Former George W. Bush lawyer Richard Painter: Trump is "a lot worse than Nixon"

Richard Painter, a White House ethics lawyer under Bush, says Trump must be impeached — and Bill Barr with him

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 27, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Richard Nixon (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Getty Image/Ketstone)
Donald Trump and Richard Nixon (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/Getty Image/Ketstone)

Donald Trump rarely hides his apparent illegal and corrupt behavior because he has yet to face negative consequences. Given Trump’s many apparent mental health issues and moral deficits (including a profound lack of impulse control and self-regulation), why should he force himself to stop when — at least to this point — he has gotten away with everything?

Trump's shameless behavior also reflects how that he has no conception or understanding of the concept of public service. He views public life and even the presidency as an opportunity to personally enrich himself, at the literal expense of the American people and the country as a whole.

But it would appear, at least for the moment, that Trump has finally encountered a check on his power. On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally initiated a formal impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump. While there have been dozens of previous offenses to justify such a move, most notably Trump’s obstruction of justice and collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, it's the president’s apparent extortion and bribery of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, aimed at former Vice President Joe Biden, that finally forced Pelosi’s hand.

As detailed by a partial summary of Trump’s July 2019 phone conversation with Zelensky, our president is eager and willing to accept foreign assistance to undermine American democracy. He did this in 2016. He has publicly stated he would do so again in the future. Unlike his at least 12,000 lies while president, on this matter, Donald Trump has been true to his word.

Based on Trump’s words and deeds it is more than likely that the 2020 presidential election would be neither free nor fair: Trump and his allies are willing to accept any and all assistance, legal or otherwise, to stay in power. Pelosi knows this to be true. Impeaching Donald Trump, even with the likelihood outcome that he will not be convicted in the Senate, must be done both as a matter of civic responsibility and as part of a broader strategy to force him out of office in 2020.

How should we understant Donald Trump’s machinations with the president of Ukraine? How should the Democrats proceed with impeachment? Why did Pelosi wait so long to begin this process? Should the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and eventual trial of Donald Trump be based on narrow charges or a broader and more encompassing roster of accusations? If Trump is not impeached for his apparent efforts at extortion and bribery, how much worse will his assault on American democracy and the rule of law get?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Richard Painter. He was White House chief ethics counsel under George W. Bush and is a frequent political commentator and analyst on CNN, MSNBC and other news networks. Painter is also a professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books, including "Getting the Government America Deserves." He is also the host of "The Politics Podcast With Richard Painter."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Richard Painter through the player embedded below.

Does Donald Trump think he is a king?  

Yes, Donald Trump does think that he is a king. I have a new book coming out with my coauthor Peter Golenbock called “American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump is the Worst Offender.” The cover of the book is a bust of the Roman emperor Nero, but with Trump's face on it. Trump believes that he can do anything he wants, that he's above the law.

This is much worse than Richard Nixon because Trump, unlike Nixon, is enlisting the assistance of a foreign government. Trump is using his power as president to seek to coerce the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and to make allegations which have no grounding in fact. Trump is doing this against his possible opponent in the 2020 presidential race. This is outrageous. Donald Trump needs to be impeached. Attorney General William Barr is referred to multiple times in that transcript, where Trump indicates that Barr will be making the calls to the Ukrainians. Rudy Giuliani will be making some of the other calls. If Attorney General Barr agreed to either make any of those calls or in fact made any of those calls, he ought to be impeached as well.

Is Giuliani in violation of the Logan Act, which bans private citizens from conducting diplomacy in the name of the United States?

I believe he is. Giuliani would argue that the president of the United States gave him authority to do this, and he's just doing it on behalf of the president. But in reality, Giuliani is working for the Trump presidential campaign. This is actually collusion. This is documented collusion between the president's campaign and a foreign power to get dirt on his political opponent in the 2020 election. This is the same thing that Donald Trump was accused of doing in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump is just doing it all again.

How do we locate this newest example of Donald Trump’s violation of the norms of the presidency, and likely the law, relative to his behavior more generally?

Trump has been very transparent about his willingness to violate every law and norm, from the Emoluments Clause to the First Amendment protections of the freedom of the press. Trump’s refusal to honor and comply with subpoenas from the House of Representatives — that's contempt of Congress. His obstruction of justice. His attempts to fire Robert Mueller. Now Trump’s efforts to enlist a foreign power to attack Joe Biden, his political opponent. He's been very brazen. Trump is the person who said, "I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and people would still support me."

The bottom line is the House of Representatives needs to impeach Donald Trump. Up until this point, Speaker Pelosi has been dragging her heels on impeachment. Fortunately, Pelosi changed her mind on Tuesday. We have a very large number of members of the House of Representatives, at least on the Democratic side, who are willing to confront Donald Trump. Articles of impeachment need to be voted out in the coming weeks. Then they need to be sent to the Senate. The American people and the world will then see what Mitch McConnell does. If he wants to let Trump off the hook, I think the voters are going to see right through that and send McConnell packing along with Donald Trump in 2020.

Why impeach Donald Trump now? The Mueller report was damning. Trump should have been impeached and convicted based on the evidence presented there. My intuition is that Pelosi is finally moving forward with impeachment because it is now abundantly clear that a free and fair 2020 presidential election is in doubt. Donald Trump will do anything to steal the election to stay in power. And even if Trump is defeated, he may not leave office. Moreover, the summary of Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine we saw this week is incomplete. Given how damning it is, one can only imagine what Trump and his minions have been up to in the shadows.  

That is true. I also believe all of this was abundantly obvious six months ago. Donald Trump should have been impeached shortly after the publication of the Mueller report, which presented very strong evidence of obstruction of justice by the president. But Speaker Pelosi decided to wait. I think that was a bad idea. All it did was embolden Trump. And so now there are these communications between Trump and the Ukrainian president.

At least now there is an impeachment inquiry. There are also six congressional committees investigating Trump. They can investigate for a while, but they've got to vote out the articles of impeachment. The investigations can continue, and that evidence can be used to prosecute Donald Trump in the Senate. Congress must get moving on this, because that is the only way that Trump is going to get the message that he is going to be held accountable for his behavior.

You served in the White House as George W. Bush’s ethics counsel. What is so problematic about Trump’s behavior with Ukraine?

It is totally abnormal. President Bush never would have made a phone call like that. President Clinton wouldn't have. President Obama would not have.

This is a clear attempt by Donald Trump to get a foreign power to go dig up dirt on his political opponent, Joe Biden, the man Trump thought was going to be likely Democratic nominee — and a rival who was ahead in the polls at the time. Trump is abusing his power. He's using his position in negotiating with foreign powers not to help to protect the United States and American interests, but to further his political position vis-à-vis an American political rival, Joe Biden. Trump is turning a foreign power against an American citizen. Trump is also going after Joe Biden's son as well.

This is outrageous. This is much worse than anything in the Nixon tapes, which were exposed in 1974. At least we didn't have the KGB brought into the Watergate break-in. The American people did not have to worry about Russians running around being enlisted to defeat the Democrats.

The president of Ukraine is prepped by his diplomats and intelligence operatives about what to say to Trump and how to interact with him. It was very telling that Zelensky knew to mention Trump's hotels. This is a signal that foreign leaders know that you must give Trump his indulgences. Trump is acting like a mob boss where his underlings are expected to “kick up" to him. You must pay protection money to the mob boss in order to avoid harm.

That's the message we're sending all over the world. We don't have the transcripts of the conversations between Donald Trump and the king of Saudi Arabia. We have no idea what happens at the meetings he has with Vladimir Putin. He sends everybody out but the translator, and sometimes the translator is not even allowed in there. There are a lot of confidential meetings going on between this president and foreign leaders. That transcript we just got on this one phone call is very likely representative of what's been going on for two and a half years.

This transcript is much shorter than the actual conversation. There are also points in the phone call between Trump and Zelensky where there are ellipses. This indicates that something was not included . Will the American people ever know what was redacted?

I'm sure they're redacting. That's what they did with the Mueller report. But what we see there is the tip of the iceberg. If Donald Trump is not impeached the American people will never find out what else is going on.

Donald Trump is actually using impeachment as a way for him to raise money. Apparently, he started doing this before Pelosi’s announcement on Tuesday. Trump sees impeachment as just another opportunity to run a political grift.

I received one of those emails and I put it up on Twitter. Trump is asking for money to fight impeachment. So now impeachment's going to become a cash cow. Why? Because that's how Trump’s mind works. Everything's about the money.

What advice would you give to Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats about how to proceed with impeachment?

The Democrats should vote out articles of impeachment within the coming weeks. They already have enough evidence. The Democrats cannot investigate everything bad that Trump does without impeaching him or they're going to be investigating into his second term. Because if Trump is not impeached, I believe that he is going to win re-election in 2020. Trump will win by saying, "Look, nobody impeached me. I obviously didn't do anything wrong. The Democrats wouldn't impeach me."

The Democrats should set a deadline for filing articles of impeachment. There is overwhelming evidence that can be used to impeach Donald Trump. The Democrats should continue gathering evidence both before and then after the actual impeachment in the House and then through to the trial in the Senate. The Democrats need to get started as soon as possible. If the Democrats do not stand up to Donald Trump now, the American people may see Trump trying to run again for president in 2024. Donald Trump has no respect for the United States Constitution.

Trump’s phone conversation with the president of Ukraine was almost verbatim what one would hear from a Mafia boss who was extorting a victim or offering a bribe. Basically, Trump was saying, "If you don’t do what I want, something bad is going to happen." The Ukrainians must have conclude that Trump would unleash Russia on them — again — if they do not give him what he wants.

Donald Trump is playing Putin and Ukraine against each other. He wants to see who is going to give him the most dirt on Joe Biden. Or perhaps, if need be, Elizabeth Warren. I'm sure Trump is going to enlist foreign countries to go after her if she wins the Democratic nomination. Donald Trump is playing foreign powers off against each other in order to target his political opponents here in the United States. This is a very dangerous way to conduct American foreign policy.

Should the impeachment inquiry and subsequent articles of impeachment be specific and limited or much broader?

I shared a list of articles of impeachment online. The first would be this Ukraine incident. Second, we have the obstruction of justice in the Mueller investigation. Third, we have contempt of Congress via refusal to honor any of the congressional subpoenas. We furthermore have the receipt of foreign emoluments and domestic emoluments in violation of the Constitution. Five, the threats to the freedom of the press this president has repeatedly made, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. There is also the cruel and unusual punishment of children on the border, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The list could be much longer.

Do you think this version of the Republican Party will ever turn on Donald Trump, the way that in another era a more responsible group of Republicans eventually saw the light and realized that Richard Nixon had to be removed from office?

What Donald Trump has done is a lot worse than Nixon. These Republicans will put up with a lot more than the Republicans put up with in 1973 and 1974 before they finally pulled the plug. It's a different Republican Party than it was. The Republican Party used to include a lot of moderates, people driven not so much by ideological obsessions, but by their patriotism. Now we have people who are focused mostly on ideological issues. They're all worked up about abortion or something else, and they're willing to ignore the fact that we have a president who is disloyal to his country and who is repeatedly violating the Constitution.

What would you tell John Q. Public, the average American who feels that what Trump did with Ukraine is no big deal because, “Politicians are all corrupt. Who cares?” Moreover, what about a Fox News viewer who feels like “Trump should just be allowed to be Trump. That is just who he is.”

All politicians are not as corrupt as Donald Trump. This goes beyond the ordinary problems we have with campaign finance and politicians and interest groups scratching each other’s backs. Those problems existed well before Donald Trump. This goes well beyond that. What Trump did with the president of Ukraine is a threat to our national security. I would ask those Trump supporters what they're motivated by. Is it really that they just agree strongly with Trump on a given issue?

For example, there are people in this country on both sides of the abortion debate. Both sides are convinced that somehow that's the most important issue in our country ad that is true whether they're pro-choice or pro-life. Those people are willing to do anything, to support anybody, to get their way. What we see in the Republican Party is people with that attitude having an enormous voice. That is not true on the Democrats' side. But on the Republican side, you see people who are absolutely obsessed with the abortion issue, or guns or other social issues, who are willing to tolerate anything to get their way.

I think it's critically important for someone to tell those people to step back, understand that there are two sides to a lot of those issues. Ultimately, those issues actually aren't that important relative to the national security of our country and our Constitution. That's where these people who support Donald Trump are failing. They don't have their sense of priorities right.

If Trump gets away with his apparent extortion and bribery of Ukraine to go after Joe Biden, what comes next?

Who knows? What would Donald Trump do? What would he do against a political opponent? Would Donald Trump have a foreign government try to assassinate a political opponent? I don't know. For example, we don't know what has happened in many of the phone calls that Donald Trump has had with Saudi Arabia, a country that's willing to take a journalist out of an embassy in pieces. We don't know what's happened with Donald Trump’s calls with Vladimir Putin. This is a very dangerous situation.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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