As the impeachment process unfolds, President Donald Trump’s defenders will throw up dust clouds of complexity. But as the first day of open hearings suggested, it’s simple. Forget about Ukraine and diplomacy for a moment.
Suppose that a low-ranking government official, the head of a branch Social Security office, intervened to halt a widow’s long-approved Social Security payments. The widow, alarmed that without that income she might lose her home, would call the branch director to ask for help.
“I’d like you to do me a favor, though,” the director might respond. He would suggest that her Social Security payments could resume, but he’d like the widow to give him her late husband’s collection of rare coins.
Everybody would see that as an outrageous abuse of power. Whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, we would all recognize that it’s inappropriate for a federal official to use his or her power over government resources to extract personal benefits. The Social Security official could say that the payments eventually resumed, or assert that the widow’s son had engaged in skulduggery — but he’d be out of a job in an instant and would face a criminal investigation.
Likewise, imagine that a high school principal expelled the police chief’s son but offered to readmit the boy if the police department would just open a criminal investigation into his ex-wife before their child custody hearing.
Or suppose that the head of a public hospital offered to provide free medical care to employees of a construction company if it remodeled his kitchen?
Or what if I suggested to a university president that I was planning some glowing columns about his great institution and then asked for “a favor,” noting that my child was applying for admission.
In every case, we might disagree about whether to call this bribery, extortion or a quid pro quo, and might disagree about precisely which statute was violated, but there is no doubt this would be a firing offense and perhaps lead to a criminal investigation.
Shouldn’t we hold the president of the United States to as high a standard as the head of a Social Security office, a principal, a hospital director and a journalist?
Indeed, the Ukraine situation is still more insidious. Trump’s bullying of Ukraine and suspension of military assistance benefited our strategic rival, Russia, and it came as Ukrainians were dying in the fight for their country’s survival after a Russian invasion.
My father grew up near Chernivtsi in what is now western Ukraine — then part of Romania — and I’m appalled to think of Ukrainians dying unnecessarily because Trump was playing politics with American assistance. In effect, Trump aided Russia and perhaps killed Ukrainians for political gain.
Remember all this as we hear Trump’s defenders try to divert attention to the whistleblower, to Hunter Biden or to anything else. If the Republicans want to oversee an investigation of how children of American government officials monetize their parents, that’s a worthwhile effort. But I doubt Ivanka Trump agrees.
The first witnesses before the impeachment hearings were two distinguished foreign policy experts with a long commitment to public service and no history of partisanship. One, George Kent, noted that “there has been a George Kent sworn to defend the Constitution continuously for nearly 60 years.” And Ambassador William Taylor, a Vietnam veteran who was appointed acting ambassador to Ukraine by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, emphasized, “I am not here to take one side or the other, or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings.”
Their testimony was blunt. Trump withheld not only desperately needed security assistance to Ukraine but also a White House meeting with the Ukrainian president — unless he committed to investigating the Bidens.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor recalled advising other ambassadors involved in Ukraine.
Taylor also revealed something new and important. On July 26, another ambassador, Gordon Sondland, telephoned Trump, who asked about “the investigations” by Ukraine. A Taylor staff member asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine, and Sondland replied that Trump cared more about the investigations into the Bidens.
Republicans on Wednesday tried to suggest that perhaps the impeachment investigation was all a misunderstanding based on secondhand accounts. But that July 26 phone call suggests that Trump was directly pushing for the investigations as his top priority with Ukraine.
Trump continues to be strongly backed by House Republicans and Fox News. That’s the biggest difference from the Watergate hearings that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. There was no Fox News then, and Republicans and Democrats alike were loyal primarily to the country and its institutions rather than to an individual.
That may no longer be true. Brace yourself in the coming weeks for smoke screens of obfuscation, but anchor yourself to this thought: What if the wrongdoing simply involved the head of a Social Security office, a principal, a hospital director or a journalist? Why allow a president to get away with what would be a firing offense for anyone else?
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.