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Giuliani Is a Sideshow. Trump's Abuse of Power Is the Main Event.

Noah Feldman

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The news that two associates of Rudy Giuliani have been charged with funneling illegal campaign contributions from Ukraine to the United States is inevitably intriguing to Democrats leading an impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump. But it’s important to avoid going down a rabbit hole of Ukraine-Trump connections. That could distract the public from the core issue: That Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for releasing military aid.

To be sure, the dirty details that are beginning to emerge from the indictment of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are fascinating in their own right. Prosecutors say that these two naturalized U.S. citizens — one born in Ukraine, the other Belarus — were trying to buy a U.S. congressman as a well as state officials in Nevada. At more or less the same time, the men seem to have been telling people in Ukrainian political circles that they could speak on behalf of President Trump. Crucially, they may have helped lay the groundwork for Giuliani to deliver the message that Ukraine should investigate Biden. (The indictment does not name Giuliani or Trump, who have both defended their behavior in the Ukraine matter.)

Further investigation can and probably will reveal the intricacies of how the two “businessmen” were playing both sides in a game of international corruption. It appears that they were essentially middlemen. On the one hand, they were agents of corrupt Ukrainian influence on U.S. politics. On the other, they were agents of a corrupting U.S. influence on a possible Ukrainian investigation of Biden. Going in both directions may have been good business for them while it lasted. But it was also very risky. And it’s the reason they now find themselves under indictment.

At present, Parnas and Fruman have only been charged with the crime of violating federal campaign finance laws, including funneling foreign money to U.S. political campaigns. That is, they have been charged with bringing Ukrainian influence to bear on the U.S., not with helping Trump pressure Ukraine. That makes sense because the U.S. Attorney’s office for the southern district of New York isn’t engaged in an impeachment inquiry; rather, it’s enforcing federal law. The timing of the arrest probably had to do with the fact that the two men were preparing to leave the U.S. on one-way tickets; and it’s probable that they were leaving to avoid being subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Other than that, their arrest likely doesn’t stem from Congress’s impeachment inquiry.  

And that’s a good thing. What makes the impeachment inquiry against Trump so powerful is precisely that the central charge is very simple. That charge can be made entirely without reference to these two businessmen. As a result, the complexity of their role will not have to delay Congress — or confuse the American public.

What’s amazing about Trump’s personal effort to pressure Ukraine’s president over the phone is that it was so brazen. In the good old days, Richard Nixon didn’t personally walk into the Watergate Hotel and break into Democratic National Committee headquarters. He had burglars for that. And those burglars were separated from the president by a series of cutouts.

By analogy, Donald Trump may have used the two businessmen to do some of his dirty work in Ukraine, separating them from himself through the cutout of Giuliani, his personal lawyer. But astoundingly, Trump then ignored his emissaries and decided to just call the Ukrainian president himself. Had he not done so, the impeachment inquiry would remain in the weeds of what exactly the intermediaries were up to. Trump, however, has made things relatively easy for the Democrats in the House by attempting do-it-yourself direct pressure on Ukraine, thus abusing his power in an immediate sense — and with plenty of people in the room and the tape recorders running.

So geek out all you want on Parnas and Fruman. I know I will. But remember that the Democrats can impeach Trump without them. And don’t let arcane details distract you from the main event, which was a presidential abuse of power in the White House.

To contact the author of this story: Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

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