Sunday, September 22, 2019

Some Notes on U.S. Presidential Elections and Foreign Interference

The Wall Street Journal reported on September 20 that Donald J. Trump, president of these United States, recently called the president of Ukraine to ask him for a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden. Mr. Biden has business ties to Ukraine and, more importantly, is the son of former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, currently a leading Democratic candidate for president. DJT allegedly threatened to withhold American military aid from Ukraine (which has in recent years had a spot of bother with Russia) unless he got what he wanted. It is not the first time Mr. Trump solicited foreign aid in a presidential election. Should he win re-election and make good his threat to seek a third term*, it won’t be the last.

Such solicitations remain rare in American political history. French minister to the U.S. Pierre Adet did attempt to swing the 1796 presidential election in favor of the Francophile Thomas Jefferson, but did so without Jefferson’s approval and without success. The Confederate States of America would surely have welcomed the election of Democrat George McClellan to the presidency in 1864, but, so far as I know, the CSA spent no resources to ensure Lincoln’s electoral defeat. Nearer our own time, Ronald Reagan’s campaign allegedly offered covert military aid to Iran in return for its retaining American hostages until after the 1980 election. A 1993 Congressional investigation into the so-called “October Surprise” conspiracy found no persuasive evidence.

Does history repeat itself? Sure hope so.
Prior our present Reign of Error, only one U.S. presidential candidate deliberately sought foreign assistance with his election bid: Richard Nixon. (Surprise!) In 1968 Nixon believed that a successful peace accord between North and South Vietnam would help the incumbent party’s candidate, Hubert Humphrey, win the presidency. Through intermediary Anna Chennault, he persuaded the president of South Vietnam to withdraw from peace talks with the North, implying that the RVN government would get a better deal from him than from the Democrats. Instead they got seven more years of war while Nixon got the White House. That Richard Nixon’s presidency ended poorly should hearten those critics of President Trump who hope that history, in this case, will keep repeating itself.

DJT deserves some back-handed credit, I suppose, for revealing the weakness of the safeguards against foreign electoral interference in the U.S. Constitution. The framers of that document did worry that “foreign powers” might seek “to gain an improper ascenden[cy] in our councils…by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union” (Federalist 68). They provided against such interference through the emoluments clause, making it illegal for federal office-holders to receive remuneration or patronage from other sovereigns; through the restriction of the presidency to “natural-born” citizens; and through the institution of the Electoral College, whose members’ good judgment would prevent a foreign potentate’s stooge from winning election. All of these protections proved useless against the Man from Mar-a-Lago. The emergence of political parties turned the Electoral College into a rubber stamp; fanatical primary voters and vote-suppressing state legislatures now play a vastly larger role in choosing presidents. Jus soli electoral qualifications have proven no guarantee of loyalty to the United States, as the hundreds of thousands of American-born men who fought for the Confederacy demonstrated. The emoluments clause hasn’t stopped DJT from raking in money - probably millions of dollars - from foreign governments making use of his real estate. Another clause of the Constitution, identifying bribery as a “high crime and misdemeanor,” hasn’t stopped President Trump from soliciting a bribe, in this case valuable political campaign services, from a foreign government, in this case Ukraine. That clause also identifies bribery as grounds for impeachment, which has proven a clumsy and ineffectual instrument of presidential removal, except in the case of…Richard Nixon. What an odd coincidence.   

* The Constitution currently prohibits twice-elected presidents from seeking another term, but as we’ve noted Mister Trump and his followers have little but contempt for that document.

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