Sometimes a phrase can summarize an era. “We shall overcome.” “If it feels good, do it.” “It’s morning again in America.”
My candidate for the age of Trump was coined by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. Asked about findings by the special counsel that she had violated the Hatch Act (which forbids government employees from campaigning in their official capacity), Conway answered, “Blah, blah, blah.”
This somehow captures the way that President Trump and his administration casually bat away the serious demands of law and conscience. Ethics compliance? Financial transparency? The emoluments clause? Prohibitions against obstructing justice? Election security? Whistleblower protections? Blah, blah, blah.
Press freedom? Racial reconciliation? The protection of minority religions? The humane treatment of refugees and migrant families? Blah.
Norms of basic honesty? Expectations of presidential character and dignity? The civilized rejection of verbal violence and dehumanization? The ancient proscription — found, I seem to remember, in Blackstone’s “Commentaries” — against having your sleazy political fixer pay hush money to a porn star? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
This is the same kind of breezy ethical anarchy that the president and his helpers brought to their dealings with Ukraine. In Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and in the broader lobbying operation run by Rudy Giuliani, tangible benefits (foreign assistance and a White House visit) were offered in exchange for a Ukrainian investigation of baseless charges against Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
At stake in Trump’s impeachment inquiry are a number of ethical and moral principles:
First, as your average third-grader could tell you, but your average GOP senator could not, this was cheating. And cheating is wrong.
Second, this was cheating in a presidential election. Americans need to let that sink in: Trump was not stiffing another contractor or underpaying his taxes. He was trying to manipulate a freakin’ presidential race, as if it were the 1919 World Series. Trump’s actions were an assault on the assumption of electoral fairness that lends legitimacy to democracy.
Third, this was cheating in a presidential election using public money as leverage. Trump was effectively employing $400 million in taxpayer money as his own corruption slush fund.
Fourth, this was cheating in a presidential election using public money as leverage to subcontract actions that would have caused a political crisis at home. If Trump had ordered the Justice Department to open a corruption investigation of Biden and his son for clearly political reasons, it would have been seen, appropriately, as a Vladimir Putin-like attack on U.S. democracy. So Trump contrived to outsource his Putin-like attack on U.S. democracy.
Fifth, this was cheating in a presidential election using public money as leverage to subcontract corrupt actions in ways that could have compromised the security of a friendly country resisting Russian aggression. And this could have materially undermined U.S. security in the region.
How have Trump conservatives attempted to excuse such heedless, reckless immorality? Here is a sample from Fox News contributor William Bennett: “All of foreign relations is quid pro quo. . . . There’s good quid pro quo, there’s bad quid pro quo. . . . This quid pro quo, if it actually was completed, which it wasn’t, was a good thing. We were trying to help Ukraine.”
So the defense of Trump comes down to the argument of e-cigarette salesmen and randy teenagers everywhere: Everybody is doing it. But not every president has pursued a quid pro quo with a foreign power in an attempt to damage a political enemy. Bennett is engaged in what conservatives used to call “defining deviancy down” — encouraging his audience to believe that politics has always been conducted in the gutter of Trump’s ethical standards. It has not.
In this case, it was not Trump who wanted to “help Ukraine.” Military assistance was actively supported by Congress. But it was withheld by the administration for months and released only after the White House learned about the whistleblower complaint, which it knew would become public. For the purpose of impeachment, the completion of a quid pro quo is not what matters; it is the president’s request and intent. (The “smoking gun” tape ensuring Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment revealed his order to the CIA to interfere with an FBI investigation, which the CIA did not implement.) And if Trump was conducting the “good” kind of quid pro quo, why did the White House go to extraordinary lengths to cover it up?
These arguments are another way of saying: Public integrity? Blah, blah, blah. But there is a risk in such justifications. It is bad to act with dishonor; it is worse still to teach others to forget what honor means.
Michael Gerson served as President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter from 2001-2006 and is a columnist for the Washington Post.