WASHINGTON — A July 25 call between President Donald Trump and the president of Ukraine is the basis for an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump withheld U.S. military aid until Ukrainian officials investigated former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Last week, the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, effectively acknowledged the quid pro quo, although he said the aid was in part contingent on Ukraine’s investigating Trump’s widely debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for hacking Democratic Party emails in 2016. The theory is politically helpful to Trump because it would show he was elected president without that Russian help.
Mulvaney was unapologetic in his remarks. “I have news for everybody: Get over it,” Mulvaney told reporters at the White House. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” (He later reversed himself and has said his comments were misconstrued.)
Readers have asked The New York Times to explain why, exactly, another nation’s interference in the democratic process is such a serious issue.
Here are some answers.
Why don’t we want foreign countries involved in our elections?
Other countries have their own interests, and those interests don’t always match ours, said Trevor Potter, the founder of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that works to ensure fair elections.
“Many countries are rivals of ours and of our democratic system,” Potter said. He listed as two chief examples China and Russia, countries that Trump has publicly suggested could help him achieve his political aims. “In some cases, they’re going to want policies that help them and therefore hurt us. In other cases, though, they just want us to fail.”
Trump administration officials — but not the president himself — have publicly and repeatedly warned foreign governments not to meddle in U.S. elections.
Are protections against this kind of thing in place?
Yes. The ability of a foreign nation to gain access and influence over the U.S. democratic process has been a concern since the early days of the republic.
During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, delegates debated what kind of behavior should merit a president’s removal from office. George Mason suggested the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which holds to this day. One of the high crimes the framers had in mind was accepting money from a foreign power, or what Alexander Hamilton said was giving in to “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”
In short, the authors of the Constitution saw few bigger threats than a president corruptly tied to forces from overseas.
What was the quid pro quo on the Ukraine call?
Trump has denied any explicit quid pro quo — a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something — in his call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He has repeatedly referred to it as a “perfect” conversation.
But several elements of the call could conceivably have been used as bargaining chips by Trump.
One was the U.S. military aid, which came to nearly $400 million for security assistance to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression on its eastern border. The other was a proposed Oval Office meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump, highly desired by Zelenskiy as a powerful show of U.S. support at a time when Ukraine is under threat from Russia.
According to a summary of the call released by the White House, Trump raised two matters after Zelenskiy spoke of his need for U.S. help. “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump said, shifting the conversation to ask Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens as well as the conspiracy theory.
Zelenskiy responded that his prosecutor general would look into those issues, and asked Trump to provide any additional information that could aid in the investigation.
So what’s the problem?
At its most basic level, asking another government for help — whether a quid pro quo existed or not — means that Trump would find himself indebted to another country.
Doing this in private is especially alarming, Potter said, because the Trump administration’s decision to even temporarily withhold military aid for a country that needs to arm itself against Russia goes directly against U.S. national security interests.
“If the president of Ukraine has agreed to do this, he has something to hold over the head of the president of the United States,” Potter said. “It indeed opens the president up to political blackmail.”
Is this illegal?
Asking a foreigner for aid in a U.S. political campaign is illegal, which Ellen Weintraub, the head of the Federal Election Commission, has made clear.
“If a foreign government is investing resources in producing something that will be a value to a campaign here in the United States, that’s a problem,” Weintraub said in an interview with ABC News.
Isn’t this business as usual?
No. Both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations have resisted the idea of enlisting help from foreign powers for political advantage.
In 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was behind in the polls in his reelection campaign against Bill Clinton, a group of Republican lawmakers suggested to White House officials that they ask the British and Russian governments to dig up unflattering information on Clinton’s actions protesting the Vietnam War during his time in London, and to look into a visit he made to Moscow.
“They wanted us to contact the Russians or the British to seek information on Bill Clinton’s trip to Moscow,” James A. Baker III, Bush’s chief of staff, wrote in a memo at the time. “I said we absolutely could not do that.”
Ten former chiefs of staff for five former presidents — Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Barack Obama — have all said they would have considered such a prospect unacceptable.
But that doesn’t mean the Russians haven’t tried. The Soviet Union offered to help Adlai Stevenson make a third presidential run in 1960, a proposal he turned down. The Soviet ambassador likewise offered to help finance Hubert Humphrey’s campaign in 1968, drawing another rejection. And Leonid Brezhnev told Gerald Ford that he would “do everything we can” to help him win in 1976, a comment Ford brushed off without taking seriously.
Doesn’t the U.S. meddle in other countries?
The CIA helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and backed violent coups in several other countries in the 1960s. It plotted assassinations and supported brutal anti-Communist governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The CIA has planted misinformation and, at times, used cash as a way to achieve foreign policy aims.
But experts have argued that modern U.S. efforts are not morally equivalent to those in Russia. In recent decades, U.S. efforts have been geared toward promoting candidates who challenge authoritarian leaders. Russian efforts, on the other hand, are meant to sow discord.
“We often consider ourselves and hold ourselves out as an example of how other countries should conduct themselves,” Potter said. “When we have internal battles or things have gone wrong here, it is much harder to do that.”
He added, “Countries can exploit that and say, ‘We may be bad, but the United States is no better.’”
Has this happened in previous U.S. elections?
The only impeachment involving foreign policy came in the case of a senator, William Blount, who was accused in 1797 of scheming to transfer parts of Florida and the Louisiana Territory to Britain. The House impeached Blount, but he fled Washington. The Senate opted to expel him rather than convict him at trial.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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