Neither President Donald Trump nor his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani deny the underlying facts of the allegations at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. This seems like a relatively crazy thing to do, given that Democrats are out for blood — but they really have no choice given how much is already public. So instead of denying the facts, Trump’s defense appears to be: Yes, we did it, but there was nothing wrong with it.
Instead of denying the facts, Trump’s defense appears to be: Yes, we did it, but there was nothing wrong with it.
The “there was nothing wrong with it” defense does triple duty: It gives Trump’s surrogates something to argue, it muddies the water and confuses people with its sheer audacity, and — most important — it pushes the United States one step closer to becoming what the Hungarian scholar Bálint Magyar calls a “mafia state” to describe the kind of autocracies we see springing up in the former Soviet Union.
The defense also gives Senate Republicans little cover to hide behind. The GOP will soon be called on to tell the American people whether it agrees that it’s OK to use the levers of government to benefit Trump personally.
After all, Giuliani openly admits that he was in Ukraine to dig up information to support Trump’s harebrained theories that the real election interference in 2016 came from Ukraine. He also admits he was trying to find evidence that the Bidens were behaving corruptly and that the hacked DNC “server” is being hidden in Ukraine.
Get the think newsletter.
Trump, similarly, doesn’t deny that he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to look into each of these matters. Both Trump and Giuliani insist, though, that there was nothing wrong with any of this. Trump says the “perfect” transcript of the July 25 call proves it. Giuliani, too, justifies what he was doing as simply being part of his obligation as Trump’s personal lawyer to “vindicate his client.” In fact, Giuliani noted on Twitter that these attempts to “vindicate” Trump stretch back even further than July.
This is corruption at the highest levels of the Obama administration, which included illegal impact from Ukraine on the 2016 election. I was investigating this as an attorney to vindicate my client. It began and was largely done before Biden announced his run for President.
— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) October 1, 2019
Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post nails it when she says that Trump and Giuliani “cannot grasp that there is a difference” between conducting U.S. foreign policy for national security reasons and conducting foreign policy to benefit Trump personally.
We’ve been talking about Trump and Giuliani running a “shadow” foreign policy alongside (and often in conflict with) the official State Department foreign policy. But Masha Gessen, relying on Magyar’s work, explains that we are “using the wrong language” to describe what Giuliani was doing in Ukraine. A president, who is the chief foreign policy official in the nation, cannot, by definition, run a shadow foreign policy. What the president can do, however, is destroy the institutions that traditionally conduct foreign policy, in this case, the State Department, staffed by career diplomats.
Magyar talks about the three stages of establishing autocracy. Stage one, the “autocratic attempt,” is when potential regime change from democracy to autocracy is still reversible. Stage two is what he calls the “autocratic breakthrough.” The final stage is autocracy, or a mafia state.
A mafia state is essentially a criminal government. Mafia states — like Putin’s Russia — develop as the government takes over businesses. As the ruler consolidates power and wealth, both wealth and power come to be concentrated in one person. Eventually, the entire state comes under the control of the head of the family and expands across the entire country. In other words, the ruler ends up owning the country.
When this happens, the ruler’s personal interests and the interests of the nation become meshed into one. Trump has been open about his admiration for Putin, the head of a powerful mafia state. Trump, in fact, often acts like a mafia don.
It is therefore not surprising that Trump and Giuliani cannot discern a difference between foreign policy conducted for the good of the U.S. and foreign policy conducted for the personal gain of Donald Trump. Trump and Giuliani are operating as if Trump is — or owns — the United States. When Trump and Giuliani insist there was nothing wrong in using the levers of government to “vindicate” Trump, they are envisioning Trump as the head of a mafia state.
Trump makes the subtext text. He calls a spade a spade. By admitting to the facts but insisting there was nothing wrong with it, he’ll force Republican senators to state for the record precisely what kind of America they want. They won’t be able to hide behind euphemisms.
Do they want to uphold a clear separation between the president’s personal interests and the interests of the nation as a whole? Or do they want to go along with Trump’s argument that he has done nothing wrong? If Republicans choose the latter, they are helping Trump blur the distinction between his own personal interests and the interests of the United States.
Teri Kanefield, a graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, is the author of numerous articles, essays, and books, including the 2015 Jane Addams Book Award winner, “The Girl from the Tar Paper School.” For 12 years she maintained an appellate law practice in California.