White House

It Was Wrong for Trump to Push Ukraine on the Bidens

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Most Trump news cycles pass faster than a summer storm, but this one will last a while.

After initially denying it, the president has conceded that he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading candidate running against his reelection.

To have done so was wrong, plain and simple. American political campaigns should be American affairs. Yet a presidential act can be wrong, even blatantly wrong, without justifying impeachment. Democrats in the grip of an anti-Trump fever currently are ignoring that distinction.

Of course there ought to be scrutiny of Vice President Biden’s actions. On a level media playing field, that would long ago have been on the front burner. It is one thing for politicians to apply different standards to scandals depending on which party they affect. The supposedly neutral press should ask itself how it would be reacting if Trump had squeezed a foreign government by threatening to withhold public funds unless a prosecutor investigating a company tied to one of his sons were fired — regardless of the merits.

But whatever Joe and Hunter Biden’s vulnerabilities might be, pursuing them is obviously not an appropriate goal of U.S. foreign policy. It’d be even worse if Ukraine were presented with a quid pro quo, an investigation of Biden in exchange for U.S. defense aid.

At this point, we do not know enough to conclude exactly what happened in President Trump’s conversations with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump says he did not improperly apply pressure, and Ukraine’s government has denied being pressured. Still, he wrongly and foolishly raised allegations against Biden at the same time his administration was slow-walking $250 million in congressionally approved military aid to Kyiv, which is so vulnerable to Russian aggression. The aid has now been released after bipartisan complaints, but the delay remains unexplained and, under the circumstances, raises legitimate questions.

The way Democrats and the media now wish to proceed — starting with the public release of transcripts of conversations between Trump and foreign leaders — would set a perilous precedent. For the sake of American national security, it is vital that leaders communicate frankly and that their negotiations include the most sensitive matters. This can only happen if there is a reciprocal assurance of confidentiality.

As for impeachment, if Democrats are intent on going down this road, it ought to lead to searching inquiry into the analogous behavior of past presidents. We would want to learn, for example, about the Obama administration’s dealings with Kyiv in 2016, when a Ukrainian investigation involving Trump campaign official Paul Manafort was suddenly revived, and a leak of documents — sourced to a Ukrainian legislator tied to the Clinton campaign — resulted in Manafort’s ouster as campaign chairman. We would also want to learn more about the investigation of alleged Trump–Russia “collusion,” which appears to have been encouraged by the Obama administration and whose origins are currently being probed by the Trump Justice Department.

We mention this not to excuse anything Trump has done, or the politicization of American foreign relations. They should be conducted solely on the basis of America’s interests, not those of the president. But Donald Trump would not be the first president to commingle these as if they were one and the same. If he has done so on this matter, he will have made his reelection that much more difficult. Next fall is the most fitting forum for the public to pronounce on how seriously it takes this, and other presidential lapses.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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