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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets Donald Trump in New York. Photo/Getty Images

Trump in trouble: What's behind his brazen, bullying buffoonery?

Having been accused of pressuring the Ukrainian President to investigate a political opponent, the US President is playing a form of political chess that hasn’t yet been invented.

In June, the Washington Post published an article headlined “Saving Face: How Donald Trump silenced the people who could expose his financial failures”. Investigative journalist Jonathan Greenberg recounted how, in 1990, Forbes magazine prepared a cover story based on leaked documents from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission revealing the debt load on Trump’s properties and a Wall Street analyst’s calculation that one in particular, the Taj Mahal, needed to net US$1.3 million a day to stay afloat. The team of reporters working on the story concluded that Trump’s net worth was less than zero.

When Trump got wind of it, he threatened the Forbes family, who owned the magazine, that he’d go public with a claim that he’d barred the recently deceased Malcolm Forbes from bringing underage boys into his hotels. (Shortly after Forbes’ death, aged 70, he’d been “outed” by a gay magazine but the revelation wasn’t widely circulated in the mainstream media.)

Greenberg quoted a senior editor at the magazine: “Forbes bent. We had to jigger the numbers to give Trump positive net worth.” The original headline, “Is Trump Broke?”, was replaced by “How Much is Donald Really Worth Now?”

Upping the ante

Fast forward almost three decades and Trump is still using every means at his disposal to silence and suborn. Except, now that he’s president of the most powerful nation on Earth, he’s bullying vulnerable countries rather than children terrified that their dead father’s name might be dragged through the mud.

As New Zealanders are aware, previous US presidents have bullied vulnerable countries, but in the perceived national interest rather than for narrow, grubby political gain and contrary to the Constitution. To recap, Trump stands accused of trying to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating former US vice-president and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

A White House summary of a July 25 phone conversation between Trump and Zelensky and text messages exchanged by US diplomats indicate that the threat of military aid being withheld and the promise of an invitation to the White House – both of which eventuated – were deployed as part of a campaign, thus far unsuccessful, to persuade Ukraine to launch, with fanfare, an investigation into the Bidens.

Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani claim that, as vice-president, Biden tried to bribe Ukraine’s leaders into dismissing a prosecutor who was investigating energy conglomerate Burisma. Hunter Biden, whose eventful career and private life have prompted the label “black sheep”, was on the Burisma board from 2014 until earlier this year.


It’s a matter of record that, in 2016, Biden senior, acting at the behest of the Obama administration and the European Union, warned Ukraine that US$1 billion in loan guarantees might be withheld if more wasn’t done to combat corruption. Much of the international concern centred on prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, who was widely regarded as corrupt. Shokin resigned; throughout this process the Burisma investigation that Biden supposedly wanted shut down was in fact dormant. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has launched an inquiry to establish whether there are grounds for impeachment.

To say that Trump has doubled down doesn’t begin to convey the vehemence of his self-justification and the extent of his brazenness. He described his July 25 conversation with Zelensky as “beautiful … perfect … innocent” and the scandalised reaction as “the single greatest witch-hunt in American history. Probably in history.” He said House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, should be arrested for treason for likening the Zelensky call to a classic Mafia shakedown.

Hunter Biden, left, with his father, Joe. Photo/Getty Images

Trump suggested the CIA official who raised the alarm was “close to a spy” and would’ve been put up against a wall in the good old days. He called for the impeachment of Senator Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and only Congressional Republican to have been unequivocally critical.

He also publicly asked China to investigate the Bidens on the basis of a right-wing conspiracy theory/smear campaign for which there’s no evidence whatsoever. And he asserted that he has the “absolute right” to do, well, basically whatever the hell he likes – for instance, upend US strategy in Syria by abandoning its Kurdish allies to the tender mercies of Turkey. Kurdish forces have been at the forefront of the US’ anti-Isis campaign, but the Turks regard any Kurd with a weapon as a terrorist, hence fears that Trump’s betrayal may be a green light for genocide.

“Great and unmatched wisdom”

Inured as we think we are to Trump’s sinister buffoonery, his attempt to allay those fears was stupefying: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.”

The snowballing delusion and sheer craziness that now attends much of what Trump and his acolytes say and do was captured by the Post’s Alexandra Petri. Under the headline “For the last time, Trump’s every move is brilliant and calculated”, she wrote: “Only to someone with a small, sad brain like yours would these seem like the movements of a lost, perplexed, damaged person who … genuinely has a temper tantrum when told a moat full of alligators around the country would neither be good nor feasible … The kind of chess he is playing has not even been invented yet.”

As always with Trump, all roads lead to Moscow. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in a civil conflict with pro-Russian separatists overtly and covertly backed by the Russian military. At the end of 2018, the United Nations reported a confirmed death toll of almost 13,000. The 3339 civilian deaths included the 298 passengers and crew of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, shot down over Ukraine in 2014. The multinational investigation concluded the Boeing 777 was downed by a surface-to-air missile supplied by a Russian anti-aircraft unit and transported from Russia that very day.

The Ukrainians are painfully aware of what would happen if the US abandons them, hence the chillingly clear message in Trump’s decision to withhold US$391 million of military aid. As Schiff said, Trump didn’t need to say, “That’s a nice country you have. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.