Trump cites cor­rup­tion to jus­tify his ac­tions

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY ELI STOKOLS AND NOAH BIERMAN

As Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump fights pos­si­ble im­peach­ment, he has adopted a sweep­ing ar­gu­ment to de­fend his de­mands that Ukrainian au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gate Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den – what he calls his “ab­so­lute right” to ask for­eign lead­ers to help root out cor­rup­tion.

“I don’t care about Bi­den’s cam­paign. I care about cor­rup­tion,” Trump said Fri­day, one of the 27 times he ut­tered the word “cor­rup­tion” in a 23-minute news con­fer­ence.

Asked whether he had re­quested that any gov­ern­ments in­ves­ti­gate cor­rup­tion not in­volv­ing his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, Trump was stumped.

“We’d have to look,” he said.

He ar­gued that noth­ing was wrong with his solic­it­ing a for­eign power to in­ves­ti­gate a former U.S. vice pres­i­dent – who has not been ac­cused by oth­ers of any wrong­do­ing – or with hold­ing back con­gres­sion­ally ap­proved U.S. mil­i­tary aid or a promised visit to the White House to get his way.

Trump made this shift un­der duress, af­ter newly re­leased texts from con­cerned U.S. diplo­mats in Ukraine di­rectly un­der­cut his de­nials that he was seek­ing a quid pro quo – U.S. aid for Ukraine’s war with Rus­sian-backed in­sur­gents in ex­change for dirt on a po­ten­tial Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee next year.

Ac­cord­ing to a White House mem­o­ran­dum of a July 25 phone call, Trump asked Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­sky for what he called “a fa­vor” – an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Bi­den and into Ukraine’s sup­posed role in help­ing Democrats in the 2016 elec­tion.

No ev­i­dence in­di­cates Bi­den, who made mul­ti­ple vis­its to the em­bat­tled former So­viet repub­lic as vice pres­i­dent, was en­gaged in any wrong­do­ing. Nor has any ev­i­dence emerged to sup­port rightwing con­spir­acy the­o­ries that Ukraine, not Rus­sia, in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion.

Af­ter an­grily re­fus­ing at a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day to say what he wanted from Ukraine, Trump de­cided to go on of­fense. He said Thurs­day that he had de­manded – and still seeks – an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Bi­den. He went fur­ther, pub­licly urg­ing China to find some­thing on Bi­den’s fam­ily, too.

To Democrats and nu­mer­ous non­par­ti­san ob­servers, it sounded like the pres­i­dent was wav­ing a smok­ing gun – ad­mit­ting in public to what they had ar­gued was an im­peach­able of­fense, and then taunt­ing them by ask­ing one of Amer­ica’s ad­ver­saries to also get in­volved in a U.S. elec­tion.

Some an­a­lysts, how­ever, saw Trump’s un­ex­pected de­fense as clever, one in­tended to por­tray a po­ten­tially il­le­gal act as cloaked in civic virtue.

“His China state­ment was, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with root­ing out cor­rup­tion wher­ever it is?’ ” said Elaine Ka­marck, a fel­low in gov­er­nance stud­ies at the non­par­ti­san Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

Given Amer­ica’s deep par­ti­san di­vi­sions, Trump and his al­lies are bet­ting that enough vot­ers will take the pres­i­dent’s side in a ti­tanic po­lit­i­cal bat­tle to help him win re­elec­tion next year – even if he is im­peached by House Democrats.

The com­ing weeks will test whether Trump’s un­con­ven­tional be­hav­ior has cre­ated a strong enough shield for him – and Repub­li­can law­mak­ers – to avoid nor­mal po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences for his ef­forts to get for­eign gov­ern­ments to take down his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies.

With polls show­ing sup­port for the im­peach­ment probe ris­ing to 51%, a new high, Trump has taken to lev­el­ing false or un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims at Democrats in an ef­fort to stoke the emo­tions of par­ti­sans on both sides.

He said Bi­den is “crooked as hell” although in­ves­ti­ga­tors in Ukraine say they have no ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing. He claimed the anony­mous whistle­blower who first dis­closed Trump’s al­leged abuses was a “par­ti­san hack,” and re­peat­edly in­sulted Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who heads the House In­tel­li­gence Committee.

Trump has also re­vamped an ar­gu­ment that Richard Nixon fa­mously as­serted in a TV in­ter­view three years af­ter he re­signed as pres­i­dent in 1974 to avoid cer­tain im­peach­ment and con­vic­tion: If the pres­i­dent does it, it is not il­le­gal.

“Like Nixon, (Trump) un­der­stands the public doesn’t like sneak­i­ness,” said Ti­mothy Naf­tali, a pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian. “But he’s mak­ing a dif­fer­ent bet – that by be­ing open about his ac­tions, he can get the public to ac­cept it. He’s taken a risk that Amer­i­cans don’t care as much about the char­ac­ter of the pres­i­dent.”

Nixon held him­self up as a straight-ar­row in public, so that by the time se­cretly recorded Oval Of­fice tapes were made public in 1974, re­veal­ing a dark, pro­fane and schem­ing tac­ti­cian, it came as “a huge shock,” said John A. Far­rell, a Nixon bi­og­ra­pher.

“No­body had ever ex­pected that the up­tight pres­i­dent talked like that in the Oval Of­fice with his cronies,” he said.

Trump, by con­trast, spews the same bom­bast and pro­fan­ity in public as he does in pri­vate.

Whereas Nixon re­signed af­ter Repub­li­can lead­ers warned he had lost the party’s sup­port in Con­gress and would face cer­tain im­peach­ment, Trump may sur­vive thanks to cal­ci­fied par­ti­san­ship in Wash­ing­ton.

Only three Repub­li­cans in Con­gress have taken is­sue pub­licly with Trump’s brazen claims and his re­quest for China to in­ves­ti­gate Bi­den, most notably Sen. Mitt Rom­ney of Utah, the GOP’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2012.

“When the only Amer­i­can cit­i­zen Pres­i­dent Trump sin­gles out for China’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion is his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent in the midst of the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion process, it strains credulity to sug­gest that it is any­thing other than po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated,” Rom­ney tweeted Fri­day.

Trump is “count­ing on peo­ple see­ing this as a par­ti­san mat­ter, re­lit­i­gat­ing an elec­tion that he won fair and square, rather than a chal­lenge to the prin­ci­ples of the Con­sti­tu­tion,” said Alexan­der Ver­sh­bow, a former U.S. am­bas­sador to Rus­sia and the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion. “The sheer par­ti­san­ship of our pol­i­tics makes it so that he might suc­ceed.”

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