The news of Thursday’s indictments of two associates of Rudy Giuliani’s, who according to their lawyer (and former Trump lawyer) John Dowd, assisted Giuliani “in connection with his representation of President Trump” shows that foreign interference in American elections is a feature and not a bug of the Trump campaign and presidency. And the connections to the emerging Ukraine scandal show that the corruption runs deep in this administration.
The tale told in Thursday’s unsealed indictment is complex, and it will take a while to unravel all the parts. But here’s what we know so far. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Ukrainian-born American citizens, conspired with others, including a Russian citizen and businessman, to violate campaign finance laws for both personal and political gain. Among other things, Parnas and Fruman, along with their co-conspirators, funneled foreign money through a limited liability company and between each other to violate federal campaign finance laws barring foreign contributions to American campaigns and limiting how much any American citizen can give to a federal candidate for office.
Part of this was about good old fashioned influence buying. According to the indictment, the two were involved in a scheme to “funnel foreign money to candidates for federal and state office so that the defendants could buy potential influence with candidates, campaigns, and the candidates’ governments.” The defendants used a limited liability corporation to hide some of the contributions. Some of this was just about corrupt business, such as getting a recreational marijuana business going in Nevada. (They didn’t necessarily do it well. After using funding from “Foreign National 1” to support a lobbying campaign of state and federal officials to help with their license acquisition efforts, the group missed the deadline to apply for a marijuana license. At this point, one of the defendants allegedly told others of the missed deadline “2 months too late to the game unless we change the rules.”)
But more interesting than the details of the petty influence-peddling efforts are the allegations in the complaint that the purpose was to further the bigger political goals of the co-conspirators. According to the Wall Street Journal, the defendants funneled $325,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. They then worked with the president’s personal attorney, Giuliani, to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. (They further allegedly sought to lobby an unnamed congressman to seek the ambassador’s removal.) The apparent goal was to move her out of the way so Giuliani, on Trump’s behalf, could pressure Ukraine prosecutors to dig up or fabricate dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. All of this is at the center of Congress’ impeachment inquiry of the president, and House Democrats were reportedly due to seek to depose the two men as critical witnesses prior to their arrest.
It’s worth noting that the key portion of the Ukraine call transcript, which demonstrated the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden, is also the portion in which Trump brings up the removed ambassador. Here’s what the president said:
Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great. The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.
We don’t yet know why the ambassador was removed, but we now know that Trump’s own Department of Justice alleges that there was a foreign influence effort to have her removed backed by a foreign national and undertaken by two people who Trump’s own former attorney has said were working on behalf of Giuliani and Trump. We also know that the president raised the ambassador’s removal directly before bringing up the Bidens with the Ukrainian president.
Again, all of this holds vast implications for the House’s impeachment probe and the picture is only starting to come together.
This is also just the latest of the Trump connections to foreign sources to help Trump’s political goals. There was the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 where Russians offered some dirt on Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner. There was all the pro-Trump Russian activity on social media, the leaking of the DNC emails, and the hacking into voter registration databases in the 2016 election. There is Trump publicly inviting China to dig up dirt on Biden and pressuring the Ukrainian president to do so. And now there is this.
The ban on foreign interference in American elections is justified by an interest in American self-government. We want those with the greatest stake in American democracy to be the ones who decide who will represent us in the most important offices of the land. Trump’s actions show that he doesn’t respect this idea of American self-government and surrounds himself with people who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his political goals are met.
And we can thank the Supreme Court for helping to make this sorry turn of events happen.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, President Barack Obama warned in his State of the Union that the ruling could allow for foreign nations, acting through corporations and other entities, to try to influence the outcome of U.S. elections. Justice Samuel Alito, in attendance at the SOTU, mouthed that this was “not true.”
And Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when a lower court judge, upheld the ban on foreign spending in elections but interpreted it narrowly purportedly on First Amendment grounds to allow even more foreign influence in our elections.
Whether the latest revelations from Thursday’s indictments fit into another article of impeachment is uncertain at this early point. But what is certain is that the worry that those from the Founding Fathers to Obama have had about foreign interference is well taken. When someone like Trump without American interests is at the helm, preserving American self-government is challenging indeed.