by Max Boot
When President Trump stood Thursday on the South Lawn of the White House and brazenly called for Ukraine and China to investigate Joe Biden, I thought of what E.M. Forster wrote in 1939: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” That choice — between your friend and your country — is not one that most of us ever have to make. But it is one that Trump is now forcing on his Republican friends. They must decide whether they will betray the president or the country. It is as simple and stark as that.
At first Trump tried to shield his supporters from the awful truth by claiming that his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “beautiful” and that reports to the contrary were mere hearsay. The rough transcript shows otherwise: Trump had engaged in a mafia-like shakedown. In return for generous U.S. support, he demanded that Zelensky do him a “favor” — or rather, two favors: investigate Biden and exonerate Russia from hacking the 2016 election. Newly released text messages from U.S. diplomats confirm that a White House meeting that Zelensky wanted, along with nearly $400 million in U.S. aid, were held hostage to get what Trump wanted.
Now Trump tries to legitimize his misdeeds by openly promising to commit more of them. On Thursday, he pivoted from talking about his “tremendous power” over China to demand that China “should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened to China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.” It’s as if Richard Nixon announced on TV that, yes, his men broke into the Democratic National Committee offices and that the McGovern headquarters was next. There is zero evidence of any illegality by the Bidens in either Ukraine or China. Trump doesn’t want a legitimate investigation. He wants to enlist foreign governments to smear his political foes.
Soliciting anything of value from a foreign national to help a U.S. campaign is not just illegal; it is the Founding Fathers’ nightmare. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton called “cabal, intrigue, and corruption” the “most deadly adversaries of republican government,” and warned that they “chiefly” emanate “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” “How,” he continued, “could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
How indeed. For much of U.S. history, this was a theoretical concern. Now it is horrifyingly real. A president elected with the help of one foreign power (Russia) is soliciting help from other foreign powers (not only Ukraine and China, but also Australia, Britain and Italy, among others) to win reelection. Any country that aids Trump can expect to be rewarded — with foreign aid (Ukraine), a more generous trade deal (China) or an invitation to rejoin the Group of Seven (Russia).
Republicans claim to revere the Founders and their “originalist” vision. Well, now they have a chance to prove it. With impeachment looming, they will have to choose between Hamilton and Trump — between a Founding Father who was alarmed by foreign meddling in our politics and a president who invites it.
Vice President Pence — a smarmy hypocrite — has made his choice. In 2016, he said, “Foreign donors, and certainly foreign governments, cannot participate in the American political process.” On Thursday, he excused Trump’s inexcusable conduct by saying, “I think the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from this position as vice president in the last administration.”
Most Republicans, however, have too much self-respect to openly defend Trump — and too little courage to openly condemn him. So, for the most part, they fall silent. Or they assail Trump’s accusers rather than Trump. House Republicans want to censure Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D.-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for restating in his own words “the essence” of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. About the actual conversation — and Trump’s subsequent demands on Beijing and Kiev — Republicans have next to nothing to say. (Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rep. Will Hurd of Texas are honorable but isolated exceptions.)
These self-styled champions of the Constitution are either AWOL or, even worse, on the wrong side during the worst constitutional crisis in modern history. Having previously claimed the “absolute right” to declare a national emergency, to pardon himself, to “do what I want with the Justice Department” and to share intelligence with Russia — Trump now claims the “absolute right” to suggest that “other Countries … help us out” to investigate “CORRUPTION,” a code word for maligning his Democratic rival.
When a president claims an “absolute right” to act in furtherance of his self-interest at the expense of the public interest, democracy is imperiled. Trump says that impeachment — a constitutional process — constitutes a “coup.” In truth, he is the one attempting a coup against the checks and balances of the Constitution.
Republicans in both houses will have to decide whether Trump’s acts constitute grounds for impeachment. The odds are that almost all will betray the country rather than the president. So here is the bitter irony: The “Republican” Party has become a threat to republican governance.
Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam,” a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography. Follow Max