucial, congressionally authorized military aid to Ukraine, all in an effort to get Mr. Zelensky to announce two investigations — one into Mr. Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, and another into Ukraine’s supposed interference in the 2016 election.

Who would benefit from these announcements? Mr. Trump, who believes his re-election prospects are threatened most by Mr. Biden, and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, who has been working for years to make Ukraine the fall guy for his own interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Putin has not fooled serious people, like those in the American intelligence community who determined that his government alone was responsible for meddling on Mr. Trump’s behalf. But he has fooled Republicans in Congress, who have degraded themselves and their offices by faithfully parroting Mr. Putin’s propaganda in the mainstream press.

House Republicans continued to do their best to obfuscate and misdirect, as they have done throughout the impeachment process. From the start of Monday’s hearing, they yelled and objected — an understandable strategy for people whose most honest defense of the president’s actions has been: “Yeah, he did it. So what?” But this was not a performance for the history books; it was for the president himself, who registers only who is defending him and with how much fist-pounding rage.

The upshot is that Republicans, who once claimed to be the party of patriots and national security devotees, are on the record as having no problem with an American president using hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to induce foreign leaders to interfere in an election on his behalf. (Unless that president were a Democrat, of course.)

Related: US Congress prepares legal case for impeachment of president Trump

The emptiness of the Republicans’ case was exemplified in an interruption by Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who stopped the morning’s proceedings after Barry Berke, the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic counsel, testified that President Trump had committed impeachable acts. “The witness has used language which impugns the motives of the president and suggests he’s disloyal to his country, and those words should be stricken from the record and taken down,” Mr. Johnson said. He was referring to a House rule that applies only to members of Congress, not witnesses. But consider the message he was sending: In the face of the most damning facts brought forward about a president in more than a generation, Mr. Johnson’s instinct was to say, in effect, How dare you speak the truth about our dear leader?

Speaking the truth, or accepting it when they hear it, is a skill that has become increasingly foreign to Republicans. Which brings us to the other big news of the day: the release of the 434-page report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, into the basis for the F.B.I.’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign. The evidence for these ties — like the evidence that Mr. Trump sought a bribe from the Ukrainian president — is indisputable. So Republicans have instead attacked the investigation itself, claiming that it was the fruit of illegal actions by Trump-hating F.B.I. agents.

Mr. Horowitz shot down that theory. The investigation was based on sufficient evidence of an ongoing national security threat, he found, and there was no evidence it was infected by anti-Trump political bias. In fact, Mr. Horowitz turned up evidence of agents who supported Mr. Trump. One wrote to another that he was “so elated with the election,” later explaining to the inspector general that he had opposed Hillary Clinton and “didn’t want a criminal to be in the White House.”

Still, Mr. Horowitz harshly criticized the F.B.I. over what he called “many basic and fundamental errors” it made during the investigation, including mistakes or omissions in important paperwork that “made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.”

Related: Trump on Giuliani's trip to Ukraine: He brought a lot of information

These are serious and in some cases alarming missteps and would be a concern in any case, let alone in one targeting people closely associated with a presidential campaign. But don’t be lulled into thinking Republicans care about surveillance overreach — just as they don’t care about Hillary Clinton’s emails or Joe Biden’s son. They’re simply casting about for anything that will protect their president from the scrutiny that he has invited upon himself since long before he was elected.

For his part, Mr. Trump claimed that the report was “everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”

This sort of brazen misrepresentation of facts is par for Mr. Trump’s course, and while it is sadly effective, it shouldn’t distract Americans from the emergency at hand: Whether Mr. Trump played footsie with Russians to win in 2016 or strong-armed a vulnerable new leader who is at war with Russia to win in 2020, he did exactly what the nation’s framers feared an unprincipled, power-hungry executive might do to hold onto his office. That’s why they put the impeachment power in the Constitution, and it’s why lawmakers who care about the Republic and its survival must use it.

Read the original text at The New York Times.

Related: Trump’s administration working on official visit of Russia's MFA to U.S.

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