Donald Trump and the Derp State
If President Trump is impeached sometime in the coming months — and the incomplete-yet-incredibly-damaging notes from his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky suggest this is all but a certainty — you can probably thank Joe Biden's polling numbers. As we learn more about what nudged President Trump down the path of fresh impeachable conduct and slapdash criming, all roads lead back to his visceral insecurity and thin-skinned inability to cope with dozens of head-to-head surveys showing the former vice president obliterating Trump by double digits in next year's general election. His refusal to countenance a fair fight with Biden led the president to reportedly assemble a goon squad full of the stupidest spies in human history to blackmail the president of Ukraine. And it may be his undoing.
In Trumpworld, the ends of self-preservation justify any and all means, even ones which are obviously illegal. And so the president, in cahoots with his febrile lawyer, an obviously-in-cognitive-decline Rudy Giuliani, decided to take Biden down the way gangsters enlist new members in their protection rackets. They would put the squeeze on the incoming Ukrainian government: investigate the Bidens or your aid goes poof. The new president in Kiev, after all, is a fellow entertainer with no government experience. To carry out this scheme, they had to bypass the hated foreign policy apparatus, including the State Department and the National Security Council — what right-wing fever swampers now derisively call "the deep state." You might think of the parallel system they created for their amateurish gooning as the Derp State, and it all went about as well as you would expect from this crew.
The details of the still-unfolding story, as reported last night in The Washington Post, are incredible, even by the straight-to-video standards of this administration. Shortly after Attorney General William Barr released the Mueller Report on April 18 and Zelensky was elected on April 22, Giuliani was apparently assigned some kind of open-ended dirty trickster role in Ukraine, a bizarre mashup of Special Envoy, Coen Brothers hit man, and senile conspiracy theorist whose sole purpose was to get the new Ukrainian administration to investigate the story of Hunter Biden's time on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma and Joe Biden's role in getting a prosecutor fired. There is, of course, nothing to this story. As multiple outlets have noted, when Biden pressured Ukraine to fire prosecutor Viktor Shokin, it was because he wasn't pursuing investigations against various oligarchs and made it more likely that Burisma would be probed.
Mind you — and this should be obvious by now but it bears repeating because it's so completely bananas — Giuliani was not leaning on Zelensky's government like a detective working a criminal informant to advance American interests, bolster either country's security, or usher in a new age of good government in Kiev.
From the get-go, this was about Joe Biden's poll numbers: Biden over Trump by 11 points in a May Fox News poll; Biden by 13 in an early June Quinnipiac survey; Biden by 10 in a late June ABC/Washington Post poll. Trump has not topped Biden in a single public poll between March 2017 and today. Even the obviously-compromised Rasmussen has never shown Trump leading Biden.
The president looked at these numbers, and instead of trying to persuade the public that he's the better choice, decided to once again sell out the United States and enlist the aid of a foreign government to win an election dirty. Biden had to be smeared as corrupt, because that would be the only way to get voters to overlook the Trump administration's now manifest and seedy record of grifting, influence-peddling, and sleaze. And what better way to tag Biden with some filth than to find someone weak and needy and blackmail them?
President Trump first recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, on May 9. Giuliani, in one of his many strange television appearances Tuesday night, seems to believe that Yovanovitch was working for George Soros (!) and had something to do with the downfall of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who had been working for the pro-Russian Ukrainian president who was deposed in 2014. Remember, this was what precipitated the Russian invasion in the first place. Guiliani also bragged in May of this year that he was being sent to Ukraine to push for investigations that would "be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government." As Giuliani blundered through his broad-daylight skullduggery, officials at the National Security Council and State Department grew increasingly concerned, especially when congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine was suddenly held up by Chief of Staff and budget director Mick Mulvaney.
To get some clarity about what was raising alarm bells for those officials, I spoke with Jon Wolfsthal, who served as special assistant to the president and senior director for arms control and non-proliferation at the National Security Council under President Obama. President Trump, Wolfsthal notes, clearly wanted to hide what he was doing from other parts of the government. "That's why he's happy with acting secretaries and empty, vacant positions." A stripped-down foreign policy team is less capable of pushing back against rogue actors and dubious initiatives. If the president was genuinely concerned about corruption, Wolfsthal outlined a variety of measures that might have been taken by a normal administration, including holding back portions of the aid to ensure that was already doled out had been spent appropriately and conducting rigorous audits of funds that had been distributed.
That's not what happened here. Wolfsthal pointed out the aid to Ukraine was for "lethal assistance," in other words money to buy U.S. weapons, something that the Obama administration never did. Because everyone knows what the money is for, it is, as Wolfsthal argues, "less prone to corruption and graft" than other forms of assistance. So even if you buy the prima facie absurd theory that Donald Trump was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine, you wouldn't hold up this particular aid, especially in the middle of a war with Russia and amidst concerns that sending the wrong signal could lead to Russian escalation.
That's why it was so clear to nervous officials that Trump was holding the aid hostage until Zelensky could produce damaging information about the Bidens. And then on July 25, Trump held his long-awaited phone call with the new Ukrainian president and as always, said the crimey parts out loud. On Wednesday, the White House released some incomplete notes from that call, and they basically confirm everyone's worst fears: After some initial puffery in both directions, Trump asks Zelensky to "do us a favor" immediately after Zelensky talks about wanting to buy some military hardware from the U.S. The notes are suspiciously incomplete here, but Trump mentions Crowdstrike, the firm brought on board to investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, as well as "the server," all a bit of weirdness apparently tied to the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
It gets worse. Zelensky mentions that one of his "assistants" had recently spoken to Giuliani. Trump talks specifically about Yovanovitch and says, ominously, that "she's going to go through some things." Trump then says, "The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great." That's President Trump soliciting damaging information from a foreign power about his leading political opponent. The White House is not even trying to hide it, instead claiming ludicrously that there was no "quid pro quo" even though everyone on that call knew that aid to Ukraine was being held up. It was, as Wolfsthal argues, "the president trying to blackmail a foreign country at war with Russia to provide political fodder for the domestic campaign."
It's now pretty clear why Trump's own foreign policy team was cut out of this half-baked process as he unleashed Giuliani on the Ukrainians. Any competent official with more than five minutes of experience in Washington and even a dimly-remembered working understanding of American law would know that what Trump and Giuliani were doing was illegal, a violation not just of American campaign finance law, but also of the constitutional rights of both Bidens (as well as Yovanovitch, who is casually threatened with unspecified "things"!). It was also a breach of trust with Ukraine, a kind of invitation to powers like Russia and China that signals how America is not just insufficiently committed to its allies, but that the sovereignty of other countries will be subordinated to the president's election needs.
Where does this all leave us today? Adrift, as we have been since Election Day in 2016. But the shape of things to come is starting to come into focus: President Trump is getting impeached, and the vote is unlikely to be particularly close in the House. Giuliani, Attorney General Barr, Mulvaney and others who might have direct knowledge of Trump and Giuliani's conspiracy will be getting subpoenas. What we don't know yet is exactly what is in the whistleblower complaint that Barr is still hiding. Its contents, which will eventually come out one way or another, and how easily they can be verified, might determine President Trump's fate in the Senate, where his acquittal should not, at this point, be assumed. All of this drama will be set against the backdrop of the high-stakes 2020 election, in a poisoned atmosphere of distrust and misinformation with an economy teetering on the brink of disaster.
As the president likes to say, "Have fun everybody."
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.