The question of whether there’s clear evidence of a quid pro quo—a probe into Joe Biden and his son in exchange for the continuation of U.S. military aid to Ukraine—is less important than it might seem in part because such a bargain would have been implicit in the communication. Here was the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military speaking with the leader of a smaller country reliant on American support to fend off Russia, not to mention a commander in chief who had long been ambivalent about backing Ukraine and whose personal lawyer had, for months prior to the call, been on a quasi-official crusade to get the Ukrainian government to scrutinize the Bidens. In the phone call, Trump notes that “the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine” shortly before urging Zelensky to work with the U.S. attorney general to “look into” the former U.S. vice president. The quid and the quo were, if nothing else, the background noise of the call.
Read: The whistle-blower’s explosive allegations
Yet the debate about the existence of a trade-off also distracts from the gravity of what Trump was up to, even if the matter of defense assistance is set aside: the president of the United States apparently exploiting his vast powers in foreign affairs to compel law-enforcement authorities in another country (along with his own) to manufacture dirt on a political rival and thus intercede in the 2020 presidential election. The whistle-blower acted out of concern that the president’s behavior presented risks not only to national security, but also to the “U.S. government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.”
In a letter to the acting director of national intelligence, the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, elaborated on the whistle-blower’s concerns. He noted that U.S. laws and regulations prohibit people from soliciting something of value to their political campaign from a foreign national. (The Justice Department has argued that Trump’s back-and-forth with Zelensky did not amount to this, though other legal experts dispute this conclusion.) “Alleged conduct by a senior U.S. public official to seek foreign assistance to interfere in or influence a Federal election would constitute a ‘serious or flagrant problem [or] abuse,’” Atkinson added, and could also leave that official and those in league with him vulnerable to foreign intelligence services that are aware of the activity.
Then Atkinson really twisted the knife, quoting Trump’s former director of national intelligence as saying the intelligence agencies have “no higher priority mission than working to counter adversary efforts to undermine the very core of our democratic process” and citing Trump’s own statement a year ago upon issuing an executive order to impose sanctions in the event of foreign influence in a U.S. election:
I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that the ability of persons located, in whole or in part, outside the United States to interfere in or undermine public confidence in United States elections, including through the unauthorized accessing of election and campaign infrastructure or the covert distribution of propaganda and disinformation, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.
In recent days, however, Trump has defended his actions with regard to Biden and Ukraine as literally and figuratively unimpeachable—“A PERFECT CONVERSATION”—effectively declaring to the world open season on American elections.