More than exposing yet another presidential transgression, Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky reveals what passes as normal in politics. We all know that influence and wealth cleave to those in high elected office. Just ask Hunter Biden. His name is worth a lifetime of wealth and security, no matter how often he fucks up. The consensus among commentators is that his dad Joe, former vice president in the Obama administration and front runner in the Democrats’ presidential primaries race, did nothing wrong.
According to the Washington Post, Hunter travelled with Joe to China in 2013, where he met with a partner of BHR, a state-backed Chinese private equity fund. Several days later, Hunter joined the board of directors. But we’re assured that it had nothing to do with Dad. He later acquired a US$430,000 stake in the operation.
Hunter was also appointed to the board of Burisma, the Ukraine’s largest private gas company during Biden Snr’s tenure as vice president and one month after the pro-US government was installed in power. “The younger Mr. Biden collected roughly $50,000 a month for serving on the board of [Burisma] at a time when his father was helping to shape the Obama administration’s foreign policy toward Ukraine”, Sharon LaFraniere and Michael Forsythe write in the New York Times. It was his first job after being administratively discharged (in effect, expelled) from the Navy Reserve for cocaine use. He had no industry experience. Again, nothing to do with Dad.
There is nothing abnormal about the US president using the position to bully, buy or cajole heads of state into acting in the interests of the United States. Ukraine is an example. In 2014, the US backed the pro-NATO opposition to the government of Viktor Yanukovych, which had friendly relations with Russia. It receives US military aid because it is a bulwark against Russian encroachment into an area bordering the European Union.
Trump understands at least that much. According to a report in the Washington Post, he told Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and then Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2017 that he wasn’t concerned about purported Russian election interference because the US also interferes in other countries’ elections.
Most of those outraged by Trump’s appeal to the Ukraine president accept the legitimacy of US presidents exploiting their power when pursuing the interests of US imperialism. From backing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua to bring down the elected left wing Sandinista government to funding right wing NGOs in Venezuela, that’s seen as good foreign policy.
There’s no need to hide it. When Yemen was the only state in the Middle East to vote against the resolution to launch the 1991 Gulf War, the then US ambassador to the UN, James Baker, declared that it was “the most expensive ‘no’ vote ever cast”. Investigative journalist John Pilger, in a 2002 New Statesman article, documented how other countries were brought – or bought – into line: Egypt and Zaire were promised debt forgiveness, Syria given arms to use against Lebanese-backed militias, and Ecuador and Zimbabwe were threatened with more unfavourable terms on their World Bank loans.
Trump has crossed the line by trying to undermine a potential political rival, rather than a foreign state. Former US president Richard Nixon also crossed the line when he ordered the cover-up of his associates’ break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington, DC.
Trump has normalised political crisis in US politics. In response to each crisis, a section of the Democrats has demanded impeachment. Nancy Pelosi, the most senior Democrat in Congress, has acceded. There is a risk for the Democrats that the impeachment proceeding will fuel Trump’s “outsider” persona – that the president is the victim of the Washington elites for shining a torch on some untoward buying of influence by the Bidens.
But the Democrats want to make sure that Trump is portrayed as exceptional. The reality is far worse: the entire political establishment is crooked. It collectively enriches itself – and the US ruling class – at the expense of workers everywhere by interfering in the affairs of the whole world. As Council on Foreign relations senior fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper noted this month:
“Power is the organizing principle of international politics. That endows the United States with an extraordinary ability to coerce others – that is, to make them follow its lead through a mix of inducements and penalties. As a result, Washington has had a unique ability to promote its political and economic agenda abroad. Being in this position is a privilege – one that allows Washington to shape a world favorable to American interests.”
This is probably the worst crime of US politicians. But they will never be impeached for it.