WASHINGTON — When the July 24 congressional testimony of special counsel Robert Mueller deflated the impeachment hopes of Democrats, President Donald Trump claimed “no collusion” and vindication from accusations he had conspired with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
The very next day, Trump allegedly sought to collude with another foreign country in the coming election — pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up what he believed would be damaging information about one of his leading Democratic challengers, former vice president Joe Biden, according to people familiar with the conversation.
The push by Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to influence the newly elected Ukrainian leader reveals a president seemingly convinced of his own invincibility.
He was apparently willing and even eager to wield the vast powers of the United States to taint a political foe and confident that no one could hold him back.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution who graduated from college just before Watergate. “He appears to be daring the rest of the political system to stop him — and if it doesn’t, he’ll go further.”
The effort — which occurred as the Trump administration was withholding financial and military support from Ukraine to help the small democracy protect itself against Russian aggression — illustrates Trump’s expansive view of executive power and what appears to be a cavalier attitude about legal limits on his conduct.
While Mueller’s investigation did not place Trump directly in the Russian conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and boost Trump’s candidacy, the president was an active participant in the Ukrainian episode, which was brought to light by an intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint.
Trump has said he did nothing improper in his calls with Zelensky or any other foreign leader, and Saturday, he derided Democrats and the media for what he dubbed “the Ukraine Witch Hunt.”
But the scrutiny surrounding the phone call has brought fresh peril to Trump’s presidency and could turbocharge the drive by some House Democrats to open impeachment proceedings.
‘We back off everything’
Democrats’ frustration with their inability to check Trump and hold him accountable for his conduct after nine months in the majority is starting to boil over. Lawmakers for the first time are saying publicly their caucus looks feckless, and some are fretting that their flimsy oversight and reliance on the courts to eventually rescue them have proved fruitless.
“We back off everything,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “We’ve been very weak.”
House Democrats are probing whether Trump and Giuliani withheld U.S. assistance to the Ukrainian government until it agreed to investigate possible corruption involving Biden and his son, Hunter. But asked whether he or Trump were worried about congressional investigations, Giuliani laughed.
“They’re a bunch of headhunters and have lost any credibility,” the president’s lawyer said.
Giuliani said new scrutiny of Trump’s communications with Zelensky is welcome because it draws attention to Biden and his family’s involvement in Ukraine.
“The reality is, the more the Democrats press for an investigation of what I did in the Ukraine, I invite it,” Giuliani said. “I’m just doing my job as a poor, simple, little defense lawyer who’s defending his client.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, said the president has calculated that there is a political upside to spotlighting Ukraine and a story he believes “would crush Biden if people came to believe it was true.”
“If you’re going to be Andrew Jackson, there will be consequences, but he will be called ‘the great disrupter,’” Gingrich said, drawing parallels between the seventh president and 45th. “He gets up every morning and thinks, ‘What can I disrupt?’ He’s not going to back off.”
‘Public doesn’t get excited’
Trump’s sense of himself as above the law has been reinforced throughout his time in office. As detailed in the Mueller report, he received help from a foreign adversary in 2016 without legal consequence. He sought to thwart the Russia investigation and possibly obstruct justice without consequence. Through the government, he has earned profits for his businesses without consequence. He has blocked Congress’ ability to conduct oversight without consequence.
He is alleged to have leveraged taxpayer dollars and U.S. military might to extort a foreign government for opposition research on a political opponent, and it is unclear what consequences, if any, he may face.
“We got progressively desensitized,” said Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney in the Obama administration. “We’re learning progressively about wrongs, and one part gets absorbed before the next part gets revealed, so for whatever reason, the public doesn’t get excited about it. It’s mystifying.”
One explanation is Republicans in Congress have almost uniformly fallen in line behind Trump, reacting with instinctive nonchalance and blocking efforts to investigate his actions or hold him accountable.
“What we’re discovering is that the Constitution is not a mechanism that runs by itself,” Galston said. “Ultimately, we are a government of men and not law. The law has no force without people who are willing to enforce it. The ball is now squarely in the court of the Republican Party, and particularly Senate Republicans. Will they ever be prepared to say enough is enough?”
Legal experts said it is extraordinary that Trump allegedly sought political assistance from a foreign government after a tortured, nearly three-year national conversation about the illegality of doing so. Asked what the president had learned from the Mueller investigation, former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman said, “Nothing. Zero.”
“I think he thinks it’s perfectly OK,” Akerman said. “This guy has got no scruples whatsoever. I don’t think he would stop for a second.”
Trump said in June he would accept help with his 2020 reelection campaign from another country, which would be against the law.
“There’s nothing wrong with listening,” he told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos. “If somebody called from a country, Norway — ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
Trump’s moves in Ukraine are not a tertiary interest. For years, it has been a priority of the United States to boost the effective power of the Ukrainian military to form a bulwark against Russia.
Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and a senior national security and diplomatic official in past Republican and Democratic administrations, said Ukraine has been “a major interest of the United States — and if the stories are true, the president cavalierly thrust the national interests aside in favor of his personal political interests.”