It’s difficult to overlook the subtext of Monday’s dispatch in the New York Times, in which it was revealed that Donald Trump urged his Australian counterpart to cooperate with the FBI in exploring the origins of the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign. Without the subtext, after all, there would be no reason to publish the story in the first place. The unobjectionable call to Australia and the far more troubling interaction between the Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are, in the paper’s estimation, both examples of the president’s “using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests.”
Not quite. There is no comparison between the allegation that the president leveraged American military aid to compel a foreign leader to make life more difficult for one of his domestic political opponents and his requesting routine cooperation with the legitimate activities of American law enforcement.
And yet, there is one sinew that does connect the two stories: the 2016 election. The president’s obsession with the 2016 race is at least partially an outcome is an outgrowth of a similar obsession evinced by his opponents. Nevertheless, it’s become abundantly clear that Trump’s compulsion does not serve his best interests.
Attorney General William Barr is reportedly personally spearheading the Justice Department’s effort to get to the bottom of why Trump’s campaign found itself in investigators’ crosshairs. The theory of the case is, according to the Washington Post, that the basis for the initial FISA warrant against Trump campaign associates could have been the product of a foreign influence operation. That’s a serious charge, and the public deserves to know if the origins of the investigation that eventually resulted in the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller were not entirely above board. But the extensive involvement of the attorney general in this matter is unlikely to be entirely divorced from Trump’s fixation with the events of 2016.
And the hot water in which Donald Trump presently finds himself is not unrelated to his 2016 myopia. According to the White House’s rough transcript of the infamous call between the American and Ukrainian presidents, Zelensky broached the subject of purchasing anti-tank missiles from the United States, to which the president replied, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” That favor had two parts, only the second of which was the president’s desire to see Kyiv reopen an investigation into Hunter Biden’s role with the natural-gas producer Burisma. Trump’s first ask was to see if Ukraine would investigate the American cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which worked with the Democratic National Committee in 2016. He wanted Ukraine to cooperate with Rudy Giuliani and William Barr in their efforts to get to the bottom of the hacking of Democratic targets. “The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said. When pressed, the president insisted that he believes Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails “could be” somewhere in Ukraine.
There should be no mincing of words here: What the president implied is a baseless conspiracy theory—and that’s according to no less a figure than Trump’s former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert. The Mueller probe demonstrated in excruciating detail, both in its final report and in its indictments of Russia individuals and institutions implicated in the hacking of Democratic targets, that this operation originated in Russia.
“There was a lot of corruption in the 2016 election against us, and we want to get to the bottom of it,” Trump told reporters last week. The president’s monomania manifests not only in bizarre non-sequiturs in conversations with foreign officials but in directing his subordinates to devote their time and resources to the matter. Some of those efforts, like the Justice Department’s investigation into the surveillance of the Trump campaign, are legitimate. Others—among them, Giuliani’s snipe hunt—are not.
While relitigating the events of 2016 appears to be an inexplicable source of satisfaction for Trump and his allies, it’s not at all clear what political benefit the president derives from it. Every moment the president spends venting about how badly he has been treated is a moment he’s not making a case for a second term. And in the course of nursing his wounds, he has stumbled his way into congressional proceedings that may culminate in branding him only the third president in American history to be impeached. The president’s defenders might insist that this is a small sacrifice in the pursuit of good governance, but a brief survey of the political landscape suggests that “good” is in the eye of the beholder.