White House

The Ukraine Story Isn’t a Story about the Media

President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani arrives with his guest Jennifer Leblanc at the White House, May 30, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Facts first, spin later

This morning, my friend Erick Erickson sent a tweet that sums up the source of much public discontent, not just in the Trump era, but in the years leading up to Trump:

There is ample reason for conservative readers to distrust media reports. The New York Times just last week grotesquely butchered the rollout of a new book about the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle, and then grotesquely mishandled the fallout. It still hasn’t owned up to its responsibility in publishing a story so shaky that the Washington Post passed on it months ago.

And that’s just last week’s media outrage.

But conservative media have become so focused on policing their mainstream rivals that they can create their own cocoon, often failing to consider the implications of Trump’s words and conduct because there’s always a media overreaction, somewhere, to make the “real” story. Yes, there are already public voices racing beyond the facts to presume the worst about the (still unknown) whistleblower complaint and to presume the worst about (still unread) transcript of President Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. But let’s be honest: What we know from Rudy Giuliani and from Trump himself is troubling, and it’s troubling enough that every conservative should be focused far more on discovering the truth than on reflexively defending the president. As a brief review, we know that Giuliani — Trump’s personal lawyer — first denied, then admitted that he asked Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden:

We also know that Giuliani then strongly implied that Trump himself requested that Ukraine investigate Biden, calling that the president “doing his job”:

This weekend, Trump seemed to confirm that he raised the subject of Biden with Zelensky, telling reporters, “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.”

At the very least, Giuliani and Trump’s comments together lent additional weight to last week’s Wall Street Journal report that Trump urged Zelensky eight separate times in one call to work with Giuliani on a corruption probe of the Bidens.

It’s urgent that Congress discover the truth of the matter, and the reason is plain: A president simply must not use the awesome power of his office to coerce or pressure a foreign government to investigate a domestic rival. The gravity of the sin is magnified when that foreign government is in a desperate, dependent position — in this case, locked in armed conflict with a vastly militarily superior foe. A Trump request would have been improper even if the call represented a conversation between equals, but it was not a conversation between equals.

Those words do not mean that Joe and Hunter Biden’s conduct in Ukraine was proper. The Bidens should answer questions about that conduct. And of course Trump could tweet about their conflicts of interest every hour of every day, if he chose. But there is a vast difference between campaigning for office by calling attention to your potential rival’s known controversies and utilizing the official duties and powers of the presidency to push for foreign investigations. How easy would it be for a nation desperate for American aid to make a “finding” of wrongdoing that assists the very man who controls the receipt of vital military aid?

One of the most troubling aspects of the Mueller report was the plain evidence that key members of the Trump team were willing and even eager to receive foreign help — even from a geopolitical rival — in the campaign against Hillary Clinton. The reports so far regarding Ukraine raise the troubling possibility of foreign engagement that’s a step beyond even cooperation. It raises the possibility of foreign engagement based on express or implied coercion.

There’s a double concern here. First — and most obviously — presidential pressure on foreign allies can corrupt the American political process in numerous, obvious ways. But it can also corrupt American diplomacy, conflating the American national interest with the president’s self-interest. Military aid decisions should be made based on America’s geostrategic interests, not on foreign cooperation with a president’s reelection campaign.

The priorities now are clear. The relevant congressional committees should have prompt access to the whistleblower complaint and to the transcript of the call with Zelensky. They should also investigate Giuliani’s contacts with Ukraine. The president should enjoy great latitude in his conversations with foreign leaders, and they should ordinarily enjoy a degree of privilege from public discovery, but here the president’s lawyer and the president himself have raised the possibility that a red line has been crossed.

Some media voices, and many Democrats, will race beyond the facts. That will be a story. But for now, the story is the story of the president’s engagement with Ukraine. That’s the story that needs to be told.

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