IMPLICIT QUOS AND THE BANALITY OF CORRUPTION

“There was no quid pro quo!  Read the transcript!”

So declares the Orange Eminence, with indignant nods from his apologists.  Of course, even that defence ignores the reality that no one has yet seen a true transcript of the July 25th call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but it should not surprise anyone if an actual transcript did not include any explicit “quid pro quo” proposition.  The most damaging corruption is rarely if ever so blatant.  It is almost always insidious to the point of banality.  I doubt that even Harvey Weinstein ever explicitly promised a specific role to any actress in return for her tolerance of if not acquiescence to his sexual demands.

It has taken an inordinately long time, but as a society we have finally moved beyond the need to demonstrate explicit quid pro quos to conclude that an individual has committed an actionable breach of trust. In the context of social and economic transactions between parties involving large disparities in economic power, the individual holding the power advantage is not entitled to request or even accept from the other party benefits that accrue to that individual rather than to the corporate or political entity that the individual in greater power represents.  No reasonable person interpreting the accepted facts surrounding the negotiations that culminated in the Trump-Zelensky phone call could possibly deny that President Trump asked a “favour” of Zelensky at a time when he had blocked the payment to Ukraine of US$400 million of military aid that had been approved by the US Congress.  The only determination left to be made upon which any reasonable persons could differ in concluding that a criminal breach of trust has occurred is whether the “favour’ asked of Zelensky would have been of benefit to President Trump personally, or to the benefit of the United States government and its people.

Interestingly, little of the umbrage taken by Trump supporters have focused on this question.  The defenders seem instead to fall into one of two camps: those that argue that there was no explicit quid pro quo, and those that argue that even if there was, it is not a breach that is of sufficient gravity to justify removal from office.  It seems that even Trump’s staunchest supporters are conceding that the requested announcement by Zelensky of enquiries into the activities of the Bidens and allegations of Ukrainian involvement in the hack of the DNC servers in 2016 would offer no material benefit to the US people.  No wonder. The 2016 hack has already been the subject of the Mueller report which concluded that it had been engineered by Russian malefactors, and if there was to be an investigation of Joe Biden’s role in his son Hunter obtaining a lucrative appointment to the Board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, it could and should be carried out by the US Justice Department, who is reported to have already reviewed the matter and concluded that it warranted no further action.

So the defence of Trump falls to the argument that this naked exercise of corruption is not of sufficient materiality to merit removal from office.  Given that the comparable unsolicited attempt by Russian-based actors to influence the US political process in 2016 was deemed sufficiently material to merit a Department of Justice investigation, it is difficult to see how anyone could conclude that an attempt by a sitting President to solicit such interference could be anything other than gravely material.  But is it sufficient grounds for removal from office?

Removal from office by impeachment is permitted under the US Constitution for “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanours”.  These terms are not further defined, and there have been no removals from office by impeachment to provide any precedents to further clarify what constitutes an impeachable offence.  Nonetheless, constitutional scholars generally agree that a betrayal of the “public trust” is what characterizes grounds for impeachment.  And what trust did the US public place in Donald Trump?  He is coarse and corrupt in all things, both intentionally and inadvertently, and has always been so.  It is not unreasonable to argue that his conduct in his dealing with Ukraine, like all of his questionable conduct to date, is not outside of what the electorate could reasonably have expected of him when they elected him.  The public, one could argue, had no reasonable basis to trust that the would behave otherwise.

Whether they are explicit in acknowledging it or not, I suspect that this will be justification that Senate Republicans cling to when they ultimately and inevitably acquit President Trump.  A small price to pay to make America great again.

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