Nicholas Kristof: Trump to Ukraine: Such a shame if anything happened to your nice country

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson agreed with a guest who said of allegations against President Donald Trump, “This is all acceptable political behavior by presidents.”

Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, tweeted: “House Democrats should stop lying to the American people. They aren’t concerned with the truth. They are still focused on undoing the 2016 election.”

A right-wing group, Americans for Limited Government, offered this take: “Pelosi proposes impeaching Trump for denouncing Obama-Biden-led corruption in Ukraine.”

We’re going to encounter more of these tornadoes of obfuscation in the coming months. So let’s debunk this nonsense. Whether one is for or against impeachment, facts still have value: Trump did not engage in “acceptable political behavior,” this is not about undoing the 2016 election and Biden didn’t do anything corrupt.

A starting point is the White House’s reconstruction of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The document notes that it “is not a verbatim transcript,” and I can’t help wondering if it has been somewhat sanitized, but it is still unlike any presidential communication I can think of in my 35-year career in journalism.

Days before the call, Trump had put a hold on nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine to fend off Russian aggression. On the phone, Zelenskiy delicately raised the question of getting military aid.

“I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump responded. I read that “though” as meaning: Yeah, we can help you defend yourselves, but I want something from you, too. Trump then asked Zelenskiy to coordinate with Attorney General William Barr on a politically driven investigation to help Trump in 2020.

The quid pro quo was implicit — rather like the gangster who drops in on a store and offers to provide “protection.” Trump in essence was saying: Such a nice country you have. Shame if anything were to happen to it. By the way, can you do me a favor?

Just in case Zelenskiy was particularly thick, Trump noted that the U.S. had been very helpful to Ukraine, said that Ukraine had not reciprocated, held out the promise of a meeting if Zelenskiy cooperated, and repeatedly encouraged Zelenskiy to speak to Barr and to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

If it were a single reference, one might wonder how much to make of it. But here is a compilation of Trump’s hints in the call:

“I would like to have the attorney general call you. … It’s very important that you do it. … I will ask him [Giuliani] to call you along with the attorney general. … If you could speak to him, that would be great. … If you can look into it [the Biden matter] … it sounds horrible to me. … I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to [have] Attorney General Barr call. … I’m sure you will figure it out. … Your economy is going to get better and better, I predict. … I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. … Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call.”

If that presidential call were set to music, it could be the soundtrack for a “Godfather” movie.

The Times reports that the acting director of national intelligence and the inspector general for the intelligence community — each appointed by Trump — both referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation into the president’s actions.

Surprise! Barr’s Justice Department decided not to pursue the matter.

As for the assertion that the real corruption is that of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, that’s false. Ukraine said in May that there was no evidence of illegality by Hunter. I do think that he inappropriately played on his father’s job as vice president to get a board seat with a Ukrainian gas company, just as Trump’s children — and Trump himself — have monetized Trump’s presidency. But whatever Hunter’s impropriety, there is zero evidence of misconduct by his father.

Journalists may try to be evenhanded by saying that Trump did this while Biden did that. That is false equivalence. Let’s be clear: Joe Biden appears to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing in this case, while Trump tried to use the power of the federal government and almost $400 million in taxpayer money to coerce Ukraine into meddling in a U.S. election.

Fresh from allegations of collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election, Trump turns out to have been trying to collude with Ukraine to arrange foreign interference in the 2020 election.

An impeachment inquiry will now unfold, and there’s no reason to prejudge the outcome or rush the process. Let the evidence emerge and be debated.

No one should be gleeful, for an impeachment process is a trauma for our country — and I’m not sure that Democrats living in blue bubbles appreciate the risk that this process may end up helping Republican candidates.

But put politics aside.

Trump weaponized taxpayer dollars to coerce a foreign leader to target U.S. citizens with a criminal investigation, aiming to affect an American presidential election. Whether or not you believe that is impeachable, we should be able to agree that it is unconscionable.

Nicholas D. Kristof

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.