One of the central Republican talking points in the Ukraine scandal has been that the Ukrainian aid package was ultimately released without President Trump getting his requested announcement from President Zelensky that Ukraine was opening an investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma. If Ukraine got its aid without submitting to Trump’s demand, the president’s defenders argue, then how could there have been a quid pro quo? The answer was not always readily apparent, but, as more information comes out, the inner workings of the secret deal are becoming known.
For example, at first, it appeared that the quid pro quo for aid might relate solely to the July 25 phone call between the two presidents. After testimony from numerous Trump-appointed State Department officials, however, it now seems that trading aid for political favors had been official Trump Administration policy for weeks, if not months.
Likewise, light is also being shed on the Ukrainian side of the deal. The New York Times reported last week that, after the Ukrainians initially protested to Bill Taylor that they “did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign,” they bowed to pressure and became willing to make the announcement to get the US aid they needed to fight Russia-backed rebel forces. Accepting Trump’s demand to make an announcement would have risked jeopardizing future aid by politicizing the Ukrainian war, but the Zelensky government felt that it had no choice.
“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified to Congress.
Per the Times report, President Trump wanted Zelensky to make the announcement on CNN, but, aware that Trump considered CNN to be “fake news,” the Ukrainians were concerned that an appearance on the network work would further alienate Trump. But Trump had also tweeted in August that Fox News “isn’t working for us anymore.” The Ukrainians finally scheduled an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sept. 13 in which the announcement would have been made.
As Bill Taylor testified last week, “Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement in an interview on CNN.”
Zakaria confirmed that an interview agreement was close, saying, “Things picked up around August and September, I went to Kiev to meet with him. It seemed it was confirmed. And then it fell apart.”
But why did the Zelensky interview never happen? On Sept. 9, the inspector general of the intelligence community notified Democrats and Republicans of the House intelligence committee that he had received the whistleblower complaint and found the information credible. The Trump Administration released the aid package two days later on Sept. 11.
Even at that point, it isn’t clear that President Trump authorized release of the aid. Bloomberg reported last week that, because September was the last month of the federal fiscal year, the aid money had to be spent by Sept. 30 or else it would have to be reappropriated by Congress. To spend the money by the end of the month, it had to start moving around the middle of the month because of a two-week notification requirement for Congress.
National Security Advisor John Bolton, an outspoken critic of Trump’s extortion plan, stepped up in early September and authorized the State Department to spend the money. The move reportedly took the White House by surprise. A week later, Bolton resigned.
In the end, the Republican claim of “no harm, no foul” falls apart unless you think that incompetence is an adequate defense for abuse of power. President Trump clearly intended to a quid pro quo that would have benefited his reelection campaign by smearing Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee. That the scheme fell apart before it came to fruition is not a credit to the president’s ethics and morality. Rather, the Republican argument that an unsuccessful crime is not a crime at all is reminiscent of Sideshow Bob’s claim that he was imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit.
“Attempted murder,” lamented Bob to the Simpson family way back in season six. “Now honestly what is that? Can you win a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?”
The evidence points toward an unethical quid pro quo in which President Trump abused his presidential power to attempt political gain. The attempt almost succeeded, but the fact that it failed does not exonerate the president. If he emerges from the Ukraine scandal unpunished, there is every indication that he will continue to abuse his office as long as he holds it.
Originally published on The Resurgent