American diplomacy, as well as Donald Trump’s job prospects, will be on the line with his looming impeachment
James Astill | 22 Nov, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FOR A BREAK from the political vendetta President Donald Trump and his fixers tried to substitute for American diplomacy in Ukraine, I went for a run by the Potomac river last week. The sub-zero temperature was bracing; slowly the details of Trump’s Ukraine “drug deal”—in the words of his former national security adviser, John Bolton—slipped away. But then, blaring around the next corner, came a runner listening to live radio coverage of the congressional probe into Trump’s scheme through loud speakers. In Washington, there is no escaping the Ukraine scam which, sometime in the next week or two, will almost certainly lead to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voting to impeach the president.
But how many Americans outside the politics-obsessed capital city care about Trump’s effort to mobilise Ukraine’s newly-elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, against one of his Democratic rivals, Joe Biden? Not enough, almost certainly, to put Trump in serious danger of losing his job.
Most Republican voters have already decided they are fine with whatever Trump did in Ukraine, a country perhaps few could find on a map. For Republican senators, voting to convict the president (in the Senate impeachment trial that the House is expected to set in motion) could therefore constitute political suicide. And it appears most Republican senators have already concluded that this would be too high a price to pay for serving justice on a president who may be voted out of office next year in any event.
“Whatever happens to Trump, I intend to be in this place a lot longer than he is,” one senator told me, from his splendid offices on Capitol Hill. If every Democratic senator voted to convict the Republican president on the articles of impeachment the House will shortly draw up, 20 Republicans would have to do likewise to remove him from office. That is currently hard to imagine.
The probability, therefore, is that the Democrats are pursuing a doomed impeachment proceeding. That makes this a high-risk endeavour for the president’s opponents. Once cleared by lily-livered Republican senators, Trump will claim to have been the victim of a left-wing plot and exonerated on every charge. The example of Bill Clinton’s failed impeachment in the 1990s (over L’affaire Lewinsky) suggests there could be some political blowback against the Democrats when he does. If American voters agree on anything it is that they do not like insiderish Washington games. That is how House Republicans are already characterising the House impeachment inquiry.
Yet notwithstanding these warning lights, failing to press ahead with Trump’s impeachment would also carry risks. And these extend far beyond the narrow fortunes of America’s feuding parties. Most important, an America that acquiesced to Trump’s attempted hijacking of his country’s policy towards Ukraine might be considered to have abandoned the fundamental principles of the foreign policy it has advanced—with considerable success—for almost a century. There is a lot more on trial on Capitol Hill than Trump: the world should be in no doubt of the gravity of the current moment.
To appreciate that, consider the details of the “drug deal” Trump and his cronies stand accused of plotting.
In July, for what at the time appeared to be no easily explicable reason, Trump ordered some $400 million of military aid to Ukraine to be frozen. American diplomats were confused and horrified. The aid was part of a programme of American support for Ukraine’s defensive war effort against Russia, an American adversary that has occupied a slab of Ukraine. It had also been legally assigned to Ukraine by Congress, making Trump’s intervention highly irregular.
In a subsequent phone call with Zelensky, it later emerged, Trump then hinted that America’s ongoing military support would be contingent on the newly elected Ukrainian leader doing him a couple of surreptitious political favours. He wanted Zelensky to announce that he was opening an investigation into Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential candidate (and former vice-president), over corruption allegations at a Ukrainian energy firm, Burisma Holdings, he had once held a board seat on. He also suggested Zelensky needed to investigate whether the hacking of Trump’s Democratic opponents’ computers and email accounts in 2016—thereby providing a significant boost to his then flagging presidential campaign—had been carried out not by Russia, as has since been proven, but Ukraine. Trump told Zelensky he would have his highly partisan attorney general, William Barr, call him to fix the details.
Refraining from impeaching Trump—because the effort would probably fail—would send a signal that future presidents can behave as he has and get away with it. A failed impeachment trial, which looks more likely, could at least establish some sort of a deterrent: Trump is clearly not enjoying the prospect of being impeached
Trump’s demands, which were plainly intended to damage his most feared Democratic opponent, were entirely unjustified by evidence. Trading shamelessly off his father’s name, Hunter Biden has had an unsavoury career of influence-peddling and Burisma has been roiled by corruption scandals. But investigators have already tried hard to connect the one to the other and abandoned the effort. Biden had disassociated himself from the company long before the scandals took place. The idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for the election-hacking campaign that may have put Trump in the White House is equally bogus. While consistent with Trump’s still baffling effort to defend Vladimir Putin on all counts, it is a conspiracy theory unsupported by fact and at variance with the conclusion—that Russia was behind the great 2016 election hack—of all America’s intelligence agencies.
After Trump put the phone down on Zelensky, even his loyal aides—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was listening in on the call—must have sensed he had gone way overboard this time. American presidents are not supposed to use aid money as a means to extort allied governments into helping them play dirty tricks on their opponents. The White House released no transcript of the call and squirreled away the recording of it in a secure facility reserved for secret intelligence. But an unnamed CIA officer, who had also been listening in, was so horrified by what he had heard that he filed a formal complaint—first to lawyers in the CIA, then to the loftier Intelligence Community Inspector General. It should be noted that whistleblowing, whereby public servants are encouraged to report suspected criminality within the government and guaranteed anonymity when they do, has an exalted and legally protected place in America. But the powers have rarely been used to expose alleged presidential wrongdoing in this way.
When the intelligence community sat fearfully on the whistleblower’s complaint, he alerted the Democratic-controlled House Intelligence Committee to its existence. That began a fight that led in short order to the White House releasing an edited—though still highly incriminating of Trump—transcript of his call to Zelensky, and the House launching a formal impeachment inquiry into the affair.
The parallels with Watergate, the only impeachment probe to have cost a president his job, are obvious. Richard Nixon was accused in 1973 of leaning on the CIA to prevent it investigating a dirty tricks campaign—including a burglary at the Watergate Office Building in Washington—against his Democratic rivals. Trump’s efforts to extort Zelensky looks to many like a comparable abuse of ‘the public trust’ (a phrase America’s constitution cites in its vague definition of what might constitute an impeachable offence). Yet Trump’s and his Republican defenders’ response to the seemingly incontrovertible allegations levelled at him underlines how different, and how much more vulnerable to misrule, America is now than it was in the early 1970s.
After Trump put the phone down on Zelensky, even his loyal aides must have sensed he had gone way overboard this time. American presidents are not supposed to use aid money as a means to extort allied governments into helping them play dirty tricks on their opponents
Nixon claimed there was nothing to the allegations against him (“I’m not crook,” he said fatefully). Trump, by contrast, has pretty much admitted everything he stands accused of. He just claims it was not wrong—either because Hunter Biden has a real and pressing case to answer; or because Trump was in any event acting within his legitimate powers—so what business is it of anyone’s what he did with them?
THIS APPROACH HAS Forced his Republican defenders on Capitol Hill to change tack numerous times. They first denied that Trump’s demands of Zelensky amounted to an aid-for-political-favours ‘quid pro quo’. But then the White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that that is exactly what it was. Republicans in Congress, back-peddling furiously, next launched a furious attack on the anonymous whistleblower, who they claimed was a left-leaning partisan; they also demanded to know his identity. But this was footling nonsense. The identity of a whistleblower is protected by law and the edited White House transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky had already confirmed most of his claims.
Next, Trump’s defenders castigated the secretive way House Democrats insisted on the bipartisan impeachment inquiry taking initial depositions and testimony from diplomats and security officials who were witness to Trump’s scheme. But then the Democrats released the thousands of pages of testimony they had taken and, last week, began reexamining their most impressive witnesses to the Ukraine scam in televised public hearings.
The first week of these hearings were dominated by testimonies from three senior diplomats, including America’s current and former ambassadors to Ukraine, all of whom had defied a White House order to obstruct the inquiry in order to testify. They described the surreal efforts of a cabal of Trump aides (led by the president’s unhinged personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani) to substitute intrigue and conspiracy theory for longstanding American foreign policy in Ukraine. The testimony of the former ambassador to Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch, was additionally sharpened by the fact that Giuliani had succeeded in convincing Trump that she was an obstacle to their schemes, and must be sacked, which she duly was.
Yovanovitch, a highly respected and decorated veteran of 33 years at the State Department, described her horror and disbelief on discovering that Trump had smeared her personally to Zelensky in their controversial call. “The former ambassador… the woman, was bad news,” he told Ukraine’s president. “Well, she’s going to go through some things.” Bizarrely, Trump, live-tweeting during her testimony (which he claimed not to be watching), made additional smears against Yovanovitch even as she discussed his original smears. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, interrupted Yovanovitch’s testimony to ask her to respond to the president’s latest invective. Some claimed it amounted to witness intimidation; it was in any event emblematic of the contempt for institutions and dash of reality-TV craziness Trump has brought to American government.
The Republican congressmen sitting unhappily through these House hearings claimed Yovanovitch and the other diplomats had done nothing to implicate Trump in the plot they described. That was narrowly true. Yovanovitch was withdrawn from Kiev before Trump suspended the aid and none of the diplomats had had direct communications with him. But that final line of Republican defence was tested this week when several witnesses to Trump’s call with Zelensky testified about its contents. They included another symbol of American excellence in public service, in the form of Alexander Vindman, an army lieutenant-colonel and Iraq war hero who also listened in on the call with Trump. Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland—a former linchpin of the Ukraine scheme—then straightforwardly described it as having been directed by the president and known about by most of his cabinet. “We followed the president’s orders,” he said. “Everyone was in the loop.” With their testimony, the last arguable Republican defence appeared to dissolve.
What remains is pure defiance, as articulated by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an erstwhile constitutional conservative and leading light of the manifestly lesser impeachment case against Clinton. Having initially acknowledged the severity of the charges Trump faced over his dealings in Ukraine, Graham now denigrates the inquiry into them in vague but implacable terms. “I’ve written the whole process off,” he said, when asked whether he had studied a handful of recently published testimonies on the Ukraine plot. “I think this is a bunch of BS.”
Yovanovitch, a highly respected and decorated veteran of 33 years at the State Department, described her horror and disbelief on discovering that Trump had smeared her personally to Zelensky in their controversial call
Republicans, such as Graham, are merely channeling their voters. While the congressional hearings appear to have hardened anti-Trump opinion among the roughly half of Americans who want to impeach Trump, most Republicans are fervently behind him. Opinion polls suggest less than 20 per cent have their doubts about Trump.
That could be sufficient to change the political calculation of a handful of Republican senators—especially those facing re-election next year in moderate states where they rely on support from independents and some Democrats: thus, for example, Senator Cory Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine. It is therefore possible to imagine perhaps half-a-dozen Republicans senators turning against Trump in a Senate impeachment trial. By making his impeachment seem less straightforwardly partisan, this could in turn be damaging to the president’s own re-election prospects. But it would not be sufficient to make him the first president to be successfully impeached and removed from office.
A damaging precedent therefore seems almost unavoidable at this point. Refraining from impeaching Trump—because the effort would probably fail—would send a signal that future presidents can behave as he has and get away with it. A failed impeachment trial, which looks more likely, could at least establish some sort of a deterrent: Trump is clearly not enjoying the prospect of being impeached. But the deterrent effect would be marginal compared to the exoneration Trump would claim from a failed impeachment trial. This would set a precedent whereby America’s loftiest lawmakers had reflected on his highly politicised diplomacy, and found it acceptable. That would have serious repercussions for American foreign policy and how it is viewed around the world.
It would not be the only negative global consequence of the impeachment drama. In the short term, it has already sucked up most of the oxygen in Washington; other congressional business has ground to a halt, leaving pressing trade and sanctions bills gathering dust. There is meanwhile a growing risk of Trump, maddened and aggrieved, lashing out in foreign policy to spite his critics and deflect public attention from the Democrats’ probe. Just in the past week, the administration has finalised its plan to withdraw from the Paris climate deal and, reversing decades of US and United Nations’ policy, declared that it now considers illegal Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory to be legal and acceptable. Do not discount the possibility of more disruptive salvoes from the White House.
IN ADDITION, THE world is likely to take from this episode that US foreign policy, almost the last refuge of bipartisanship in American politics, is now highly partisan and accordingly unstable. Whatever foreign policy a Republican or Democratic administration might pursue—even as fundamental a position as siding with Ukraine against Russia; or, for that matter, forging deep ties with India—may henceforth be considered eminently reversible by an American election.
Most sobering of all, however, is the new standard of American policy-making that Trump’s Ukraine gambit threatens to set. It has long been clear that he has little or no regard for institutional boundaries and takes a highly transactional view of politics and diplomacy. And in the Ukraine scam, those two tendencies have come together to an unprecedented degree. Because he considers American state largesse to be in his gift, and because he considered that Zelensky should give up something for his country’s receipt of it, nothing could have been more logical to Trump than appending a personal political demand to an American state policy in Ukraine. This is, ultimately, why he has been so carelessly upfront about his wrongdoing. He considers it less an incriminating scheme he has been found out for—as was the case with Nixon and his efforts to cover up the Watergate affair—than an appropriate way to govern.
That Republican House members seem ready to back Trump over what amounts to a head-spinning change in (indeed abandonment of) America’s post-war diplomatic calculus, is not entirely surprising. House members must seek re-election every two years in their relatively small and heavily gerrymandered constituencies. This encourages them to be insular, hyper-partisan and hair-triggered in their response to voters. Senators, by contrast, who face election every six years and represent whole states, are supposed to take a loftier view of policy—especially foreign policy, which almost all dabble in—and to be less slavish in their response to voter sentiment. It would be no surprise, in short, if House Republicans voted against impeaching a popular Republican president notwithstanding almost any evidence him. But for most Republican senators to vote to legitimise, in effect, Trump’s extraordinary departure from rules-based diplomacy by exonerating him in the coming impeachment trial, would be a more momentous event.
It would send a signal around the world that America’s claim to be motivated by the global good should be viewed with unprecedented scepticism. Worse, it would suggest American foreign policy cannot be relied upon even at face value. No doubt, in their lavishly funded trips abroad, Republican senators will seek to assure foreign governments that this is not really the case—that there is a more reliable, higher-purposed American partner waiting to re-emerge the moment Trump quits the scene. But by exonerating him they may be about to send the opposite signal. The world will draw its own conclusions on American power and diplomacy accordingly.