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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Why President Trump's Ukraine affair became his biggest scandal

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 13.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 13. Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

President Donald Trump prodded a foreign leader seeking U.S. weapons to put the heat on an American citizen seeking an American party's nomination for the American presidency.

The public already has learned this big, inescapable, admitted fact — which  won’t change regardless of how Congress treats this Trump scandal from here forward. 

The Ukraine affair looms way larger than his campaign's contacts with Russians ever did. The most basic reason is so obvious it often escapes mention. We're talking about what Trump did in the White House — not what  he did in his campaign. 

That makes all the difference. A president is supposed to direct foreign policy in the national interest, not his personal interest.

Trump was just a private citizen three years ago when he called during a news conference for "Russia, if you're listening," to produce Hillary Clinton emails. At the time he couldn't have used what lawyers call the color of office. That's fortunate for Trump since investigators later found Russian operatives attempted a new hack on Clinton hours later.

Once in office, Trump called for the Justice Department to probe alleged crimes on behalf of defeated opponent Clinton. But that didn't happen.

Now Trump and his off-payroll factotum Rudy Giuliani seem to have tried to outsource their dirt dig on ex-Vice President Joe Biden to Eastern European government officials. “We're not meddling in an election, we're meddling in an investigation," Giuliani himself said months ago.

Can this stand?

For President Bill Clinton it took scandalous behavior inside the White House, not anything he might have done in Arkansas, to get the ball rolling on impeachment. President Richard Nixon quit under congressional pressure for abusing his executive power, long after he earned the nickname "Tricky Dick."

The target of Trump's squeeze was the Ukraine government of new President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian-turned-politician. Before they spoke, Trump just happened to hold up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for the country.

Even before last week's disclosures about their exchange, the private political agenda was obvious. Trump freely stated that he told Zelensky in a July 25 phone call: "We don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son [contributing] to the corruption already in Ukraine.” (There's no proof they did).

Ukraine happens to be where convicted Trump operative Paul Manafort made money working for that nation's leader at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. missiles sent there are supposed to offset Putin's encroachment in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine. But Trump has conspicuously refrained from criticizing Putin, even when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did so.

Trump's move to block arms to Zelensky's nation reportedly took  his own subordinates by surprise.

The key public question Trump now faces is whether and how he thinks using his presidential clout for skulduggery could be justified under the Constitution.

On July 23, two days before the phone call with Zelensky, Trump said: "I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president."

That's not accurate — and it won't get him out of this latest jam, which is all about the elected power he and his aides exercised from inside the White House.

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