On Thursday — just eight days after his impeachment acquittal — President Donald Trump made a spectacle out of the very type of conduct that got him impeached in the first place.
Trump implicitly linked the possible end of punitive travel restrictions the federal government took against citizens of New York with the state’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) doing favors for him, including ending investigations of his finances. In short, he attempted an extortionate quid pro quo, right out in public.
“I’m seeing Governor Cuomo today at The White House. He must understand that National Security far exceeds politics. New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment [sic], start cleaning itself up, and lowering taxes,” Trump tweeted, before closing with a gratuitous shot at Cuomo’s brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo. “Build relationships, but don’t bring Fredo!”
I’m seeing Governor Cuomo today at The White House. He must understand that National Security far exceeds politics. New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment, start cleaning itself up, and lowering taxes. Build relationships, but don’t bring Fredo!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 13, 2020
For some, this may have just seemed like one among many regrettable tweets the president posts during the course of any given week. But for Walter Shaub, who headed the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) before quitting in July 2017 over objections to Trump’s failure to divest from his businesses and other concerns, that particular tweet and the public’s relatively muted reaction to it marked a dangerous marker along the road to authoritarianism.
So Shaub, who now serves as a senior adviser for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an independent good government watchdog group, decided to use his large Twitter platform to not only sound the alarm about the president feeling emboldened to make extortionate demands in public, but also to keep reminding people that this sort of thing should not become normal.
“It is Ukraine all over again. Only now it is one of these United States being extorted,” Shaub wrote on Thursday afternoon. “Holy cow, people. It’s happening in plain sight this time. Have we reached the point where a quid pro quo doesn’t even make a ripple? Is that the degree of submission to corruption? Wake up!”
It is Ukraine all over again. Only now it is one of these United States being extorted. Holy cow, people. It’s happening in plain sight this time. Have we reached the point where a quid pro quo doesn’t even make a ripple? Is that the degree of submission to corruption? Wake up!
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) February 13, 2020
Shaub has since posted regular tweets reminding people that Trump “attempted quid pro quo extortion on Twitter,” and urging them to “Pay attention.”
On Friday, Vox connected with Shaub to get his insight into why Trump’s public quid pro quo demand is especially alarming, and about what he thinks it says about where the Trump presidency is headed.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity, follows.
Obviously Trump posts a lot of objectionable tweets and says a lot of objectionable things. So I’m wondering what specifically alarmed you about the one he posted yesterday linking these actions he’s taken punishing New York to essentially the state doing political favors for him.
It’s important to remember the context in which all of this is unfolding. This week, we’ve learned that the extent to which the president has politicized the Department of Justice may be a lot worse than any of us feared. And then on the heels of that discovery he tweets out this extortionate demand that New York drop its lawsuits against him.
He made the link to this outrageous Global Entry decision that the government made with regard to New York. He was careful not to say the exact phrase, ‘as a quid pro quo, give me this relief from your lawsuits and I will give you relief from my administration’s Global Entry decision,’ but this is the issue we confronted during the impeachment hearing. The criminals never say, ‘This is a quid pro quo.’ They link things and then try to steer your behavior with the linkage, and either give or withhold something in exchange for it.
It’s important to remember that the president is exempt from a lot of criminal conflict of interest statutes, but he’s not exempt from 18 U.S. Code §201 — linking an official action to a thing of value given by another party. So telling them to drop lawsuits against him personally is a thing of value, and making a decision on the Global Entry would be an official act.
I’m not accusing him necessarily of committing a crime, but this is the exact type of behavior that was implicated in the impeachment hearing where he tried to strongarm Ukraine into taking an action against one of his political rivals, and he took an official action of withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of needed aid from a country that has been invaded by Russia.
One of the things that’s so alarming about what he’s done is it’s so closely related to what he did with Ukraine, and so open, that one of the dangers is he’s sending a message to the world: ‘I not only can but will do the very thing that I was impeached for because the Senate has blessed my use of governmental authority for my personal gain.’
It doesn’t matter whether it succeeds. It matters what message it sends and what it tells us about what he’s going to do next. And I wasn’t nearly as alarmed before the media and the public failed to react to it. And frankly, the relative silence in response to this conduct, which is on par with the Ukraine conduct, is the most terrifying thing that’s happened in the three-plus years that he’s been in power.
What do you think Trump putting this quid pro quo with New York state out there publicly says about what he’s trying to do to the federal government in the runup to the election this November — and possibly beyond that if he wins another term?
There was a really instructive interview that [MSNBC host] Nicole Wallace did with Robert Costa of the Washington Post yesterday in which he explained to her that [Trump’s] closest advisers are telling people like Costa that Trump now feels the rule of law is done, and he can do whatever he wants because the Senate will back him.
I think what this shows is two things. One, there is no limit on what he’ll do if he’s allowed to get away with it. And two, doing things like this in the open, in plain sight, is a way of testing whether the public has been properly primed for even worse coercive or corrupt acts. And so the danger these things have is they can become just a joke if the public reacts strongly, or they can become an ambiguous tweet that was misinterpreted if the public responds strongly. But if the public doesn’t respond, then the behavior escalates because these testings of the boundaries will continue until he hits a boundary that he can’t cross. And then he’ll test elsewhere — just like a hacker testing a computer system’s safety mechanisms to find a port of entry.
This guy has made clear he’s no longer content to be president. How far he takes it is up to the Senate and the American people, but we’re in a new danger zone. And I think there’s a widespread understanding that he’s been unleashed by impeachment. But what is not well understood is how quickly he’s going to escalate. I think people are a couple steps behind him. That fear is especially confirmed for me when people don’t react when he does things like this.
I think, even though we get tired of saying it and doing this exercise, it’s worth stepping back and thinking, “What would have happened if Obama had issued that same tweet while Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate?” The tweet Trump posted about New York and the lawsuits against him would certainly have gotten President Obama impeached and removed from office. But now we’re in a zone where the president can commit acts that would’ve been impeachable and led to removal from office in the past in plain sight, and people shrug it off and cast a side-eye at the person who’s sounding the alarm.
We have to stay grounded in the place where this country was before this authoritarian took over or we will lose perspective on what is dangerous and what is inappropriate. And so we have to view this through the lens of President Obama doing this with a Republican Congress or President Bush doing it with a Democratic Congress. If we do that exercise, even though we get tired of doing it and we get frustrated because we can’t make it happen, we begin to understand how unbelievably dangerous [Trump’s] comment is.
This is the situation I found myself in in 2017 when I was still leading the Office of Government Ethics. I told the staff, “We are going to treat them exactly the same as we treated both the Bush and Obama administration. We are gonna hold them to the same standards. Which means we’re not gonna be harder on them than we were on Obama and Bush, but we’re not gonna be easier on them either. We have to stay grounded as though we are still in 2006 or 2016.”
It’s not the people doing that who have changed, it’s the world that has changed, because Trump has shifted the ground and everybody is way down the road with Trump. Some of us have to stay back where America was when there was a rule of law and say, “Wait a minute, this is the thing that would’ve ended a presidency.”
And I guarantee that tweet this week would’ve ended a past presidency because it was different than other obnoxious tweets that he’s done in that it connected an official action to a demand for a thing of value. That’s different in nature than his silly stupid tweets about name-calling, but you see endless coverage of him calling one candidate short and making fun of another candidate’s name. People are getting distracted by this silly noise.
When you left government in the summer of 2017, did you foresee the first term of Trump’s presidency going down this road that we’re on now? Has it in some ways been worse than you expected?
I gave a speech at the Brookings Institution on January 11, 2017. It was something I never thought I would do and never thought I would have to do, condemning the plan he had announced that day for divesting. And I tried to warn America that if a president can get away with not divesting, everything is fair game for him to do in service of his personal interest.
That is the consistent theme. He’s not all over the place. Every single action he has taken has advanced his personal interest, starting with the monetizing of the presidency and the ignoring of conflicts of interest — perhaps even relishing conflicts of interest. Then the attempted coercion of Ukraine was again his personal interest in retaining power, and in this case his personal interest in getting rid of lawsuits from a state.
So I have to say, I feel like I knew he was certainly going to try these things, and I tried to warn the world about it. But what I didn’t expect is how badly the system would fail to stop him. At the time, I had real faith in some Republican senators, like Chuck Grassley and others, who had been champions of whistleblowers and congressional witnesses and the norms that hold government together. I didn’t agree with all their policies or everything they did, but I thought these were principled individuals who would uphold the rule of law. And just this week [we have] Chuck Grassley abandoning a lifetime of defending whistleblowers and congressional witnesses to say that it was fine for President Trump to retaliate against Alexander Vindman.
I absolutely predicted this is where he would try to go. What I didn’t predict is how badly the system would fail because of his coopting of partisans in the Senate.
You posted another tweet this morning linking the tweet about New York that Trump posted yesterday with the one he posted this morning basically asserting a right to order the Justice Department around.
It’s 9:30 a.m. Yesterday, the fascist attempted quid pro quo extortion on Twitter. This morning, he declared that he has the absolute power to target anyone—political rivals, their families, dissidents, you—with the criminal investigative apparatus of the state. Pay attention. pic.twitter.com/gTyZSJ3u2Q
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) February 14, 2020
Can you flesh out the connection between those two tweets?
They are in a straight line pointing from democracy to authoritarianism. This is a president declaring himself above the law, without regard for laws like the anti-bribery statute in one case, or the traditions of the country in a non-politicized justice system. I see them as exactly the same, because it is now a full-court press to push the boundaries in all directions.
If you envision it, it’s not that he’s focused on one issue and pushing it in one direction. It’s like a balloon expanding. And so the outer edges of the expanding balloon are going to touch on different issues, but they are consistent in being part of the expanding of executive power beyond the bounds of anything democracy can tolerate.