WASHINGTON – The words from one president to another, somewhat casual in tone, were not casual at all in meaning: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Those words have now prompted deployment of the ultimate political weapon, an impeachment process enshrined in the Constitution as a means other than the ballot to remove a president from office.
When history writes the story, the seemingly innocent request from President Donald Trump to his Ukrainian counterpart will show their infamous July 25 phone call had a lot behind it, at least implicitly.
It had the weight of U.S. military power behind it. The dangling jewel of a White House meeting if things turned out right. And the prospect that Ukraine’s very future could be in the balance, as a country aspiring to join the West while feeling threatened by an aggressive Russia to the east.
Dancing to the edge of legality and maybe over it, Trump asked the Ukrainians to investigate his own political rivals at home and interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
That was the favor.
And what in return?
Quid pro quo means something for something.
That Latin phrase is at the core of today’s mountain of subpoenas, the pile of insider text messages that weren’t supposed to come out, the tug of war between Congress and the White House over willing and reluctant witnesses and the blizzard of aggrieved Trump tweets.
This, as Democrats move closer to a Senate impeachment trial that would be only the third in the nation’s history.
A familiar pattern is emerging. Trump, like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton before him, is striking back at his accusers, though Trump does it with more bite, force and relentless volume. He also has near-lockstep support from his party, as Clinton did, and Nixon, until he didn’t and resigned in disgrace.
Among underlings, loyalties fracture. Conspiratorial thinking, even paranoia, creeps in. Who is next to talk, stonewall, turn, quit? Who will break and when? Who won’t break? Nixon was undone in part by Deep Throat. Trump thinks the Deep State is out to get him.
Trump, ever defiant, never contrite, insists he did nothing wrong, that his communication with the leader of a corruption-plagued country was appropriate and that the impeachment effort is a politically orchestrated hit by Democrats to nail him on Ukraine when they couldn’t get him on Russia.
How we got here is something of a play in three acts, involving machinations by Ukrainians, Trump and Democrats in turn, with the fourth act to be written.
THE BLACK EARTH
Ukraine is a land of dark, fertile soil where corruption and assorted American conspiracy theories have taken root along with the wheat and cabbage. Trump’s preoccupation with Joe Biden and his son Hunter flourished there.
A true if flawed democracy on Russia’s doorstep, Ukraine in 2014 ushered out a pro-Russian leader who tolerated corruption and replaced him with an anti-Russian leader who tolerated somewhat less corruption.
Then in 2019 came Volodymyr Zelenskiy . The comedian and political novice proposed to govern with a straight face and an eye to making Ukraine more like its European neighbors to the west while ending the war against Russian-backed forces in the east.
He was counting on unflagging support from the U.S. Instead he got Trump, with his faith in Russia’s good intentions and fixation on conspiracy theories against Democrats.
For Trump, the Bidens may have looked like easy prey. While Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president and counseling Ukraine’s government on fighting corruption, the younger Biden was hired by Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company whose owner was feeling some heat.
By putting Hunter Biden on the board in spring 2014, Burisma’s owner probably wanted to show the new Western-leaning Ukrainian government that powerful people in the West had his back.
Although no evidence of anything illegal emerged, it looked bad and caused some to question whether Burisma was buying influence with the Obama administration. In early 2016, Joe Biden pushed Ukraine to fire the prosecutor charged with investigating Burisma, except that he had stopped investigating.
What the U.S. and its European allies wanted was a Ukrainian prosecutor more committed to combating corruption, not less.
Trump also seemingly bought into a long-discredited conspiracy theory that connects Ukraine, not Russia, to the 2016 political interference and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
U.S. intelligence agencies attributed the hack to Russia. So did Robert Mueller, who as special counsel charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers. Even a former Trump homeland security adviser has urged the president to stop pushing the false story.
described a “concerted campaign” against her based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
On that list, she suggested, was Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, whose associates “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stumped by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
Two Soviet-born Florida businessmen who worked with Giuliani and made large donations to Republicans, including a Trump-allied political action committee, leveraged these contacts to pursue a business deal involving the Ukrainian state gas company. They were arrested in October, charged with making illegal campaign donations.
THE CALL & THE WHISTLE
July 25: Trump and Zelenskiy speak for a half hour, 9:03 a.m.-9:33 a.m. Eastern time.
Trump congratulates the new leader: “The way you came from behind , somebody who wasn’t given much of a chance, and you ended up winning easily. It’s a fantastic achievement.”
Zelenskiy then turns a Trump phrase, “we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,” and flatters the president some more. Then they get down to business and Trump asks for his favor.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” Trump says. He goes on to say that Joe Biden “went around bragging” about derailing the Ukrainian corruption prosecutor.
“So if you can look into it,” Trump goes on. “It sounds horrible to me.”
Zelenskiy is noncommittal in the phone call, which ends with more mutual flattery.
“Perfect” phone call, Trump said, defensively and repeatedly afterward.
But among the dozen or more political appointees and civil servants who listened in – as part of standard White House practice – and among the insiders who heard about it after, it was immediately clear that something troubling had happened.
A U.S. president had asked a foreign leader to investigate U.S. citizens in a matter that stood to benefit his reelection chances.
And that was before another element of this episode was widely known, even throughout the administration: Trump had ordered military aid , already approved by Congress, to be held up, and without explanation.
White House lawyers assigned to the National Security Council were among those who were alarmed, and they broke with common practice to have a rough transcript of the call stored on a computer server used for only the most sensitive information.
There’s no recording. The White House stopped taping presidential calls in the 1970s, after Watergate investigators used tapes made by Nixon.
Instead, information specialists speak into a device that renders words into text and from that a rough transcript emerges. That transcript is circulated to those who were also listening to the call and taking real time notes to ensure accuracy.
And on this call was U.S. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose family fled Ukraine when he was 3. He was so concerned that he rushed to one of the NSC lawyers to tell them of a serious discrepancy.