The Trump-Ukraine shakedown is like Iran-Contra, only worse

Every scandal is terrible in its own way. The Trump-Ukraine shakedown bears the greatest resemblance to the late 1980s set of events known as the Iran-Contra affair, but it’s far worse.

Both episodes involved partially privatizing our nation’s foreign policy.

Iran-Contra included a sleazy arms dealer and wealthy individuals who worked with the Reagan administration to buy U.S. military equipment for Iran, despite a U.S. embargo against the country, and used the profits to find rebels in Central America. In the current case, Trump’s private lawyer Rudy Giuliani spent months carrying out a privatized foreign policy aimed at Ukraine.

In both cases, the executive branch ignored Congress’s constitutional control over spending.

As part of Iran-Contra, the Reagan administration provided support to the Nicaraguan Contras despite congressional bans, with some funding coming profits made through improper Iranian arms sales. Earlier this year, Trump held back aid appropriated by Congress to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. 

While the two scandals have similarities, what Trump has done is more damaging to our democracy and system of government.

True, both involve the powers of the president versus Congress, but Trump’s words and actions aren’t really about the struggle between the legislative and executive branches built into our constitutional structure.

We are helping our ally Ukraine to check Russia, which is expansionist and internationally aggressive. Russia also interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump and is trying to affect 2020.

But national security and fair elections are not Trump’s priorities. His concern is his own reelection. 

And so Trump is trying to smear former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, with claims every fact checker says are false. It appears that Trump held back taxpayer funds appropriated by Congress to pressure a weak foreign government to try to hurt his political opponent. 

Joe Biden has spent decades in public service. Biden never amassed great wealth and was not accused of corruption until he emerged as a strong candidate versus Trump. 

As the whistleblower complaint put it, “the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference in the 2020 U.S. election.”

President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

All of us can discover Trump’s scheme in the notes of the July 25 conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. After Zelensky mentions wanting more anti-tank Javelin missiles, Trump says “I would like you to do us a favor though,” but the favor doesn’t involve a policy step. Instead, Trump brings up Biden and his son and repeatedly says he wants Zelensky to talk to Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr. 

Ukraine, which needs the weapons Congress wants them to have, was being extorted for Trump’s own benefit and Trump was directly asking a foreign government for help in his political campaign.

This is much worse than Iran-Contra. Whatever one thought of President Ronald Reagan’s policies, he sincerely believed the Nicaraguan Contras deserved continued support from the United States.

Moreover, Reagan acknowledged that he and his administration made mistakes. After receiving the Tower Commission’s highly critical report on the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan said, “I pledge to the American people today that I will do whatever is necessary to enact the proper reforms and to meet the challenges ahead.” 

Can you imagine Trump ever admitting error? I can’t.

Reagan also said he didn’t know about certain parts of Iran-Contra, and that appears to be true. But it’s clear Trump was directly involved in the Ukraine shakedown.

More details will emerge, as Congress gathers additional documents and interviews witnesses. 

We will find out who else in and outside of the administration was involved in the plan to use tax dollars to extort Ukraine for political gain.

We will learn if staffers took the unusual step of removing a record of the July 25 conversation from the normal computer server where presidential conversations are kept, as the whistle blower complaint alleges, a sign they knew something very wrong happened. 

But one thing is already clear. The self-centeredness and selfishness of the president is at the heart of this scandal. Trump’s grave character flaws and his hubris led him to passionately seek what would benefit him over all other priorities, including his constitutional obligation to serve the national interest. And that makes this the worst national security scandal in American history.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.