Read Trump’s Lips: He Wants Foreign Help in 2020
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On July 25, just a day after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress and essentially concluded his investigation of President Donald Trump’s various intersections with Russia, Trump asked Ukraine’s leader to find dirt on a political opponent – indulging in some of the very behavior that Mueller had been investigating but couldn’t prove.
In other words, Trump escaped Mueller’s probe and then turned right around and hit a self-destruct button. After all, that July 25 request of Volodymyr Zelenskiy to knee-cap former Vice President Joe Biden led to a whistleblower’s complaint and, of course, the impeachment inquiry that’s engulfed Trump and imperiled his presidency.
Not satisfied with that bit of artofthedealmaking, Trump took to the south lawn of the White House on Thursday and told reporters on live television that he wanted Ukraine and China to investigate Biden and his son for corruption. “What happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” he advised, slinging another glop of unsubstantiated tar at the Bidens.
Mud-slinging aside, Trump was yet again confirming – in an openly recorded setting – that he likes to solicit foreign powers to interfere in U.S. elections. That, as he must have learned during the two years Mueller investigated him, is a crime.
When he first began addressing reporters, Trump responded to a question on trade negotiations with China by pointing out his belief that he has plenty of leverage over the country. “I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous, tremendous power,” he said.
Trump also upped the ante, suggesting without evidence that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, forged a “sweetheart deal” on trade with the U.S. because of the Bidens – and wouldn’t want a bribery investigation to tarnish him or his country.
“I’m sure President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny where billions of dollars is taken out of his country,” by Biden’s son, Trump threatened. “You know what they call that, they call that a payoff.”
Given how thorny the Mueller probe was, one might have expected Trump not to go there with China. Given that one of the key elements of the impeachment inquiry revolves around whether Trump threatened to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless Zelenskiy did his bidding, one might have expected Trump not to use such similar and muscular language with China. Given all of this, one might expect the president of the United States not to keep saying the quiet things out loud. But he wouldn’t be Donald Trump if he paid attention to any of those things.
Trump’s statements on Thursday prompted quick responses from lots of informed observers. Joyce White Vance, a lawyer and the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, pointed this out on Twitter: “Trump just committed a felony violation of law by soliciting something of value in connection with a US election from a foreign gov’t on national TV. 52 U.S. Code § 30121. Violating the law isn’t necessary for Impeachment but it certainly warrants it….After the Mueller investigation, there’s no way Trump was unaware this violates the law.”
Ellen Weintraub, the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, reposted a tweet from June that included a “Statement Regarding Illegal Contributions From Foreign Governments.” Her statement noted that it “is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.” The statement points out that this concept is not “novel” and is deeply rooted in the Constitution. “Anyone who solicits or accepts foreign assistance risks being on the wrong end of a federal investigation.”
Laurence Tribe, a professor at the Harvard Law School and a leading constitutional scholar, told me that he sees some method in Trump’s madness on the White House lawn. “He obviously believes that if he commits his felonies in broad daylight and out in the open that he hasn’t done anything wrong -- and that no one would think he’s stupid enough to commit an impeachable offense in front of everyone,” he said.
If Trump is muddying the waters by giving Democrats too many impeachable acts to track, Tribe suggests that they focus solely on building their case around two articles of impeachment that involve his Ukraine and Russia dealings: betrayal of country and stonewalling Congress. Trump’s comments Thursday about China can inform those charges, Tribe says, but he thinks it would be a strategic mistake for it to be turned into a standalone article of impeachment.
The president is undoubtedly under stress, as his recent, somnambulant speech at the United Nations and a pair of unhinged press briefings on Wednesday demonstrated. So perhaps his recklessness is dialed up a notch because he’s fighting for his political survival. But as I noted in a recent column, Trump openly flaunted lawlessness long before he became president – even going back to his earliest days as a casino operator in Atlantic City.
The difference now is that the stakes are much higher, the world is watching, and the president apparently can’t stop himself.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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