Consider some of the gentlemen working for President Donald Trump.
— Energy Secretary Rick Perry told Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, earlier this year to ponder a slate of Americans, including a former political donor and a Houston oil executive, as advisers on energy sector reform. Trump has said that his now infamous July call to Zelenskiy seeking dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden came about, in part, at Perry’s urging – and because the energy secretary wanted Trump to inquire about Ukraine’s resources. The Associated Press reported that individuals tied to Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pushed for influence over Ukraine’s biggest energy company during this same time frame, raising “questions about whether Trump allies were mixing business and politics just as Republicans were calling for a probe of Biden.”
— Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, repeatedly pushed a career civil servant and military attache, William Taylor, who was the U.S.’s top diplomat in Ukraine, to strong-arm Zelenskiy into improving his relationship with Trump. Texts between Sondland and Taylor indicate that the diplomat worried, quite properly, that Zelenskiy was being told a meeting with Trump and military aid hinged on the Ukrainian president launching a Biden investigation. So Taylor pushed back. Sondland, a wealthy hotel operator who had no previous diplomatic experience anywhere in the world, was a generous donor to Trump’s 2016 presidential bid and he appears to have secured his ambassadorship, like most ambassadorships are secured, as a quid pro quo. Ever the optimist, he told Taylor that Trump’s decision to withhold about $400 million in military aid from Ukraine while also pressing Zelenskiy to investigate Biden had nothing to do with quid pro quos.
— Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waited two weeks to publicly acknowledge he participated in what Trump has described as the “perfect call” to Zelenskiy in July. It’s still not entirely clear why Pompeo waited so long to disclose that fact if the call was entirely aboveboard. Pompeo, who works for the most financially conflicted president of the modern era, said that one of his goals for the call was to cleanse Ukraine of “graft” and “corruption.” He hasn’t disclosed if he helped prepare Trump for the July call or whether the two men discussed investigating Biden prior to the call.
— Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department opted not to consider criminal charges stemming from the July phone call even though the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly requested as much when it referred the matter to the law enforcement agency. Instead, the Justice Department simply considered more mild charges related to campaign finance violations – and then dropped them entirely after determining all was well. Barr was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint that first set the Ukraine scandal and an impeachment inquiry in motion but he didn’t recuse himself from the matter when it arose (and still hasn’t).Trump presides over an administration that has been unusually tainted by political, financial and legal opportunism and malfeasance, and l’affaire Ukraine offers heightened examples of that troika. It is also true, as the old adage goes, that a fish rots from the head. Trump ignores conflicts of interest so those in his cabinet and elsewhere in his administration follow suit.
Trump’s presidency has been equally animated by a war on facts, expertise and experience and the Ukraine scandal showcases the consequences of devaluing all three when you’re a president who prefers “speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain.” (Trump’s unilateral and ill-considered decision on Sunday night to abandon the Kurds in northern Syria to Turkey offers an equally tragic example of the dangers of flying solo and unprepared.)
It’s too easy, however, to lay this on Trump alone. All of the men who stick out from the pack thus far in the Ukraine debacle didn’t simply choose their path because of Trump’s cult of personality. They joined the administration because they had a little bit of Trump inside them already and they saw Trump as a useful vehicle for some of their own ambitions.
Taylor, a bit player in Trumplandia, is an inspiring counterpoint to the others who have intersected with Ukraine thus far. Like Pompeo, he is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Pompeo noted during a campaign speech in early 2016 that American soldiers “don’t swear an allegiance” to individual presidents. Rather, he said, “they take an oath to defend our Constitution.” Taylor chose to follow that credo, in the most basic and honorable of ways. Pompeo didn’t – and he, along with others on his team, can’t blame Trump for that.
ABOUT THE WRITER
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.”
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