Trump the Corrupt as Champion of Anti-Corruption?

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Despite a torrent of detail from witnesses, the heart of the matter probed by the House impeachment inquiry has now become manifest. It is, clearly: Corruption.

Our corrupt president, Donald J. Trump, ignoring his oath to protect and defend the Constitution, abused his power as leader of the most powerful country on earth, by exacting from a less powerful country (Ukraine) a personal, non-state objective, one enabling his own re-election and retaining power: dirt on his potential Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

We see how this corruption works, thanks to testimony of career diplomats and national security officials, to the expert guidance of House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, to skillful interrogation by House Democrats.

What do we see? We see Trump’s ask couched as a “favor.” We see Trump’s henchman (personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani) pursue this favor outside the official diplomatic channels. We see this favor solidify into a quid pro quo: Though Trump insists there was no quid pro quo, his conditioning of the release of $400 million in military aid vital to Ukraine in its hot war with Russia upon Ukraine’s investigation into Biden and his son is the very essence of quid pro quo. Fact trumps vocabulary.

We also see — astonishingly, in real time — witness intimidation, when Trump tweets derogatory comments during the testimony of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Asked by Chairman Schiff what she thought the effect of Trump’s message might be on other witnesses, she said “intimidating.” Appropriately, Schiff assured her the Committee takes witness intimidation seriously.

And, true to the dynamics of a smaller country finding itself on the downside of power, the Ukrainian leadership “came to understand” exactly what Trump meant as a favor, per a front-page story in The Washington Post.

What else is this but extortion, bribery, mafia tactics — in a word, corruption?

None of this behavior is, by any stretch, normal or permissible in a democracy. Yet the Trump White House and its Republican minions in Congress maintain that what Trump was actually aiming to do with his Ukraine ask was in furtherance of his own “anti-corruption” policy. The absurdity! Trump the Corrupt, the champion of anti-corruption? If Trump is so keen on fighting corruption, why did he fire Ambassador Yovanovitch, who made her name fighting corruption in over 30 years of diplomatic service and earned multiple awards for doing so?

The irony would be amusing if it were not so perilous. Ukraine, once infested with oligarch-driven corruption, is in its newly-elected reformist president, Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking rebirth as a democracy clean of corruption. As the career diplomats testified in the inquiry, Ukraine, in resisting Russian aggression, is key to a stable Europe. As two young Ukrainian legislators and former journalists soberly stated on “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” more than 13,000 Ukrainian troops have been lost and their nation’s future is at stake.

Yet: Republicans remain blind to Trump’s now-manifest corruption. We see the ideological blinders firmly in place throughout this inquiry. Braying that Democrats are trying to undo the 2016 election, Republicans cannot fix on or comprehend the import of the evidence laid before them. They deny Trump’s clear quid pro quo with Ukraine, and if they concede it, say it still does not rise to the level of impeachment. But rather than make even this weasel argument, Republicans more often resort to character assassination of both the witnesses and their Democratic colleagues, each vying to outdo the other in viciousness.

What we are seeing is a party in thrall, a cult of personality. As historian Robert Kagan writes, Republicans in their fanatical loyalty to Trump would enable his corruption to become “normalized” — a death knell for American democracy.

At the same time, we see other things, more encouraging things. We see in the witnesses — the “bureaucrats” vilified by Republicans from Ronald Reagan onward — people who are decent, dedicated to the public good, deeply knowledgeable in their field, and who defied a White House ban to come before the public to set in place the evidence incriminating Trump.

We see the legislative branch, in its investigative mode, despite Republican obstructionism, functioning effectively, with the incriminating evidence enabled to come forth. We see Democrats, disciplined for once, engage in probing questioning and, stirringly, come to the aid of witnesses attacked by Republicans with passionate defenses (special shout-out to Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes, here and here). In all this, we see it is Democrats, not Republicans, who are the real conservatives, fighting to conserve democratic norms, rule of law, fairness, simple decency.

We also see the impact of the impeachment inquiry on the latest Democratic presidential debate, held last night. Initial questioning bore on the inquiry, with several candidates noting the inquiry’s theme: Trump’s corruption. Over the course of the debate, all candidates declared that, while Trump must be defeated, more importantly, we must restore the above virtues, mortally threatened by corruption — democratic norms, rule of law, fairness, simple decency.

Grassroots Democrats (myself included) who worried that an impeachment inquiry focused solely on the Ukraine case was too narrow, that the cornucopia of Trump’s malfeasance need be litigated, can now take heart that such focus suffices. For, as Walt Whitman said of the human being, corruption “contains multitudes”: It bears on power, values, ethics, everything we hold most dear; as an abuse of power, corruption is an impeachable offense. And grassroots Democrats (myself included) who worried that even if the House votes to impeach and the Republican-controlled Senate acquits, then Trump will claim exoneration, can take heart again: This president’s corruption will be prosecuted in the 2020 presidential campaign — and it will lose.

For the first time in a long time, I feel Democrats will win in 2020 and the American ideals we love and cherish will be restored. Happy Thanksgiving.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost.

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