WASHINGTON – While both the president’s defenders and critics have settled on the phrase “quid pro quo” to describe President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, some former federal prosecutors have an even simpler description for it: extortion.
Federal law makes it a crime for an official to demand or threaten another party to obtain something of value — a definition that appears to cover Trump’s decision to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the country unless its leader agreed to launch investigations advantageous to Trump’s reelection efforts.
The relevant law is known as the Hobbs Act, said Danya Perry, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York City. Its definition of “extortion” includes obtaining property using “threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right,” meaning using one’s official capacity. The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
“The statute is often applied to a demand or a threat made by a public official in order to obtain something of value in exchange for his or her performance of an official act. The House is examining, among other things, whether the Ukrainian government felt under pressure to investigate the Bidens as a prerequisite to receiving potentially life-saving military assistance,” she said, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. “To be clear, we do not yet know how the evidence will play out and certainly there may be valid available defenses, but it is certainly possible to make out a prima facie case.”
The White House did not respond to queries about the withheld funds. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Sunday that the whole question was moot because Ukraine ultimately received the $391 million in military aid — but failed to note that it was released only after a whistleblower had filed a complaint about the matter. (The whistleblower first raised concern within the administration.)
Bill Weld, who ran the Justice Department’s criminal division under President Ronald Reagan and is now running against Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, said Trump could also be charged with bribery. “The Hobbs Act is an extortion statute, and the same facts can constitute extortion and bribery, as here,” he said.
The House of Representatives moved to open impeachment proceedings against Trump after the White House released a summary of a July 25 phone call showing that, when the Ukrainian president asked about military aid, Trump responded: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Trump and his allies have claimed that his requests for an investigation into Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian gas company and Ukraine’s role in the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign are all about his interest in ending “corruption.”
Yet the White House has been unable to provide examples of Trump’s interest in ending alleged “corruption” except in those two cases, both of which happen to benefit him personally. Trump has long seen the former vice president as the most potent threat to his reelection, and Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have been trying to get Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation into the Bidens since early this year, according to testimony emerging from the impeachment inquiry. Further, Trump’s insistence on a probe into Ukraine’s supposed role in the 2016 election is, in reality, an attempt to undermine the conclusion reached by both the U.S. intelligence community and former special counsel Robert Mueller that Russia helped Trump win the presidency. Indeed, the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election — which Trump’s former Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert called “completely debunked” — appears to have been spread by Russian intelligence, according to newly released documents from Mueller’s investigation.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor from Illinois, said that prosecuting Trump is unlikely, particularly with impeachment well under way. “It looks like extortion, and it is certainly corrupt, but I don’t believe this is the sort of activity that would actually be prosecuted,” he said. “Using presidential power in this way is not the sort of thing our criminal justice system is equipped to handle.”
Republican senators, who would serve as jurors in an impeachment trial, are now turning to the argument that while Trump did, in fact, make military aid conditional on Ukraine conducting these investigations, such an act is not impeachable — essentially arguing that presidents are permitted to shape American foreign policy to their own personal benefit.
Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, who is also running against Trump, said that the need to defend Trump will constantly bring his party ever lower.
“Every single GOP senator who says it was an ‘OK’ quid pro quo are lying because they know it’s not OK,” Walsh said. “By not impeaching and removing Trump for what he did, they are telling future presidents that foreign powers can now decide American elections. Like Trump, that’s a despicably disloyal thing for GOP senators to say and do.”