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Trump, Ukraine, and the Soft Bias of Low Expectations
If you've been paying attention to the Trump/Ukraine story, you've likely noticed that the news-media and social-media reactions to it have largely (but not entirely) fallen along partisan lines.
Many of those who adamantly dislike the president view the declassified summary of Trump's July 25th call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a furthering of the case for impeachment. Big fans of the president view the solicitation of a foreign entity for ammunition against a domestic political opponent as nothing the Democrats haven't done in the past; thus they're shrugging off the exchange off as no biggie.
Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle, and may not see Trump's actions in this particular case as impeachable... but also don't view them as harmless and justifiable through rhetorical whataboutism.
Here's what I believe most reasonably objective people should be able to agree on: It is, at minimum, highly improper and unethical for a President of the United States to present a deal to a foreign leader, in which security support for that leader's nation is implied to be contingent on that leader digging up dirt on one of the president's political rivals.
And by any reasonable interpretation of the released Trump/Zelensky transcript (like the one columnist David French provided the other day for National Review), that seems to be exactly what the president did. The act is also what compelled a U.S. intelligence officer to file an official "abuse of power" whistleblower complaint, and allegedly motivated White House officials to move the contents of the call to standalone computer system.
But rather than dig and theorize deeper into the nature of that complaint and the related concerns, along with the potential ramifications they've spawned, I want to take a look at some of the reactions I've read, in response to the transcript, from some media figures that I respect.
The first one is from Erick Erickson, a former Fox News contributor and conservative Trump skeptic (though he’s become more charitable to the president over the past year), who finds Trump’s alleged quid pro quo with Zelensky troubling, but not worthy of impeachment:
I need to confess something — I am grading Trump on a curve here. I don’t think he is that smart. I think he can’t nuance. He talked on that call like he’d talk anywhere else and I think that behavior is baked into the calculation of those who supported him in 2016.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) September 25, 2019
That's another way of saying that Trump didn't know what he was doing, and was just talking like Trump normally talks. And because of that, the president shouldn't be judged as harshly as a smarter president would be.
This next tweet is from the highly respected Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, who I consider a very fair arbiter of news.
On Cook’s second point, I wholeheartedly agree. Trump’s controversial phone conservation won’t turn off anyone among the president’s very loyal political base. I mean, Trump could sell Alaska to Vladimir Putin for a nickel, and these people would applaud the deal as a yuge win for the country and American nationalism.
But Cook’s expressed sentiment at the beginning, as echoed by Erickson and countless others in the Trump era, touches on a particular view that I’ve never been able to come to terms with. I'm talking about the idea that because Trump is regularly saying and doing highly inappropriate things (sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of unscrupulousness), it's become the norm, thus is now kind of acceptable...even (as is the case here) under more serious circumstances.
It’s as if a pattern of unacceptability has established its own form of acceptability. We're no longer surprised, therefore we're supposed to be immune.
The problem is that this bias of low expectations has stretched beyond Trump’s personal behavior, and has seeped into the very office of the presidency. The evidence being that many of us (not just the partisans) are now inclined to equate Trump’s everyday political demagoguery (the stuff Trump fans say we shouldn't take literally) with an explicit and consequential dealing with a foreign power.
Sorry, but they’re not the same thing…even if the sycophants on cable news and talk radio have been on a three-year crusade to convince us that just letting Trump be Trump is the solution to every problem.
This should go without saying, but our nation’s chief executive should be held to a higher standard than the political persona he has created for himself.
The presidency should not be graded "on a curve" (as Erick Erickson put it), established by the character defects and intellectual deficiencies of the individual holding the office.
More broadly, we shouldn't reward the irresponsible and corrupt actions of our elected leaders by exempting them from the standards of their offices…even when the other side “did it first.” The rule should apply universally.
Trump has been in office for over 2 ½ years now. We’re well past the “he’s not a seasoned politician” and “this is how businessmen operate” excuses (which were lame from the beginning). He’s the President of the United States of America. The credibility, responsibility, and standards of the office matter.
It’s time for him to rise to those standards, and for us to stop lowering ours.