Bribery. Corrupt dealings with foreign officials. Foreign influence in an American election…If President Trump promised the leader of Ukraine something valuable in exchange for an investigation of the activities of Joe Biden’s son, legal experts say, his actions may violate any of several criminal statutes.
But because he is the president, Trump critics and supporters alike agree that any judgment about his behavior is likely to come not in a courtroom but in the court of public opinion — and, perhaps, the halls of Congress.
Despite Trump and Giulani’s cajoling and claims to the contrary, Ukrainian prosecutors are not investigating Biden and do not have evidence of wrongdoing.
Following in the footsteps of others
Some of the most extreme cases of such corrupt leaders are Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ali Khamenei and North Korea’s Kim family dynasty. In recent years, aspiring authoritarian leaders and movements have also risen to power closer to home in Hungary, Turkey and Poland.
An objective assessment of Trump’s presidency checks all of these boxes and easily places him among this latter group of rising Western strongmen. His attempt to abuse the powers of his office to compel the Ukrainian government to help him politically by harming his main rival is alarming evidence that his corrupt efforts to hold onto power are escalating. That trend is unlikely to stop on its own.
Trump is not to be believed as a valid leader
What such leaders have in common at the most basic level is their willingness to empower and enrich themselves at the direct expense of the people’s interests. A seemingly simple decision, it sets them on a slippery slope in which they increasingly abuse power, first to benefit personally from their positions, but quickly as a necessity for survival.
Each additional act of corruption leaves them more at risk of prosecution or public backlash and requires even greater abuses of power to counter, leaving them evermore vulnerable and perpetuating a more dangerous spiral of abuse. As they find ways to undermine checks on their power, they simultaneously become more powerful and more fragile, making escalating attacks on democracy both easier and more necessary.
The president won’t have immunity forever
Trump is, for now, immune to federal prosecution, according to a Department of Justice policy that sitting presidents cannot be indicted. More generally, he is shielded by the immense powers of his office, which give him broad sway over public opinion and authority over federal activities that he can leverage for tremendous influence and protection as long as he stays in power.
After he leaves office, he loses those protections. As affirmed by the Mueller report, “A president does not have immunity after he leaves office,” leaving Trump vulnerable then to potential prosecution for obstruction of justice and possibly other crimes committed before and during his presidency. These circumstances create the incentives in which corrupt leaders expand their abuses to hold onto power for as long as they can.
House and Senate Republicans continued to prioritize party interests over those of the country, and most congressional Democrats continued to view the situation through a very traditional lens in which they could defeat Trump and expand their power in Washington through a free and fair 2020 election, despite the experience of 2016.
But Trump has a much less conventional view and approach to the situation. Having neutered the most important judicial and legislative limits on his power, the only remaining significant check is the American people acting through elections, but Trump has also learned that he can obtain undue electoral advantage through illegal foreign assistance and escape direct accountability to the people.
Biden isn’t the uninteresting reassuring candidate Democrats were hoping for
The whistleblower who filed a complaint with the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson last month is an example. This person took great risk — possibly without proper access to the legal protections intended for such persons — in hopefully helping the American people understand the growing danger that the Trump presidency poses to the republic.
Nonetheless, countering this threat should not be left to the people alone. Congress has a constitutional duty and associated powers to hold Trump accountable before he repeats his foreign-assisted assault on our elections in 2020, something he is clearly trying to do.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress should perform their vital responsibility to uphold the Constitution without further delay, demonstrating Trump’s danger and the importance of their power, while setting the stage for political renewal in America. If they do not, they should expect Trump’s attacks on American democracy to further escalate – and they should bear responsibility for its consequences.