Yes, the president corrupted US foreign policy to suit his own needs. And yes, he will do it again. “Get over it.”
Those were the brazen messages President Trump’s own acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, delivered from the podium at the White House on Thursday, in a bizarre press conference that sent the ongoing impeachment inquiry into uncharted waters.
In the space of an hour, Mulvaney acknowledged that President Trump had put a hold on congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine in part to pressure that country into doing errands for his campaign, thus undercutting all the president’s defenders who’ve insisted there was no “quid pro quo” involved with the Ukraine scheme. And he said that Trump had picked one of his own properties for the site of the next G7 summit, enlisting US foreign relations to enrich himself personally.
The appearance was, in essence, a videotaped confession. And the capstone of Mulvaney’s remarks — when he said critics of the president’s corrupt practices needed to “get over it” — was a dare to congressional Republicans to do anything about the wrongdoing that he openly acknowledged on national TV. (Mulvaney later tried to retract his remarks, fooling nobody.)
Just to be clear: In no way has it ever been acceptable for a president to use taxpayer dollars to serve his own political needs. Congress approved military aid to Ukraine because supporting its government against Russian aggression is a bipartisan American foreign policy priority. The money is needed in Ukraine to help that country resist Russian-backed separatists in the east. Pentagon lawyers concluded it was illegal to hold the money.
The president was already facing an impeachment inquiry because of his efforts to pressure Ukraine into launching a politically motivated investigation into one of his conspiracy theories related to the 2016 election, and another into Joe Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. For a US president to conduct diplomacy to help himself, not the country, is an impeachable offense all by itself.
But the acknowledgment that he withheld $391 million in aid — money that belongs to the country, not to Donald Trump — as part of that pressure campaign demonstrates a much more explicit level of corruption. The president is using — his administration now admits using — critical American funding as part of a scheme to extort a foreign country.
The admission leaves the president’s defenders in the congressional GOP with no more escape hatches. To defend him at this point means accepting that a president can ignore Congress, spend public money for his own benefit, and use the office to help himself.
“I think Mr. Mulvaney’s acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, one of the Democratic leaders of the impeachment inquiry, told CNN.
Now, if this were an isolated event, perhaps Trump apologists could talk themselves into believing it could be ignored, or that Congress could let him off with a censure. But, Mulvaney went out of his way to make sure Americans know that Trump will continue to use US foreign policy for his own purposes. At the same press conference, he also said Trump had chosen a resort he owns in Florida as the site of the next G7 summit. It means tons of free publicity for the financially struggling resort, a windfall that will be paid for by American taxpayers (and foreign countries).
Choosing his own property for a giant official event is as clear a case of presidential self-dealing as it’s possible to imagine. And the White House’s unrepentant attitude makes clear that it will continue to subordinate American foreign policy to his own needs.
Impeachment is designed not merely to punish misconduct, but to protect the country from a president whose actions show he governs corruptly. That’s why it’s in the Constitution. Through Mulvaney, Trump has now made explicit that he abuses the power of his office and will continue to do so. America’s foreign policy will continue to be shaped to the president’s personal needs. If Republicans don’t want to live in a country where it’s okay for the president to operate that way, they need to step up, risk the political backlash, and support the impeachment inquiry.