MARCH 31, 2022
Donald Trump is doing it again — putting his personal goals and burning zeal for revenge above the national interest — as he once more appeals for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political help in the midst of the brutality in Ukraine.
Trump’s call on the Kremlin strongman to dig up dirt on President Joe Biden is no surprise. He’s called on Russia and China before to interfere in US elections to boost his chances and got impeached for trying to blackmail Ukraine to do the same.
But this may be the ex-President’s most twisted and pathological attempt yet to corruptly advance his own political career ahead of a possible 2024 White House bid. His thinking seems to be clear. Putin might be raining atrocities on Ukrainian citizens, bombing hospitals, apartment blocks, razing entire cities and sending 4 million refugees west into Europe. But Trump seems willing to overlook all of that in service of his own perceived interests.
Not only is Trump seeking to cook up a self-serving conspiracy with a Russian President much of the world now regards as a war criminal. He’s also asking an enemy of the United States, who has threatened nuclear war, to damage the American commander-in-chief who is leading the West in an effort to aid an innocent, invaded nation and to save democracy.
Trump’s latest appeal offers a window into his twisted morality as he lines up again alongside Putin, whom he called a “genius” earlier in the Ukraine crisis even as much of his own party condemned the invasion. And it raises fundamental questions about the patriotism of an ex-President who sometimes hugs the stars and stripes at his rallies but who often showed while in office that he cared only for his own interests.
Trump issued his public appeal to Putin in an interview with sympathetic conservative news network Just the News. He pushed an unproven claim about Hunter Biden’s potential business dealings in Russia, and asked Putin to release any information that he might have about the situation. “I would think Putin would know the answer to that,” Trump said. “I think he should release it. I think we should know that answer.”
It’s not clear that any material exists, or if the Kremlin has access to it.
A Justice Department investigation into the President’s son is gathering steam, CNN reported Wednesday citing multiple sources. Investigators have examined whether Hunter Biden and some of his associates violated money laundering, tax and foreign lobbying laws, as well as firearm and other regulations, multiple sources said. But Hunter Biden has not been charged with any crimes and has denied any wrongdoing. His father is not being investigated as part of the probe of his son’s business activities, according to sources who have been briefed.
Some will argue that Trump’s latest outrageous comments should be ignored, to deprive him of the political oxygen that he craves. Republicans will no doubt accuse Trump critics of taking his words too literally.
But the words of an ex-President, especially at a time of war, carry weight. Trump remains the effective leader of the Republican Party. He’s a hot favorite for the GOP nomination in 2024, won nearly 47% of the popular vote in 2020 and could have a reasonable chance in a presidential rematch against Biden. Therefore the ex-President has enormous political power, and his behavior and rhetoric must be examined by voters as they consider whether to return him to the Oval Office.
There is every reason, especially in the light of his latest comments, to suppose a second Trump term would turn into an even greater quest for personal power and enrichment than the first. After all, he was willing to destroy American democracy by inciting an insurrection against a free and fair election to stay in power. The ex-President is also playing a huge role in November’s midterm elections, endorsing candidates who back his democracy-threatening claims of electoral fraud.
Trump was emboldened by impeachment acquittals
Trump’s latest appeal to Putin also offers another possible preview of the future. It shows he still thinks he can gain political advantage by siding with the Russian leader, who was assessed by US intelligence to have meddled in the 2016 election in a bid to help him win. There’s no sense that the Russian leader’s brutality makes him radioactive to Trump.
This episode is also a reminder that while much of the world has been transfixed by Volodymyr Zelensky’s fight for his country, Trump chose to try to extort the Ukrainian President over the kind of military aid Ukraine is now using to fend off the Russian offensive. Trump had hoped to force Zelensky to announce a probe into the Bidens before the 2020 election. Trump’s newest comments will also fuel concerns of European leaders standing alongside the US in supporting Ukraine that a return to office by the former President could buckle NATO. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah expressed exactly those fears in an interview Tuesday on CNN+ with Kasie Hunt.
When Trump was impeached for a second time, for inciting a coup attempt based on his lies about a stolen election, most Senate Republicans backed off convicting him. Their reasoning was that as an ex-President, stripped of power, Trump could do no more harm. His latest appeal to Putin exposes the cowardice of that decision. It also suggests Trump has realized that there is no cost to be paid for calling on America’s most sworn enemies to help his own political career. His bet on impunity is so brazen that as usual, he’s performing the corruption out loud.
One interesting question is whether Trump is making a political error in seeking assistance from Putin despite his recent atrocities. Only 6% of Republicans in a February Quinnipiac University poll had a favorable impression of the Russian leader. Since the invasion, Trump has struggled to balance his fixation with Putin with the outrage of Americans about Ukraine’s fate. He has taken to insisting that Putin would never have dared to invade had he still been President, despite his long record of advancing Russia’s foreign policy goals while he was in the White House. House Republicans, who lost the last two elections because of Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, will hardly welcome the ex-President’s pro-Putin slant as the midterms approach, though Democrats found out in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year that running an anti-Trump campaign at a time of high gas prices and inflation didn’t work.
One of the ironies of Trump’s latest attempt to enlist Putin’s help was that it would have been easy for him to take a swipe over his successor over Hunter Biden without invoking a Russian leader he has always hero-worshipped.
As usual, Trump’s call out to Putin led to uncomfortable moments for Republican senators when confronted by journalists on Capitol Hill this week. And as is often the case, some of their reactions suggested that much of the party would follow him yet again in order to secure power, or at least would not actively thwart his dangerous impulses.
North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer seemed to endorse Trump’s suggestion for Putin to publicize any information he has that might be damaging to the current President.
“I don’t know if he has dirt on Biden. If he does, he should reveal it, but he is a war criminal so I don’t expect that he’s right now sitting around thinking about ways that he can reveal other information,” Cramer told CNN’s Manu Raju.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has called for Russians to assassinate Putin, was also offered the chance to condemn Trump for seeking to conspire with a US enemy.
“My message to Putin is he needs to go,” Graham told Raju. Asked about Trump’s comments, he replied, “It’s not something I would do.”
Senate Republican Whip John Thune, against whom Trump unsuccessfully encouraged the South Dakota governor to run in a primary, bemoaned the fact that “we have very little control over what the former President says.”
But the question that will face Republicans in the event of a likely Trump presidential run is whether the things that he says and does will make him an unacceptable choice to become the GOP nominee again. On past form, the answer will be a clear no.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Republicans were in the mood for doling out accountability. But not to Trump. GOP leaders were fuming at Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the North Carolina Republican who had embarrassed his colleagues by bizarrely claiming he was invited to an orgy and saw leaders in the effort to curb drug addiction using cocaine.
“I’m very disappointed. I told him he’s lost my trust,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “He did not tell the truth, that’s unacceptable.”
But the California Republican has rarely defended truth as a standard of public life while dealing with Trump. As he seeks to become the next speaker in a House GOP conference that is the ex-President’s most potent Washington power base, McCarthy has sought to whitewash Trump’s conduct during the Capitol insurrection, even though he said at the time the ex-President “bears responsibility” for the riot.
And while he came down hard on Cawthorn, McCarthy has also been reluctant to discipline other pro-Trump members of the party like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, whose recent attendance at a White supremacist conference adds to their long list of extremist outbursts. And he’s backing a primary challenge to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her leadership position in the House GOP for telling the truth about Trump’s lies about a stolen election and threats to democratic institutions.
Cheney’s plight shows why Trump will continue to pay no price for courting favors from America’s enemies — even from Putin.