COMMENT: By Dan Balz for The Washington Post
Not for the first time, US President Donald Trump has revealed the fragility of America's democratic system.
Three years into his presidency, the evidence of a weakened system is all around. It has happened in plain sight.
The latest involves the President and Ukraine. Based on what has so far been reported, the President asked, encouraged or demanded that the leader of a foreign government undertake an investigation designed to produce information that could damage a potential 2020 rival.
Whether this also involved a quid pro quo is in question. The full story is not yet known. The biggest reason the details are not known is because Trump's White House and the Justice Department, which is supposed to operate independently, have so far prevented Congress from obtaining the information that could help reveal what is missing.
Over the past few days, reporting has provided the outline of a disturbing story. Unless there is substantial countering information, it portrays a president abusing his powers purely for political gain.
The outlines are these: According to multiple reports, on July 25, the President spoke on the phone with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In that conversation, he pressed the Ukrainian leader to reopen an investigation into a company that at one time had Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice-President Joe Biden, on its board. Shortly after that call, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump's personal lawyer, met in Spain with an adviser to Zelenskiy. Giuliani further pressed the Ukrainian Government to pursue the investigation involving Biden's son, as well as one about alleged Democratic involvement with Ukrainians affecting Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman who is in prison.
During this period, US$250 million in military assistance for Ukraine, money appropriated by Congress, was, for a time, held up. Was that directly connected to Trump's efforts to pressure the Ukrainians? That question also remains unanswered.
The contents of the Trump phone call prompted someone in the government to file a whistleblower complaint, an unprecedented grievance aimed at the President. The inspector general for the intelligence community found the whistleblower's charge credible and urgent, in which case the information should have been relayed to Congress. That hasn't happened because the White House and Justice Department are fighting it.
Congress will fight for the information, and a lengthy court battle could ensue. That would be par for the course, as Trump's White House and Justice Department have consistently and persistently resisted any efforts by House committees to obtain documents and testimony from Administration officials for various investigations into corruption or abuse of power. Resistance has been the posture of the Administration ever since Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 Midterms and began to launch their investigations.
Trump and Administration officials see these investigations as pure harassment, just as Trump complained that the investigation by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller was a witch hunt, until he, wrongly, claimed that the Mueller report had totally exonerated him. White House resistance has prevented Congress from carrying out its constitutional authority to provide oversight of the executive branch.
America's democratic system, the world's oldest, is said to be resilient, with institutions strong enough to defend against runaway actors and with checks and balances designed to prevent too much power from building up in any one place or with any one person. Earlier in Trump's presidency, that appeared to be the case. Right now, however, that is in question. "I have the right to do whatever I want as president," Trump once said, and that appears to be the basis upon which he is operating.
Three years into his presidency, Trump has helped to reveal the weaknesses of the system. In the executive branch, and especially in the White House, there are few if any officials willing to challenge and check the President. To the extent that Administration officials could do that, those who tried are gone. He has also demonstrated the degree to which Congress is dependent on a president who operates with at least some respect for the norms of the system.
The Mueller investigation did not deliver an ironclad case against the President. That is an important cautionary warning in the absence of additional information about this episode. This is quickly becoming another partisan conflict. If it is simply reduced to that, to noise along the campaign trail, then the most important issues will be obscured or ignored, which are how much stress the system already has taken and how much more it can take.