Analysis

Trump’s Call With Zelensky Was Not Out of the Ordinary—for Trump

In this most transactional of presidencies, he’s always asking for a quid pro quo.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

“L’état, c’est moi.” Louis XIV supposedly said it; Donald Trump seems to live it. America’s self-anointed sun king appears to equate his own interests with those of the state, brazenly using the presidency to boost his businesses and personal brand, making his 2020 reelection bid central to U.S. foreign policy—all while acting as if he, like Louis, were virtually invulnerable to every constitutional check.

Until now. In a way that Robert Mueller never did, the whistleblower who raised alarms about Trump’s interactions with other nations may have finally forced even some Republicans to admit that the president appears to be abusing his constitutional powers.

In Trump’s case, this involved the White House’s own release of a memorandum of a damning phone call in which Trump seemingly made military aid to Ukraine—a country under immediate threat from Russia—hostage to his desire to target his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, over allegations that Ukrainian investigators already concluded are baseless. 

Predictably, smoking-gun-seeking Democrats are ecstatic. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, called the phone call a “classic mob shakedown.” Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been notably reluctant to authorize an impeachment inquiry until now, said Trump’s actions “revealed dishonorable facts of betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” Less predictably, even some Republican senators admitted that they found the transcript “deeply troubling,” as one of them, Mitt Romney of Utah—who once called Trump a phony and a fraud—told reporters.

The call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was no doubt unusual because of the flagrant way Trump pressured his counterpart to find dirt on a political opponent, Biden, ahead of the 2020 election. That’s exactly the sort of thing Trump was accused of colluding with the Russians to do in 2016 but which Mueller, the former U.S. special counsel, failed to link to him personally. 

What was not so unusual about the phone call was Trump’s modus operandi of making his dealings with foreign leaders purely transactional and appearing to seamlessly lump the country’s business in with his political and even business fortunes, all while affecting a supreme confidence that there was nothing wrong with such behavior.

The Founders would disagree. Take the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from profiting from foreign countries while in office. Zelensky, in his relentlessly fawning conversation with Trump, makes a point of saying that the “last time I traveled to the United States … I stayed at the Trump Tower.” That followed weeks of controversy in which Trump denied pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to stay at his resort in Ireland. In early spring, an Air National Guard crew, in an unusual stop, stayed at Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland. The president also suggested last month that he may host world leaders at next year’s G-7 summit at his resort near Miami. 

This month, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause can proceed. The suit alleges that the president acted unconstitutionally because he refused to put his business assets in a blind trust while in office, thus profiting off the presidency.

Trump also appears to see America’s position in the world in a transactional, tit-for-tat way in which every country-to-country relationship exists only on his personal ledger of accomplishment. In his dealings with NATO allies, he has been harshly and almost monomaniacally critical of their defense budgets, dismissing any larger or deeper ties. His approach to East Asia seems to be about securing personal deals with Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, without spending too much time on the complex geopolitical interconnections that keep that vast region stable. Similarly, his ongoing confrontation with Iran, and his casual discarding of the painstakingly negotiated multilateral 2015 nuclear deal (which many of his top aides had urged him to fix rather than junk), appears to be all about getting a new Trump-branded deal he can claim as his own. So far the personal deals aren’t happening, and Trump has occasionally fumbled badly—such as when he offered to mediate the Kashmir dispute in July in exchange for Pakistani help in Afghanistan, only to arouse the ire of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who annexed Kashmir shortly thereafter.

But the president is, at least, consistent. “Trump has never done anything for anyone without getting something in return, and he’s not about to change now,” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. “A recent example—he truly expected that [Jeff] Sessions would feel indebted for being named attorney general and couldn’t accept Sessions’s recusal in the Russia investigation. I think Trump noticed the United States was supplying Ukraine with military aid and thought, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t be just giving that away. It’s a potential leverage point where we can get something back.’”

The problem for Trump now is that the “something back” he appeared to want from Ukraine could amount to an impeachable offense. “Trump’s win-at-any-cost attitude is so ingrained that he cannot switch it off,” added another Trump biographer, Michael D’Antonio. “His call with Zelensky reeks of the methods he used throughout his life. He tried to spin a rumor that his own loyalists have created about Biden to make something concrete happen.”

To be fair, Trump sold himself to the American people as a deal-maker, and some foreign leaders praise his blunt transactionalism. “When everybody else said it nicely, we didn’t react,” Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid told the Atlantic about Trump’s demands for more NATO defense spending. “I mean, Barack Obama said so as well, and then we said, ‘It’s all fine and dandy, but we don’t see it’s a necessity.’ It’s an irony that with this more transactional policy-making style, we are now in Europe discussing” raising defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, the NATO benchmark. 

But for many foreign leaders, flattery has also become indivisible from their dealings with Trump—yet more evidence that many of them have come to understand how, in Trump’s mind, there is no daylight whatsoever between his office and his ego, that the health of his presidency and the health of the nation coincide perfectly.

And because he wields so much power as president, sometimes foreign leaders get an offer they can’t refuse, like those on the wrong end of a mob boss. Zelensky plainly was one such leader. As Schiff said: “There was only one message that that president of Ukraine got from that call, and that was: ‘This is what I need. I know what you need.’ Like any mafia boss, the president didn’t need to say, ‘That’s a nice country you have—it would be a shame if something happened to it.’”

Blair said the Ukraine episode reminded her of the way Trump’s former business partners would describe his M.O. in deal-making. “He butters up Zelensky with congrats for victory [for his election in April] … says the U.S. has done much more for Ukraine than [Europe] has, then notes that Ukraine hasn’t reciprocated, and slips in a request to get dirt on Biden as an anti-corruption move. And Zelensky, elected as an anti-corruption guy, can hardly refuse to comply.”

“Transactional Man strikes again,” she said.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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