Trump's mob boss tactics didn't work in Ukraine — but they got him exactly what he wanted from state governors
At the core of the Ukraine scandal that led to President Donald Trump's impeachment was a simple quid pro quo. Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce the beginning of an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely 2020 rival, in exchange for U.S. support.
That scheme came very close to working, but it fell through and was exposed before it came to fruition. But as the coronavirus crisis has engulfed the United States, once again, Trump tried the same gambit — this time with state governors.
And this time, it worked.
Trump was, according to testimony and evidence brought forward during the impeachment proceedings, quite explicit about what he wanted from Zelensky in the summer of 2019. Ambassador Bill Taylor testified:
According to [former White House staffer Tim] Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo, but President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.
Morrison confirmed this account. And the New York Times reported that Zelensky almost did exactly what Trump wanted, until the whole scheme unraveled and the military aid Ukraine desperately needed was released:
Finally bending to the White House request, Mr. Zelensky’s staff planned for him to make an announcement in an interview on Sept. 13 with Fareed Zakaria, the host of a weekly news show on CNN.
Though plans were in motion to give the White House the public statement it had sought, events in Washington saved the Ukrainian government from any final decision and eliminated the need to make the statement.
Word of the freeze in military aid had leaked out, and Congress was in an uproar. Two days before the scheduled interview, the Trump administration released the assistance and Mr. Zelensky’s office quickly canceled the interview.
The reason Trump wanted Zelensky on tape announcing an investigation of Biden is obvious. Trump feared Biden could beat him in the 2020 election, and he wanted to use the specter of a criminal investigation to damage the former vice president just as it damaged Hillary Clinton in 2016. In essence, Trump was recruiting Zelensky to create a campaign ad for his re-election.
Though it didn't work on Zelensky, it has worked for Democratic governors. As the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the country, state governors have been desperate for support from the federal government. The Trump administration has provided some of this aid, but it has often failed to meet the demand. And it also appears the aid has not been given out equitably or fairly.
Trump has been pretty explicit about what he wants from governors in exchange for federal support. At a Fox News event on March 24, Trump said:
We’re speaking to each other, whether it’s conference calls. Usually, we’ll have 50 governors on the call at the same time.
No, I think we’re doing very well. But, you know, it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well also. They can’t say, “Oh gee, we should get this, we should get that.” We’re doing a great job, like in New York, where we’re building, as I said, four hospitals, four medic — we’re literally building hospitals and medical centers. And then I hear that, you know, there’s a problem with ventilators. Well, we sent them ventilators. And they could have had 15- or 16,000; all they had to do is order them two years ago. But they decided not to do it. They can’t blame us for that. [Emphasis added.]
He has made this point repeatedly. Speaking to Sean Hannity, Trump said of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: "We’ve had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from — you know who I’m talking about — from Michigan. We can’t — we don’t like to see the complaints.”
"I don't know if she knows what's going on, but all she does is sit there and blame the federal government. She doesn't get it done and we send her a lot," Trump continued. "Now she wants a declaration of emergency and, uh, you know, we'll have to make a decision on that."
Whitmer has also suggested that not only did the Trump administration withhold support from her state, but it actively went out of its way to stop her from getting personal protective equipment.
“We’ve gotten some of these contracts [for PPE], but just last night, I was informed by the team that some of these contracts are being canceled because the goods are been redirected to the federal government,” she said. "It’s one thing to tell us we have to find things elsewhere, it’s a whole other to get in the way of our ability to do that.”
At a press briefing, Trump said he wanted Vice President Mike Pence to treat the governors the same way. Pence shouldn't talk with them — even as their states are desperate for support — unless they praise the administration, he indicated.
“I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said. "If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York sent a clear message in March when asked by MSNBC host Chris Hayes about the apparent quid pro quo.
"How does that hit your ears as you are in up to your neck in this crisis and you hear the governor — the president essentially saying everybody has to be sufficiently appreciative or they won't get the help they need?" Hayes asked.
"Chris, by the question, I would be doing my state a disservice if I now attack the president, right?" Cuomo said. He went on to praise some aspects of the administration's support, but, as he just conceded, it was in his and his state's interest not to criticize the president in that very moment.
And on Wednesday, we can now see the culmination of all this pressure. CNN reported that the president's 2020 campaign is releasing an ad that highlights the praise he has received from Democratic governors:
This new ad splices together statements from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. In the ad, each governor has something positive to say about Trump himself or the federal government.
"His team is on it," Cuomo said. "I know a team when they are on it, and I know a team when they are not on it. His team is on it."
The ad begins and ends with Newsom, who at one point looks at the camera and says "So, conversation, commitment, promise made. Promise kept."
"Promises made, promises kept" is a slogan used by the Trump campaign in their pitch to voters.
The ad conveniently leaves out all the times these governors and others have been critical of the president's response, of course.
And it shows that Trump was able to revamp the mob boss tactics that failed on Zelensky to apply to the states. Using the threat to withhold the support of the federal government — either explicitly or implied — Trump applied pressure on governors to go to the mic and deliver remarks helpful to his re-election. Then his team got to work and turned those very remarks into a literal campaign ad.
All the while, tens of thousands of Americans are dying — many of whom likely could have been saved with an earlier and more robust federal response.