Trump's impeachment isn't about Russia
President Trump's alleged misconduct, the behavior that has occasioned the impeachment inquiry against him, is corruption. It is that he used the power of his office for personal benefit, manipulating the delivery of congressionally apportioned military aid to Ukraine in an ultimately failed effort to coerce Kyiv to do oppo research on a potential electoral opponent.
Though foreign policy provides the setting for this charge, it is not its substance. The scandal here is not about Trump administration policy toward Russia and Ukraine — not really. The president is not facing impeachment because he was too dovish toward Moscow.
But at the first public impeachment hearing against Trump on Wednesday, testimony from House Democrats and multiple witnesses repeatedly suggested otherwise. Listen to these testimonies in a vacuum and you might be forgiven for coming away convinced the problem here is that Trump wants to let Russia march across Europe and straight on to Cleveland.
"In 2014, Russia invaded the United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation's embrace of the West and to fulfill Vladimir Putin's desire to rebuild a Russian empire," House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in his opening statement, thus raising from the beginning the specter of Trump's suspiciously insufficient opposition to Putin.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent was more explicit. "The United States has very clear national interests at stake in Ukraine," he announced, likening Ukrainians fighting Russian forces to American revolutionaries taking on the redcoats. Kent's introduction was far more policy statement than testimony about the actions of the president. He gave an extensive apologia for U.S. military aid to Ukraine "to fight Russian aggression in the defense, energy, cyber, and information spheres," concluding that we "cannot allow our resolve to waver, since too much is at stake."
Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor spoke likewise. "Ukraine is a strategic partner of the United States ... on the frontline in the conflict with the newly aggressive Russia," he argued, insisting as a matter of principle that "we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor. Russian aggression cannot stand."
Taylor described registering objections with various administration officials about how Russian imperialism would be emboldened if U.S. material support for Kyiv were to waver. "The message to the Ukrainians and the Russians we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us," he said, adding, "I also said I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with the political campaign."
"I also said." But whether Trump "with[e]ld security assistance for help with the political campaign" is the matter at hand. How the United States should react to Russian aggression is not the question.
There would be no impeachment inquiry without the allegation of a campaign-related quid pro quo. The abuse of power is the whole thing. Though certainly very important in its own right, in the narrow purview of this investigation, the policy is irrelevant. If Trump did what he is accused of doing, it was corrupt (and, yes, impeachable) no matter one's opinion of the military aid. (Indeed, I oppose the aid allotment for reasons I'll discuss in a moment but nevertheless agree the president should be impeached if he delayed it for personal political advantage.)
And there is no reason to believe Trump's apparent bribery attempt was shaped by a uniquely weak stance on Russian aggression. As Barbara Boland helpfully chronicles at The American Conservative, Trump has provided lethal aid to Ukraine that his predecessor steadily declined to offer. The Obama administration made a compelling case against "inject[ing] more weapons and engag[ing] in tit-for-tat," especially at risk of "get[ting] into a proxy war with Russia," administration officials explained at the time.
"The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do," Obama himself argued in an Atlantic interview which summarized his position as: "Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there." Obama was correct. As we've seen over and over in the Middle East, dumping American guns into a conflict does not move it toward resolution. Obama made the right call here — it is wildly reckless and counter to U.S. interests to escalate conflict with Russia over Ukraine. Arguably, it's not in global interests either, given that Washington and Moscow alike have nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the world.
More to the immediate point, though, military aid to Ukraine is a Trump policy, and only a 1-year-old policy at that. The president didn't withhold these funds because he's soft on Russia, and this inquiry doesn't depend on that anyway. Impeachment hinges on whether Trump was corrupt, a question we can settle regardless of Russia policy.
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