Trump Trap: Don't Expect Rule Of Law From Americas If We Can't Expect It From America

Sep 25, 2019

COMMENTARY

Right now the western hemisphere – believe it or not, America – is dealing with behavior by federal politicians that's more outrageous than President Trump’s alleged Ukrainian shenanigans. This week the dubious prize goes to Haitian Senator Ralph Fethiere – who repeatedly fired a gun outside the legislature in Port-au-Prince on Monday, wounding two people, including an AP photographer.

But oh, Americans will say, that’s the sort of outlaw behavior we expect from politicians in Latin American and Caribbean nations like Haiti. So is Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s alleged ties to his nation’s drug cartels. So is Bolivian President Evo Morales’ flouting of his nation’s constitutional term limits to run for re-election next month. So is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s crusade to develop – and potentially destroy – his nation’s Amazon rainforest. So is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s destruction of his, well, entire nation.

Yes, so the admittedly chauvinist American thinking goes, we anticipate that kind of disregard for rule of law from leaders south of our border. (We’ve even learned recently to expect disregard for common sense from leaders north of our border.)

What we expect from the U.S. is a rule-of-law model to help the rest of the hemisphere, to quote Nat King Cole, straighten up and fly right.

If so, that’s why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision this week to start an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions matters not just to America but to the Americas.

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I’m not making a judgment on Trump’s impeachment. Much has yet to be examined, at least on the Ukraine front. But that front – or Trump’s alleged constitutional affront – does merit examination. You can argue Trump’s dealings with Russia are a murkier case. But the whistleblower’s Ukraine complaint is more straightforward. And if Washington didn’t give it at least an impeachment probe, the signal sent could gravely injure the rule-of-law example the U.S. is supposed to set.

That’s particularly true since Trump’s alleged quid-pro-quo malfeasance – bullying Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in return for unlocking U.S. military aid – resembles Trump’s extortionist style with leaders on this side of the Atlantic.

Even if Trump isn't ultimately impeached, the rest of the hemisphere can at least take note that the U.S. still pulls presidents over for running constitutional red lights.

Among the most glaring showcases are the deals Trump struck or is striking this year with Central American heads of state on immigration. Trump wants the isthmus’ hellish northern triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – to make themselves de facto holding pens for Central American and other migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

The arrangements are questionable not just because these are precisely the kinds of indigent, ultra-violent countries migrants are seeking asylum from. What’s just as troubling is, again, the seemingly corrupt quid pro quo behind them.

In Guatemala’s case, outgoing President Jimmy Morales’ cooperation got Trump to drop his threat of crippling U.S. tariffs on Guatemalan goods. But Morales also expects the Trump Administration will withhold censure as he hurries to dismantle Guatemala’s judicial system in order to avoid prosecution on illicit campaign financing charges. He leaves office – and loses his legal immunity – in January.

LOWER BAR

In Honduras, President Hernández inked his agreement on Wednesday – with the hope of even more significant relief. The authoritarian conservative already owed Trump a favor after the U.S. recognized his fraud-contaminated re-election victory in 2017. But Hernández is betting an immigration pact will also get him off the hook with U.S. federal prosecutors – who last month fingered him as an alleged co-conspirator with his brother in taking millions of dollars from Honduran drug traffickers.

President Trump (right) with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in New York at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.
Credit Evan Vucci / AP

As a result, if the U.S. Congress didn’t at least investigate the impeachment-worthiness of Trump’s Ukraine call, characters like Morales and Hernández would have every reason to assume Washington has set the bar for their own conduct much, much lower. Even if the House doesn’t impeach Trump – or if impeached he’s acquitted by the Senate – the rest of the hemisphere can take note that the U.S. still pulls presidents over for running constitutional red lights.

That matters a lot today because the rest of the hemisphere is for once beginning to enforce its own constitutional traffic codes. In recent years, sweeping anti-corruption prosecutions, most notably in Brazil, have led Latin Americans – and Americans – to believe they can expect something different from the region than what they’ve always expected.

The tragedy would be if the Americas were led to believe they can no longer expect what they’ve always expected from America.