Amid the impeachment furor, don’t lose sight of the renewed importance of protecting the integrity of the 2020 election.
The difference between Richard Nixon’s abuse of power (trying to get dirt on political opponents to help with his 1972 re-election, and then covering it up) and Donald Trump’s abuse (trying to get Ukraine’s president to get dirt on a political opponent to help with his 2020 reelection, and then covering it up) isn’t just that Nixon’s involved a botched robbery at the Watergate while Trump’s involves a foreign nation.
It’s that Nixon’s abuse of power was discovered during his second term, after he was re-elected. He was still a dangerous crook, but by that time he had no reason to inflict still more damage on American democracy.
Trump’s abuse has been uncovered 14 months before the 2020 election, at a time when he still has every incentive to do whatever he can to win.
If special counsel Robert Mueller had found concrete evidence that Trump asked Vladimir Putin for help in digging up dirt on Hillary Clinton in 2016, that would have been the “smoking gun” that could have ended the Trump presidency.
Now Trump is revealed to have asked Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, for dirt on Joe Biden in the 2020 election, who’s to say he isn’t also soliciting Vladimir Putin’s help this time around?
The Washington Post reports that Trump told two Russian officials in a 2017 meeting in the Oval Office he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the US election because the US did the same in other countries. This prompted White House officials to limit access to Trump’s remarks.
Trump is in a better position to make such deals than he was in 2016 because as president he’s got a pile of US military aid and international loans and grants that could make a foreign rulers’ life very comfortable, or, if withheld, exceedingly difficult.
As we’ve learned, Trump uses whatever leverage he can get, for personal gain. That’s the art of the deal.
Who can we count on to protect our election process in 2020?
Certainly not William Barr. We’ve seen the transcript of Trump’s phone call where he urges Zelenskiy to work with the attorney general to investigate Biden – even telling Zelenskiy Barr will follow up with his own call.
We also know Barr’s justice department decided Trump had not acted illegally, and told the acting director of national intelligence to keep the whistleblower complaint from Congress.
This is the same attorney general, not incidentally, who said Mueller’s report had cleared the Trump campaign of conspiring with Russia when in fact Mueller had found that the campaign welcomed Russia’s help, and who said Mueller had absolved Trump of obstructing justice when Mueller specifically declined to decide the matter.
Barr is not working for the United States. He’s working for Trump, just like Rudy Giuliani and all the other lapdogs, toadies and sycophants.
Fortunately, some government appointees still understand their responsibilities. We’re indebted to the anonymous intelligence officer who complained about Trump’s calls to the president of Ukraine, and to Michael Atkinson, inspector general of the intelligence community, who deemed the complaint of “urgent concern”.
But if the 2020 election is going to be – and to be seen as – legitimate, the nation will need many more whistleblowers and officials with integrity.
All of us will need to be vigilant.
Over the last two and a half years, Trump has shown himself willing to trample any aspect of our democracy that gets in his way – attacking the media, using the presidency for personal profit, packing the federal courts, verbally attacking judges, blasting the head of the Federal Reserve, spending money in ways Congress did not authorize, and subverting the separation of powers.
He believes he’s invincible. He’s now daring our entire constitutional and political system to stop him.
The real value of the formal impeachment now under way is to put Trump on notice that he can’t necessarily get away with abusing his presidential power to win re-election. He will still try, of course. But at least a line has been drawn. And now everyone is watching.
Regardless of how the impeachment turns out, Trump’s predation can be constrained as long as his presidency can be ended with the 2020 election. If that election is distorted, and if this man is re-elected, all bets are off.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. He is also a columnist for Guardian US