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My Turn: FDR, collusion and impeachment

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill talk during a conference in Casablanca on Feb. 10, 1943. AP

  • President Donald Trump arrives at W.K. Kellogg Airport to attend a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich., on Wednesday. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/22/2019 7:00:44 AM

In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term as president. But while his first two elections were landslides, the political landscape had changed. Americans were inherently troubled by the notion of an entitled presidency and a measure of “Roosevelt fatigue” set in.

Republicans sensed opportunity as three political heavyweights vied for the GOP nomination – Sens. Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, along with District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey of New York.

Not only were most Americans uncomfortable with a third presidential term, but in 1940 they also opposed FDR’s internationalist leanings. Isolationism was the mood of the day, and the three Republican heavyweights reflected that prevailing sentiment.

But FDR rightly feared the growing Nazi menace and regularly communicated with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In fact, their correspondence began in September 1939 when Churchill was still First Lord of the Admiralty.

Standing alone against Hitler, Churchill sought to pull America into world conflict – though he understood the constitutional and political constraints that FDR faced. But with his country battling for survival, Churchill desperately needed FDR to win re-election, as the three GOP contenders opposed the entangling arrangements with the British that Roosevelt favored.

So Churchill’s people set up an intelligence operation based in New York to spy on Americans and influence our election – with FDR’s knowledge and tacit approval. The spy organization was headed by a Canadian, William Stephenson.

FDR loved secret machinations – while his people maintained a brilliant public relations machine. In that pre-television era most Americans didn’t know FDR was paralyzed and wheelchair-bound or that his health was rapidly deteriorating. But back-channel contacts combined with America’s nascent but growing intelligence services allowed FDR to track Stephenson’s activities.

The British worked hard to support the late-entry, dark horse GOP candidacy of Indiana’s Wendell Willkie – who until 1939 was a Democrat and an earlier FDR supporter. Unlike the three Republican favorites, Willkie was an internationalist who supported Roosevelt’s tilt toward Britain.

The Brits reasoned that Willkie would be easier for FDR to defeat. But if Willkie did win, he’d similarly support Churchill. Willkie received only 10% of the votes on the first ballot at the brokered GOP Convention, but then Stephenson’s people released a phony poll indicating a groundswell of enthusiasm for Willkie, who then gained support on every subsequent vote, eventually winning the nomination after the sixth ballot.

During the ensuing campaign, Willkie supported FDR’s foreign policies, infuriating isolationists. Roosevelt easily won that third term.

So did communication and coordination between Roosevelt’s people and British intelligence to rig that U.S. election constitute impeachable conduct? That 1940 collusion seems infinitely worse than Trump’s clumsy phone call to a Ukrainian leader that’s the basis for his impeachment.

A consummate politician, FDR seldom left his fingerprints anywhere – unlike Trump, the consummate non-politician.

The Mueller Report indicated no Russian collusion on the part of Trump. Ergo, the need for something else to take him down – i.e. the Ukrainian phone call. Ironically, the real collusion involved the Clinton people and the bogus Steele dossier. And it was the Clinton Foundation that received huge amounts of Russian money, not the Trump campaign.

The realpolitik truth is that all countries care about other nations’ election outcomes and often seek to influence them – as Britain did in 1940. The U.S. has also done so many times.

Trump was criticized during recent congressional hearings for using informal back channels to conduct foreign policy. But back channels constitute de rigueur diplomacy. Indeed, FDR’s presidential adviser Harry Hopkins was his most trusted “ambassador” to Britain and elsewhere, although Hopkins never held that formal designation. In fact it was back-channel contacts (through journalist John Scali) in 1962 that helped John F. Kennedy resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis. Likewise for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 in commencing Vietnam War peace talks.

For Democrats to set the impeachment bar so low as to use a phone call to overturn an election really does threaten our democracy and sets a horrifying precedent that may come back to haunt Dems. And shame on our Democratic congressional delegation for putting partisan interests ahead of our national well-being.

Yes, Americans often cringe at how President Trump speaks and does business. But Democrats have somehow now succeeded in making the bellicose billionaire the unlikely recipient of widespread sympathy.

I don’t know exactly from where FDR, JFK or LBJ watch us today. But wherever they are, they must cringe at what their fellow Democrats are doing to our presidency and to our constitutional republic.

Radical Democrats are sowing a wind. They will reap a whirlwind.

(Michael Moffett of Loudon is a retired professor and Marine Corps officer, and is a former state representative.)

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