Noah Bookbinder, Opinion contributor
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Dec. 30, 2019 | Updated 11:05 a.m. ET Dec. 30, 2019
Trump Trump’s increasingly egregious abuses made 2019 one of the most corrupt years in US history. But we can hope for a measure of accountability in 2020.
President Donald Trump’s impeachment will surely be the dominant story of 2019. But the past year of corruption and unethical conduct makes clear that it is just the final chapter of a sorry tale.
Indeed, the impeachment articles themselves note that the conduct they describe is part of a disturbing pattern of behavior stretching back through this presidency. The events of 2019, a dizzying year that serves as a microcosm of this ethically challenged administration, show the path to impeachment was paved with ethics lapses, scandals and apparent lawbreaking.
A quick march through four seasons of corruption illustrates the point.
In February, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen testified before Congress. He said Trump personally directed him to make hush-money payments to a woman who claimed she’d had an affair with Trump, and then later reimbursed Cohen for these payments and for his discretion. Checks for the payments, signed by Trump while he was president, corroborated Cohen’s account. The country also heard a recording of the president apparently discussing the payments.
Trump Trump disdain for rule of law
Despite signing his repayment checks to Cohen while he was in office, Trump did not disclose his liability to Cohen on his financial disclosure forms — just as he has not disclosed the free legal services he has received from his current “fixer” and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
As spring approached, the president’s disdain for the rule of law became more obvious. While it had become apparent that Trump was not cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the incidents of obstruction that Mueller would eventually outline in a thorough and devastating report shocked the conscience.
On at least four separate occasions, Trump’s conduct was so obstructive that it would almost certainly have been criminally charged had Mueller not felt bound by a Justice Department opinion barring indictment of a sitting president. Mueller also documented numerous incidents where the president publicly threatened and intimidated witnesses — a pattern of conduct that would continue throughout the Ukraine investigation.
Mueller himself wrote that if he were sure the president had not committed a crime he would have said so — but he could not. When Mueller’s congressional testimony failed to spur the levels of outrage his findings merited, the president once again avoided a reckoning. Thus emboldened, he would make his infamous call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just one day later.
By fall, the president had become so reckless toward ethics and the rule of law that he intervened in the State Department’s procurement process and gave his own flagging Doral resort in Miami the multimillion dollar contract for hosting a June 2020 meeting of the Group of Seven international powers. Under immense public pressure, and outrage at the blatant self-dealing among the allies he needed to defend him amid Democratic investigations,Trump ultimately backed down. But the very nature of the his involvement in the procurement process for a large government contract to personally enrich himself revealed the depths to which his disregard for our constitutional safeguards against self-dealing had sunk.
“You people with this phony Emoluments Clause,” Trump said after reversing his decision. The Emoluments Clauses are key anti-corruption contributions the framers put into the Constitution; the only “phony” part is the president’s dismissal of them.
Trump Whistleblower’s Ukraine complaint
The President’s disdain for accountability and the rule of law allowed other employees to avoid accountability as well: Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway blew past 50 violations of the Hatch Act on Twitter just in the last year alone — despite a letter from the Office of Special Counsel in June recommending she be fired for repeated and flagrant law violations. The president’s disregard for this recommendation from an independent government watchdog again showed his sheer disdain for the law.
Likewise, when Congress requested copies of the president’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, as clearly authorized by law, Trump and Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to turn them over. The House of Representatives has been litigating that case for months, in one of many attempts to curb the president’s excesses through the courts.
Extinguishing the concept of truth: Republican impeachment lies are protecting Trump, but they could destroy America
A year’s worth of disregard for the rule of law and obstruction of oversight investigations culminated in September when Congress demanded to see the whistleblower complaint that exposed the president’s abusive conduct toward Ukraine and triggered the current impeachment investigation. The administration’s refusal to turn the complaint over to Congress, despite its legal duty to do so, was the crowning example of a pattern of obstruction and disregard for the law that is unbefitting the office. The White House counsel’s baseless letter to the House attempting to justify Trump’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment investigation is the logical end point of this pattern of abuses.
The president has conducted himself as if he were above the law since he was sworn in. His actions have become more egregious over time, making the past year one of the most scandal-ridden and corrupt in our country’s history.
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But the American people and the other branches of government are refusing to roll over for this behavior and for the pattern of misconduct that led us to this point. Thankfully, the framers of the Constitution imagined such a scenario and designed a remedy: impeachment. As that process works its way through our government, we should have a measure of hope for accountability, and for needed reforms to prevent such abuses going forward.
Noah Bookbinder, a former trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBookbinder