Michael Gerson: Trump has set his own interests above the nation's
In the Trump era, a columnist risks appearing like the boy (or girl) who cried wolf. Time and time again, we say this scandal is the big one.
But in our ill-fated version of the story, the wolf comes every time. The violations of morality and law have become progressively bolder and more dangerous to the constitutional order. And they have culminated in an abuse of power both highly serious and totally unconcealed.
By his own admission, the president of the United States urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open a criminal investigation of the son of a political rival. Trump denies that this request involved a quid pro quo. But with Ukraine engaged in conflict with Russian-backed separatists, and with $250 million in American military aid being held up (at the time) for “review,” the threat did not need to be explicit in order to be palpable and powerful. A mob boss doesn’t need to issue threats personally in order to be feared and obeyed. And that is what the Trump presidency increasingly resembles — a criminal family sending out their slimy factotum (a part played enthusiastically by Rudy Giuliani) to “fix” what needs fixing.
This groundbreaking form of political corruption shocked everyone with a conscience who was privy to it. U.S. embassy staff in Kiev expressed alarm about Giuliani’s contacts with Ukrainian officials. A whistleblower in the intelligence community risked his or her career to report it. The intelligence community’s inspector general found the matter of “urgent concern.” But acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and the Department of Justice — playing the role of political enforcers — have blocked the transmission of the whistleblower’s report to Congress. They are pursuing a cover-up in plain sight.
The Constitution assumes that the president will interact with foreign governments to seek the interests and express the values of the United States. With Trump, nothing decent can be assumed. By making corrupt personal requests of a foreign power, the president is not only misusing $250 million in leverage, he is misusing the presidency itself. His actions may constitute bribery, extortion and/or the violation of campaign-finance laws. But his breach of public trust is ultimately a more serious matter. Trump has violated his oath of office by using his office for selfish gain.
Here we need to be clear. Treating the presidency in this fashion is not only corrupt but unpatriotic. Trump is not only a preening, prating fool; he has set his own interests above the interests of the nation. He has replaced love of country with a kind of self-love that dishonors the institution he leads.
And Trump may have lost the ability to distinguish between patriotism and egotism. He may regard his crass political needs as the definition of his nation’s good. In this case, he is both bent and delusional.
The American criminal justice system was created to deal with normal types of political corruption, not with a rogue president, testing the limits of executive power. That form of warped ambition must be checked and balanced by the coequal branches of government. But many members of Congress — mostly Republicans but also some Democrats — appear to have lost their taste for that role.
The political risk to elected Republicans when they oppose Trump appears very real — though it is hard to be sure when so few test the proposition. But the moral hazard is far greater. When they use their office to shield shady political dealings, they become a party to public corruption. When they ignore or excuse Trump’s use of the nation’s power and influence for private reasons, they have chosen Trump above their country and deserve to be defeated. Every one of them. Worst of all, they are teaching their political supporters that the rule of law is a small and expendable thing.
In the scarier regions of the Trump right, the problem is far advanced. Every revelation of the president’s abuse of power is met with a sentence beginning: “But Biden ... .” Their tolerance for corruption seems limitless — and frightening. By what firm political principle would they condemn Trump if he closed down The New York Times (an “enemy of the people”) or arrested a few whistleblowers (part of the “deep state” that is conducting a “coup”)?
None of this seems possible. But too many impossibilities have recently become realities. Opposing Trump’s corrupt abuse of power — here, now, before it goes further — is the calling of patriotism in our time.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.