Trump and his allies nearly succeeded in consigning the Mueller report to oblivion. William Barr, Trump's compliant Attorney General, got a jump on the process when he preëmpted the public release of the report by providing a misleading summary, which minimized the special counsel's findings on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Trump compounded Barr's distortions by falsely and endlessly repeating that the report found "no collusion, no obstruction." Congressional Democrats did little for the cause of clarity by using the report as an occasion to debate the semantics of what constitutes an impeachment investigation. And Robert Mueller himself invited a certain measure of confusion by telling his story in dense, legalistic prose. Barely six months after he delivered the report, it had already faded into the mists of Trumpiana: post-Sean Spicer, pre-whistle-blower.
The whistle-blower revealed Trump's July 25th phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, in which, according to the official memorandum, Trump said that he wanted a "favor," then asked Zelensky to look into negative information concerning Joe Biden, at the time the Democratic front-runner for 2020. The request was so plainly an abuse of Presidential power—Zelensky was awaiting delivery of military aid already approved by Congress—that Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, launched an investigation focussed on impeachment, to be led by Adam Schiff, the chair of the Intelligence Committee. Mueller and Russia are out; Schiff and Ukraine are in.
But the Russia and Ukraine scandals are, in fact, one story. Indeed, the President's false denials in both of them capture the common themes: soliciting help from foreign interests for partisan gain, followed by obstruction of efforts to uncover what happened. Both, too, share roots in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Mueller's two indictments of Russian interests—the first involving the use of social media and the second the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails—are perhaps the most detailed chronicle ever published of foreign interference in a U.S. political campaign. Trump's team was appreciative. When a public-relations adviser to a Russian oligarch's family e-mailed Donald Trump, Jr., offering dirt on Hillary Clinton that was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," the candidate's son gave a straightforward reply: "If it's what you say I love it."
Just two years earlier, Putin had invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The government in Kiev went back and forth between leaders who wanted to accommodate Putin's regime and others who wanted to enlist the help of the West to push back against it. The political consultant of choice for the pro-Russian faction was Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign chair in the summer of 2016. As Mueller documented, Manafort passed proprietary campaign polling data to pro-Russian Ukrainians. The campaign-era Trump portrayed in the report suffered from one major limitation: he wasn't President. He clearly welcomed Putin's assistance, and promised a better relationship with Russia, but he was still just a businessman from New York. The whistle-blower's complaint is the epilogue to Mueller's report: the coming of age of an aspiring colluder.
It's important to note, as well, that, in the Ukrainian chapter, Trump has done Putin's bidding, to the extent that he can, going so far as to embrace a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 campaign. The rest of the U.S. government has never been as enamored of Putin as Trump is. That includes Republicans in Congress, who joined the Democrats in voting for military aid to Ukraine. Trump wants no part of conflict with Putin, but the aid package tied his hands. There was a revealing moment in his joint news conference with Zelensky at the United Nations last month. Almost as an aside, Trump said, "I really believe that President Putin would like to do something. I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem." Ukraine doesn't have a "problem" with Putin—it has an invasion by Putin.
In the July 25th phone call, Trump did what he couldn't do as a candidate: he tried to leverage the power of the Presidency to extract partisan political advantage. Texts of U.S. officials, released last week, further suggest an attempted quid pro quo. On September 1st, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev, asked, "Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Gordon Sondland, a former Republican fund-raiser who is Trump's Ambassador to the European Union, replied, "Call me."
Mueller did chronicle Trump's efforts, as President, to interfere with his investigation. Trump made repeated attempts to rein in or fire Mueller, and was saved from that misconduct only by the refusal of people around him (including Don McGahn, his White House counsel; Rob Porter, his staff secretary; and even Corey Lewandowski, his otherwise zealous onetime campaign manager) to carry out his directives. The lesson of the past few weeks is that those restraining figures have left the building, literally and figuratively. Trump is currently surrounded by people like Barr and Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who are willing to debase their offices to indulge Trump's abuse of power. The unhinged arias of Rudolph Giuliani, his personal lawyer, are a constant from the Russian chapter to the Ukrainian. In customary fashion, Trump has sought to normalize his corruption, by bragging that he could recruit even more countries, including China, to conduct political investigations for him. That's still an abuse of power, even though he's now doing it in public, rather than bothering to try to hide it.
Mueller famously closed his investigation without rendering a judgment on whether the President committed crimes. "We did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President's conduct," he wrote. The time, though, for ultimate conclusions is approaching. One way of looking at Trump's evolution from candidate to President, from Mueller's time to Schiff's, is that his abuses are accelerating, with each unpunished act serving as a license for more. The Constitution gives Congress the tools to halt this cycle in Trump's out-of-control Presidency. The question now is whether the people's representatives will use them. ♦
This article by Jeffrey Toobin will appear in the October 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. It posted online on October 6, 2019
Jeffrey Toobin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1993 and the senior legal analyst for CNN since 2002.
October 7, 2019
Voices4America Post Script.Trump again shows he remains #PutinPuppet. He has been acting to weaken Ukraine for Putin and himself. This morning, he announced he is abandoning the Kurds- our allies who fought side by side with us in Syria and Iraq against Russia and Assad #Anything4Putin #Anything4Dictators #ImpeachRemove
If you want to read more about Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, click below.
Trump Endorses Turkish Military Operation in Syria, Shifting U.S. Policy