Here’s a question you haven’t heard anyone ask about the Ukraine phone call story: If the Biden family never existed, would it have still been a good idea for President Trump to put a hold on funds already approved by Congress for Ukraine until the leaders spoke?
The citizens who voted for Trump knew what they were getting. He promised to be a tough negotiator with our allies and adversaries alike. So what would a competent negotiator do when dealing with a new leader — of any country — before their first conversation? If he’s smart, he would “set the table” as Trump sometimes says about negotiating. In other words, you don’t start the conversation with someone important until you have arranged as many variables as you can in your favor. In the Ukraine phone call situation, President Trump effectively transferred power from Congress to himself in terms of “approving” Ukraine’s funds. Then he took a phone call with the new President of Ukraine.
That was perfect negotiating form.
We give our presidents a lot of flexibility in dealing with foreign affairs because it works better to have one “boss” in these situations. Had Trump permanently withheld funds approved by Congress, that would be a system problem on our end. But temporarily putting a hold on those funds before speaking leader-to-leader is just smart presidenting. It creates the impression that the president is the only American the foreign leader needs to deal with. That’s “setting the table.”
Does it matter exactly what Trump was going to discuss, negotiate, or request?
Nope. If the only thing Trump did on the phone call was congratulate President Zelensky on his election victory, it would still be smart to hold the funds until then. We want our president to go into every conversation with foreign leaders fully armed, persuasion-wise. When Trump brings the full weight of the office with him, it sets the table for the current conversations, and every one after that. When Trump withholds funds, pulls out of a deal, or otherwise transfers power from Congress to himself, it makes him a more effective negotiator. It puts him in charge. It is a strong psychological advantage.
Compare that approach to sending a president out weak, dependent on Congress to wipe his nose. Those are not similar table settings. Trump knows the difference. So does everyone who read his book, The Art of the The Deal.
We’ve heard Trump say he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine, and that was why he put a hold on the funds. I’m sure that was at least a part of his concern. Probably every American has that same concern about foreign aid in general. But as I said, it doesn’t matter what reason he gives the American public. Regardless of corruption in Ukraine, it was still smart to withhold funds until after the leaders spoke, because it made Trump the only person Zelensky needs to satisfy. That’s what we want from our presidents. We want them going in strong, with the full weight of their office and influence, to every interaction with foreign leaders, every time.
But what about Trump asking Zelensky for help looking into Hunter Biden’s business dealings? Isn’t it inappropriate for a president of the United States to ask a foreign leader to help him win reelection? If that’s ALL it was, it would absolutely be inappropriate. But was that all it was?
Suppose a candidate for president of the United States is leading in all the polls and he has publicly known conflicts of interest with a foreign country, such that blackmail-like influence was a real risk. Or at least it looks that way on the surface. What kind of priority should a sitting president put on that situation?
Answer: Top priority
Here I’m assuming there are no hot wars or other disasters at the same time, and the economy is doing well. That’s our current situation. Protecting the Republic from potential foreign influence — especially when that potential influence is so obvious to the entire country — is pretty near the top of any President’s priority list. Or at least it should be.
I am also assuming that whatever Ukraine knows, Putin can find out. You have to assume Putin has a lot of spy resources directed at Ukraine. Do you want your next president to be in Putin’s pocket? I hear that’s a bad thing.
Obviously President Trump had self-interest in mind when asking Ukraine to look into Hunter Biden’s situation. But we don’t impeach presidents for doing what is good for their reelection if it is also good for the country. Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable with a future president whose son is suspiciously well-compensated by a foreign entity. I want my sitting president to look into that sort of thing.
The anti-Trump media and Democrats are performing an impressive magic trick with the public right now. They have cleverly framed the situation as Trump bullying a foreign country to help him get reelected. As long as you focus on that frame, you are somewhat blind to the better question: Is it risky to have a candidate for president — who is leading in every poll — while the candidate’s son is taking money from a foreign country and giving not-so-much back to them in return? That seems risky as hell to me. Do you see it differently?
Some people ask why the President didn’t assign the FBI, or whoever handles such things, to look into the Hunter Biden situation so it didn’t come off as campaign interference. The obvious answer is that it amounts to the same thing. And if you have any experience with large organizations, you know it is usually a waste of time to assign underlings to cooperate across big bureaucratic organizations unless the leaders have spoken on the topic directly.
I don’t want a president who goes into talks with foreign leaders without knowing how to set the table for persuasion. And I don’t want a president who ignores an obvious risk to the Republic, such as the Hunter Biden situation. And I’m fine with a president who is trying hard to get reelected, so long as he is also handling the top priorities for the country. Trump said his call with Zelensky was “a perfect call.”
He was right. It was flawless.