Understanding Trump’s Betrayal
By Ryan McCarl and John Rushing
The recent revelation that President Trump attempted to coerce Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election led not only to an impeachment inquiry, but also to a flood of news and misinformation. Only the most dialed-in voters can keep up with the scandal’s details, and new details are emerging every day.
Every American should understand the essential underlying facts as well as the historical context: what Trump did, why it was illegal, and why it matters.
What Trump did
Congress decided to send critical military aid to Ukraine to help protect it from Russia, which invaded Ukraine in August 2014. This summer, Trump blocked the aid from being delivered while secretly demanding that Ukraine publicly investigate conspiracy theories that would assist Trump in the 2020 election. Trump then tried to cover his actions up by, among other acts, hiding a call transcript in a secret server and blocking Congress’s attempts to investigate.
Why it was illegal
First, it is illegal to extort or bribe foreign governments for personal gain, and the Constitution lists bribery as an impeachable offense. Second, it is illegal to solicit foreign interference in an American election. Third, it is illegal to obstruct justice by hiding evidence of wrongdoing and ordering officials to disobey congressional subpoenas.
Why it matters
While Trump’s actions may have broken anti-bribery, campaign finance, and obstruction of justice laws, the problem with Trump’s conduct is deeper than its illegality. The central problem is that Trump used public resources as though their purpose were to serve Trump’s personal reelection campaign instead of the interests of the United States.
That is an abuse of power. The United States government, including the office of the President, exists solely to serve the American people. It does not exist to promote the personal goals of elected officials. When the public entrusts elected officials with political power, those officials are expected to act in the public’s interest—not use their power for selfish aims. (That is what the term “corruption” means: the abuse of public power to serve private purposes.)
Trump breached his constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the law on behalf of the public. If Congress cannot hold President Trump accountable for this breach of trust, we will have given up on values critical to the American experiment in democracy: the idea that no one is above the law, that government exists to serve the people, and that elected officials have a fiduciary duty to use government power to serve the public—not to serve themselves.
Ryan McCarl (Twitter | Facebook | Blog) is a fellow at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law. John Rushing holds a JD from the University of Texas School of Law and an MPhil from the University of Oxford, and works as a film producer.