The Russians are “doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned Congress in July, wrapping up his two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. “Many more countries are developing [the] capability to replicate what” the Kremlin did.
Aware of these dangers, U.S. officials spent hundreds of millions of dollars to harden the country’s election infrastructure. New organizations sprang up to protect political campaigns from getting hacked like Hillary Clinton’s operation. Twitter and Facebook publicized their election “war rooms” and purges of disinformation campaigns originating from countries such as Iran and Venezuela. Donald Trump was chastised for not taking the threat seriously, as he refused to acknowledge Russia’s help for his campaign and even suggested that he would consider accepting a foreign government’s offer of damaging information about an opponent. Given the stakes of the 2020 presidential election, one expert on foreign-influence operations in the United States told me he expected to witness an “election-interference food fight between foreign countries.”
The focus was on preventing nefarious actors around the world from once more disrupting the lifeblood of American democracy. But instead the biggest vulnerability was from the White House itself, and specifically from the president.
The whistle-blower complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine—and specifically his phone conversation the day after Mueller’s testimony with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, about opening a corruption investigation into a man challenging Trump for the presidency—shows that Trump has no qualms about asking a foreign leader for political favors.
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.
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.
His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has meanwhile muddied the very concept of election interference. In one TV appearance after another, he has inexplicably argued that Biden’s efforts as vice president in 2016 to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating a Ukrainian energy company that Biden’s son was on the board of—the basis of the so far unsubstantiated claim that Biden and his son engaged in wrongdoing—constituted “interference” in that year’s U.S. presidential election, which Biden did not run in. It’s a bewildering response from a man who, as a congressman, accused Vladimir Putin of “trying to make America look like a Third World country” with his meddling in the 2016 election and argued that Barack Obama’s sanctions were insufficient retaliation for Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory and attempted “reordering of Europe.”
It was only three days ago that Trump was standing before the United Nations General Assembly, proclaiming that “freedom and democracy must be constantly guarded and protected, both abroad and from within.” In a sign that he was bracing for a storm, he warned that one of the internal threats was “a faceless bureaucracy [that] operates in secret and weakens democratic rule.” Now the charge from a faceless bureaucrat that the president secretly undermined American democracy from within is imperiling his presidency.