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The Ukraine Scandal Just Scratches the Surface

When President Trump sought to extort Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, into subverting the coming U.S. election, it wasn’t improvised, impulse collusion.

In testimony to impeachment investigators Tuesday, Trump’s interim ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor detailed Trump’s months-long effort, with the help of various henchmen, to establish an off-the-books foreign policy in Ukraine, culminating in a threat: Trump would withhold congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine and an invitation to the White House for Zelensky, unless Zelensky announced his government would launch baseless investigations of Democrats, including Joe Biden. 

And it almost worked! Taylor’s testimony reveals that Zelensky nearly announced sweeping investigations of Trump’s enemies on television, just as Trump, through surrogates, had demanded of him. Had the whole scheme not come to light in a whistleblower complaint, and Trump not released his hold on aid to Ukraine, we might have awaken one morning to a blaring CNN exclusive about international corruption allegations against the Democratic presidential frontrunner and his party.

Trump has a well-earned reputation by now for trying to draw corrupt or vulnerable foreign regimes into his elections. But for years his subordinates have insisted that he personally has had no part in it—that whatever his son or campaign advisers were up to in 2016, it somehow never reached his desk. His efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation were in large measure designed to prevent Special Counsel Robert Mueller from substantiating his direct involvement in the Russia matter.

The Trump of the Ukraine scandal—the real Trump, the one who got caught before he could complete another coverup—is neck deep in all of his own conspiracies, and they are elaborate and far reaching. It would be extraordinary, in fact, if Trump’s other foreign relations were all entirely proper, and if Trump had not abused the privileges and secrecy of his office to conceal corruption in any realm outside of Ukraine policy. Whether or not he is removed or driven from office for the Ukraine scandal, discovering the extent of this corruption will require nothing less than a full audit of his diplomacy.

To shake Ukraine down, Trump had to set up a shadow foreign policy. Now recall how many other bad-acting countries Trump has established irregular relations with: Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, North Korea. Just to start.

Trump has business interests in Turkey, whose president seemingly now dictates disastrous regional policy decisions to the U.S over the phone. Trump’s son-in-law adviser reportedly likes to trade encrypted messages with the murderous crown prince of Saudi Arabia. His daughter has a growing portfolio of patents from the Chinese government, which may have responded to a separate Trump solicitation with dirt on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Russia’s spell over Trump is notorious, and Trump has gone to great lengths to conceal his conversations with Vladimir Putin from his own government.

Could Trump really have corrupted foreign policy so completely, under all of our noses? Yes he could have. Taylor is a sympathetic figure in the Ukraine debacle, but he did not sound the alarm or take any steps to alert the public to the crimes he’d witnessed until the whistleblower forced everything out into the open. That is not intended as a criticism; it’s in the nature of how decent people become internally conflicted when they get stuck in Trump’s distortion field. Taylor could’ve exposed obscene misconduct months ago, but he cared deeply about Ukraine and found himself in the midst of a terrible plot to extort that country, so he tried to stop it internally. He threatened to quit, he created a discoverable paper trail including a confidential memo to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about his concerns, and eventually the conspiracy fell apart. Having averted a catastrophe right off the bat, he chose not to abandon Ukraine to the same predators he’d just helped save it from. Would you have placed that objective at risk by going public? Are you sure?

If Taylor’s silence is understandable, even sympathetic, imagine all the well-meaning people in key government jobs around the world who are sitting on secrets because they think they’ve prevailed against some hideous corruption and want to keep things on the rails.

The Ukraine scandal is fast-moving. When the White House confirmed the thrust of it, through the release of the Trump-Zelenskiy call summary one month ago, Republicans in Congress rushed to protect Trump by setting the bar for impeaching him at “explicit quid pro quo.” Last week, his Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney confessed that the quid pro quo was indeed explicit, and now Taylor has testified under oath that things were much worse than Mulvaney admitted. It is possible that Republicans will hold fast to the standard they just set for themselves and bring the Trump presidency to an abrupt end.

Possible, however, unlikely.

And if we assume that the Ukraine scandal will not force Trump from office, the logic for drawing the inquiry to a quick close collapses. There is a lot left to learn, and we can’t just cross our fingers and hope that more whistleblowers will come forward to expose all of it. To limit the impeachment inquiry to Ukraine would be a bit like catching a murderer in the act of killing and charging him with one crime, ignoring the stack of bodies piled up in his basement. We know there’s a secure server at the White House that contains more improperly classified, politically scandalous summaries of Trump’s calls with world leaders. Of the corrupt extortion of Ukraine, Mulvaney said, “we do that all the time.” Let’s take him at his word, and uncover every shakedown.