“Listen to me. Listen. Listen to me. Listen to me. Listen to me. I assume many people are on the line. I know that before I make the call. And you have intelligence agencies, everybody listening. That call was a great call. It was a perfect call. A perfect call.” — President Donald Trump, telling reporters Sunday about a phone call in which he encouraged Ukraine’s president to dig up dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
When Donald Trump moved into the Atlantic City gambling market in 1981, he contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking guidance. He wanted to know how best to keep organized crime out of his operation. Fair enough, but for the inconvenient fact that Trump’s first two business partners there were, as he already knew, mobbed-up.
Two months later, Trump met again with the FBI and said he welcomed undercover operatives in his casino “to show that he was willing to fully cooperate,” according to an FBI memo from the time. He asked for advice about staying the course in Atlantic City, and called on the agents yet again a few months later. At some point during those chats the FBI agents discouraged him from visiting a fourth time and gambling regulators eventually forced Trump to buy out his early, tainted partners.
Law enforcement and regulators in Atlantic City never prosecuted or penalized Trump for any of this; other operators (Hugh Hefner, Barron Hilton) lost their licenses for similar problems, but not Trump. Trump wore his transgressions on his sleeve – and he skated.
In 2005, while Trump was showing me the grounds of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, he told me that one of the biggest mistakes he ever made was personally guaranteeing about $900 million of some $3.2 billion in loans he couldn’t pay back in the early 1990s – recklessness that brought him to the brink of personal bankruptcy.
“My father was a pro, my father knew, like I knew, you don’t personally guarantee. So I wrote a book called ‘The Art of the Deal,’ which, as you know, is the biggest of all time,” Trump told me. “In the book, I say, ‘Never personally guarantee.’… And I’ve told people I didn’t follow my own advice.”
The Trump talking to me in 2005 presented himself as a financially chastened guy who wouldn’t overreach and imperil himself, his family, and his business ever again. Personal guarantees were like time bombs, he assured me. He had learned his lesson.
But he hadn’t.
A month before telling me all of this, Trump had already personally guaranteed $40 million of a $640 million Deutsche Bank loan he was using to build a new hotel and residential building in Chicago. That one was a time bomb too, and it exploded in 2008 when the global financial crisis threatened to topple the project. Messy litigation ensued, yet Deutsche Bank wound up deciding to spare Trump and continued doing business with him.
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Openly flaunting lawlessness – and sometimes convincing authorities that nothing was amiss because otherwise why would he have been talking about it so candidly? – is vintage Trump. Taking potentially self-destructive risks because he’s undisciplined, irrational, and narcissistic – while pretending to be otherwise – is also vintage Trump.
Here we are in 2019 and Trump is president. And the Trump of today strong-armed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, reportedly asking him eight times – eight times – during a July 25 phone call to pair up with his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to try to uncover improper dealings in the country by a political opponent, Joe Biden.
Just the day before, on July 24, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller had testified for several hours before Congress, a day that essentially marked the end of Mueller’s probe into whether or not Trump and his team had been part of a criminal conspiracy with Russia to tilt the 2016 presidential election against Hillary Clinton. Mueller said there had been ample collusion between the Trump camp and Russia, but not enough evidence existed to prove a conspiracy. He presented evidence that Trump had obstructed justice but left that to Congress to adjudicate.
The end of the Mueller probe, an investigation that came close to ensnaring Trump, should have chastened him and left him acutely aware that seeking political backing from a foreign government can carry criminal charges. But that presumes the president is a rational actor. Instead he stuck to his time-worn pathologies (lawlessness, existential risk-taking) by hopping on the phone with Zelensky the very next day – and proceeded to run, broadly speaking, the same play Mueller had examined: inviting a foreign power to interfere in a U.S. election.
Ukraine had a $250 million aid package from the U.S. in motion at the time of the call, and in late August the White House put it under review before finally releasing the package almost two weeks ago.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a person familiar with the July 25 call with Zelensky said that Trump didn’t mention the aid during the conversation or any other “quid pro quo for his cooperation on any investigation.” It’s unlikely that Zelensky wasn’t aware that the aid package might be imperiled if he didn’t go along. But did Trump need to specifically mention quid pro quos for this episode to be problematic? Legally, yes, of course – an explicit quid pro quo is exactly what you need if you’re going to tee up bribery and extortion charges in a courtroom.
From a pure abuse of power standpoint – the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that lead to impeachment – it’s not clear that a quid pro quo is essential. Trump muscled the leader of a foreign power to interfere in U.S. affairs so he could get something for himself: a second term as president. As George T. Conway III and Neal Katyal wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Friday night, the framers of the Constitution “believed that a president would break his oath if he engaged in self-dealing — if he used his powers to put his own interests above the nation’s.”
Giuliani and Trump have tried to paint their tag-teaming in Ukraine as an effort to establish that Biden, somehow, some way, was the one mucking with national security by trying to get his son out of harm’s way there years ago when a corruption probe was launched. As my Bloomberg News colleagues Stephanie Baker and Daryna Krasnolutska reported in May, a Ukrainian official familiar with the corruption push said that no U.S. officials pressured anyone to close cases that might have involved Biden’s son. And Biden’s own focus on corruption in Ukraine came one to two years after Ukraine prosecutors had already dropped the case Trump and Giuliani are so interested in. Adam Entous, a New Yorker reporter, drew the same conclusion, noting that “there is no credible evidence that Biden” did anything untoward. PolitiFact conducted a thorough fact-check of its own and concluded there was “no evidence to support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son’s interests in mind” in Ukraine.
The Biden stuff is a non-starter and the focus should stay on the president himself. Trump could clear this up by releasing the transcript of his call with Zelensky, something he said he would consider when he met with reporters at the White House on Sunday and acknowledged that he had discussed a corruption probe of Biden with the Ukraine leader. His candor should be tested, because, just like decades ago in Atlantic City, Trump being candid doesn’t mean he’s being truthful.
The State Department coordinated Giuliani’s trips to Ukraine, so it probably has helpful records related to those events. Giuliani is ripe for an interview as well, possibly with federal law enforcement officials, though I don’t imagine Attorney General William Barr is looking at all of this with “rule of law” on his mind.
The man in the Oval Office is the same person who hurtled into the gambling business in Atlantic City decades ago and couldn’t stop playing chicken with his own well-being for years after. And Trump’s above-the-law presidency, riddled from the beginning with financial conflicts of interest and animated by an executive branch charting a course outside Congressional scrutiny, is going to stay on the same path unless American institutions assert themselves.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
© 2019 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.