American Gangsters

Republicans Are Complicit in Trump’s Thuggery
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo poses for a photo with President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence before his swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2018. (State Department / Public Domain)

The same day that the articles of impeachment of Donald Trump were delivered to the U.S. Senate, Lev Parnas—an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani—went public with his insider’s knowledge of the scheme to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. “Everyone was in the loop,” Parnas declared: the president, from whom Giuliani’s orders came, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr, and others in Trump’s close orbit. Parnas’s allegations, supported by a trove of text messages and other documents he had shared with several House committees, triggered new calls for witnesses and the introduction of new evidence at Trump’s trial.

The text messages also included unsettling exchanges from last spring between Parnas and a Republican congressional candidate from Connecticut named Stephen Hyde. The two seem to have been discussing active surveillance of Marie Yovonovitch, then America’s ambassador to Ukraine, whom Giuliani said he needed “out of the way” in order to carry out Trump’s orders. Hyde appears to be relaying information about her whereabouts, movements, and computer activity, at one point referring to her as “this bitch.” It was around that time the State Department urged Yovonavitch to leave Ukraine for her own safety.

Republican reluctance to call witnesses amounts to another endorsement of Trump’s thuggery.

The president himself has acted no less menacingly. Testifying at the House impeachment hearings last fall, Yovonavitch spoke of the fear and anxiety she experienced on learning that Donald Trump had promised Ukraine’s president that “she was going to go through some things.” Moments later America watched in real time as Trump issued a pair of tweets plainly meant to intimidate her. Trump clearly has the capo’s appetite for retribution, and the helpful knack for attracting eager henchmen. Cartoonish and sometimes bumbling henchmen, yes, but fluent in the manners and language of extortionate enterprise. It’s been noted that Parnas, who is facing federal campaign-finance charges, has something to gain by turning on Trump and may not be a credible witness. But much of what he alleges has already been corroborated.       

Parnas and Hyde have provided vague explanations of the messages they sent each other while they were tracking Yovonavitch—the former calling it all a laugh, the latter blaming first his own excessive drinking and then manipulation by supposed anti-Trump actors. There’s a tendency to make light of the unsavory characters carrying out Trump’s below-board errands: “It’s like The Sopranos meets Veep,” and “It’s Goodfellas starring the Three Stooges.” Perhaps the pop-culture comparisons help some people cope with a reality that increasingly strains belief—were personal associates of an American president actually arranging a hit on an American ambassador?—but this risks trivializing what would be a violation without precedent. Of course, Senate Republicans could put the matter to rest by hearing more evidence. Their reluctance to do so amounts to another endorsement of Trump’s thuggery. Perhaps they are afraid of what else could turn up.

Two days after the Parnas revelations, the State Department still hadn’t commented on the alleged surveillance of Yovanovitch by Trump’s associates. Eventually, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated there would be an investigation, but he also clearly signaled that it wouldn’t be a serious one. By that time another government—Ukraine’s—had already announced its own investigation: “The published messages contain facts of possible violations of Ukrainian law and of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, which protect the rights of diplomats on the territory of another state…. [Ukraine] cannot ignore such illegal activities.” President Trump always said he wanted Ukraine to root out corruption. Will he get his wish?

Published in the February 2020 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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