As this is written, the House of Representatives has begun the formal process to determine whether the President should be impeached, i.e. removed from office. Even if the House does vote for articles of impeachment — in effect, an indictment — the President will not be removed unless the Senate, sitting as a court in judgment, convicts him. Since the Senate has a Republican majority, there is a near zero chance of that actually happening. Nevertheless, this is a momentous moment and no one, not Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump, can be certain how matters will play out — particularly with national elections only 14 months away.
The current crisis invites comparison with the Watergate hearings 46 years ago. The charges against Nixon centered on an attempted cover-up of criminal activities initiated by the White House intended to weaken the Democrats politically. Although it took place against the toxic backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Watergate saga was an almost entirely domestic affair. There was no significant foreign policy or defense component to the crisis. The rest of the world watched in rapt attention (and much incomprehension) but were purely spectators. This has changed in the current situation. The two words that will be repeated constantly in the days ahead are Ukraine and Russia.
One of the striking aspects of Watergate was its origin in a “third-rate” burglary. In the current case, the picture that emerges is equally tawdry. The President of the United States is obsessed with the idea that information on contacts between his 2016 campaign team and the Russians came from sources in Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine authorities assisted U.S. law enforcement with a criminal case against Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. These facts morphed into an overwrought conspiracy theory on the extreme political right that the “missing emails” from the Hillary Clinton campaign somehow found their way to Ukraine. The President’s former Homeland Security chief, a Trump loyalist, has stated that he and other White House staff repeatedly told him that the notion that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind interference in the 2016 campaign was utterly false. Trump has clung to it anyway. Then came revelations that the son of former Vice President Biden (and now candidate to oppose Trump in 2020) had a lucrative gig as a member of the board of directors on a Ukraine gas company. There is still more to the story, but it added up to a Trump obsession with the idea that the Bidens were up to something nefarious (also debunked) and if he could reveal it, he could destroy Biden’s candidacy. Not surprisingly, stories of a Biden conspiracy in Ukraine originated in Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine faced real and serious national security threats from Russia including a Kremlin-supported war of secession designed to dismember the country. The Ukraine army, badly outgunned, needed American anti-tank weapons. Congress and the Pentagon supported the request, the money was appropriated and the White House agreed. But, mysteriously, the critically needed aid was held up until President Trump spoke with the young newly elected President of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky. Mr. Zelensky pleaded for the aid and Trump responded, “I would like you to us a favor, though” — investigate alleged criminal activities by the Democrats and the Bidens in Ukraine. This put the unfortunate Mr. Zelensky in an impossible situation because there is no basis for the requested “investigation” beyond the President’s fevered imagination.
The dialogue in the phone call sounds like a classic mafia shakedown. If the objective was to support a critical national interest, that would be one thing. However, this was about the personal and political interests of Donald Trump, pure and simple. Trump took an oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” To use the august powers of the presidency for personal political advantage is to betray his oath and his country. It is highly revealing that the White House staff, assembled to listen to what they assumed would be a routine exchange of pleasantries with the Ukraine president, were shocked and immediately went into crisis mode when they realized what Trump was doing. The record of the call was immediately removed from normal distribution channels and put on a computer server used only for the most sensitive classified information. This meant very few people would have access to the record of what had just transpired. Something similar had happened previously when the President brought the Russian foreign minister into the Oval Office and told him Russian interference in the 2016 election was of no concern. The record of that conversation was also hidden away.
Trump’s attempted extortion of the Ukraine president came to light only because a whistleblower with access to the White House raised the alarm. Ironically, this came just as Mr. Trump was speaking to the UN General Assembly, where he declared, “The future does not belong to globalists [people concerned with things like climate change]; it belongs to patriots.” The whistleblower who knowingly put his or her career on the line — and their life in real jeopardy — was a patriot. While at the UN, Trump spoke to the staff of the U.S. Mission and made it clear that he would like to see those responsible for the recent revelations dead.
The next few weeks will be historic almost by definition. The implications for domestic law and politics are profound. But this is also true in the foreign arena. Robert Kagan, veteran national security analyst made this observation: “Today foreign leaders come calling … with [policy] promises. What if they came with secret transcripts and videos, or promises of investigations? If other governments discover that one of the currencies of relations with the United States is dirt on opponents … it will be open season on the American political system.”