Last week’s vote by House Democrats to formally open an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump followed testimony that appeared to boost their case. Several US officials told Congress that the Trump administration sought to leverage US military aid to pressure Ukraine into opening politically tainted investigations. But liberals cheering on these developments should be mindful of their limitations—and their potential consequences. The available testimony does not strike me as being as damning for Trump as it is being portrayed. More importantly, even if that proves to be a faulty interpretation, the impeachment frenzy is enrolling liberals in a dangerous Cold War mentality that could threaten their own election chances in 2020.
The Democrats’ theory of the case is plausible: At the same time as Trump’s chosen point man, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, pressured Ukraine to launch politically beneficial investigations, the president froze military aid as a tool of added leverage. But although the available testimony helps the impeachment case so far, we have not uncovered a smoking gun.
Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, says that Sondland told him that the military assistance was conditioned on a Ukrainian pledge to open investigations into Burisma, the company where Hunter Biden got his lucrative board seat, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election. Taylor also offered the first known testimony that this demand was made explicit to the Ukrainian side: According to Taylor, National Security Council aide Tim Morrison told him that Sondland directly communicated the quid pro quo to Andriy Yermak, an aide to Ukraine’s prime minister, Volodymyr Zelensky, at a meeting in Warsaw in September 1.
Morrison corroborated Taylor’s testimony in his appearance last week. But we do not yet know whether Morrison witnessed the Sondland-Yermak conversation that he told Taylor about, or is relying on his recollection of what Sondland told him. This would allow Sondland to claim that Morrison misinterpreted him.
What is certain is that Morrison left some wiggle room for Trump. His opening statement says that he and Taylor “had no reason to believe that the release of the security sector assistance might be conditioned on a public statement reopening the Burisma investigation” until he spoke to Sondland in Warsaw on September 1. “Even then,” he added, “I hoped that Ambassador Sondland’s strategy was exclusively his own,” and not Trump’s. According to CNN, Morrison testified that he tried to find out whether Sondland was relaying demands to the Ukrainian side on Trump’s behalf, or was “going rogue” as a “free radical.” The fact that Morrison suspected that Sondland’s “strategy was exclusively his own” means that his testimony did not directly implicate Trump. And it leaves Trump with the leeway to claim that Sondland, and perhaps Rudolph Giuliani, were indeed “going rogue.”
It is perfectly reasonable to deduce from all of this that what Sondland relayed—if that is what he did—is exactly what Trump intended. Or indeed that Sondland was acting on Trump’s orders. But a case that can only be made from inference may have limited impact beyond those who have already made up their mind. Even if Trump knew exactly what Sondland was doing, Morrison’s testimony leaves him with the opportunity to throw Sondland under the bus. For his part, Sondland has said through his attorney that he rejects Taylor’s characterizations and does not recall the Warsaw conversation that Taylor (and now Morrison) claim to have heard about.
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For Taylor and Morrison’s testimony to prove dispositive—and to make a convincing case to the broader US public and the Senate Republicans who will decide Trump’s fate—corroborating testimony or evidence will have to emerge that Trump explicitly linked the military aid to investigations of Biden and that this demand was explicitly communicated to the Ukrainian side.
That corroboration has yet to come from Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has said that it did not feel pressured. The New York Times reported that Ukrainian officials were made aware that US military aid was on hold by the first week in August, earlier than previously known. Yet communications between US and Ukrainian officials, the Times writes, “did not explicitly link the assistance freeze to the push by Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani for the investigations.” Nor was the aid freeze mentioned in Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.
Yermak, reached via WhatsApp, did not respond to The Nation’s request for comment. His testimony will now be critical. As will follow-up testimony by Sondland. Perhaps Taylor and Morrison are accurately recounting Sondland’s words. Or perhaps Sondland will contradict them, or claim that they are conflating the investigations that Trump sought from Ukraine. As I’ve argued previously, demanding an investigation of documented (and openly acknowledged) Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 elections is different from demanding one of a political rival.
All of this positions us for a “he said, he said” impeachment scandal: The question of whether or not Trump is guilty of attempting to extort Ukraine could come down to which US bureaucrat, one chooses to believe.
There is no reason to put faith in Sondland, who, in line with a longstanding tradition in US diplomacy, owes his plush diplomatic posting to a lucrative campaign donation to the winning presidential candidate. But before we embrace bureaucrats Taylor, Morrison, and another key witness, NSC official Alexander Vindman, as liberal heroes, it is worth taking stock of their impartiality and espoused views. Despite efforts to portray them as nonpartisan civil servants, the trio’s opening statements show them to be Cold Warriors devoted to continuing the US-Russia proxy war in Ukraine. As their testimony makes clear, that proxy war was imperiled by the very action that Trump took—briefly freezing the military aid that they all unabashedly support.
In the case of Taylor, arming Ukraine was a condition of his willingness to serve in the job. When the Trump administration asked him to take the position in Kiev, Taylor recalls thinking, “I could be effective only if the US policy of strong support for Ukraine… were to continue.” Taylor even told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “If US policy toward Ukraine changed, he would not want me posted there and I could not stay.” No wonder then, that Taylor was upset when he began to hear rumblings that US military assistance to Ukraine was in jeopardy.
Another star witness, Vindman, offers a similar outlook. Russia, he says, “has manifested an overtly aggressive foreign policy” necessitating “a deterrent.” To Vindman, that deterrent is “a strong and independent Ukraine,” which, he believes, is “critical to US national security interests because Ukraine is a frontline state and a bulwark against Russian aggression.” Morrison concurs, declaring that the administration’s policy “was to make sure the United States’ longstanding bipartisan commitment to strengthen Ukraine’s security remained unaltered.” In his view, “security sector assistance… is, therefore, essential to Ukraine.”
Given their open dedication to ensuring the continuation of US military aid to Ukraine, it is reasonable to question if the trio’s interpretations of decisions and conversations about freezing military aid were colored by their own policy preferences. As The Washington Post put it, Vindman “told lawmakers that he was deeply troubled by what he interpreted as an attempt by the president to subvert U.S. foreign policy.” While undoubtedly many Democrats and Republicans share Vindman’s foreign policy views, it should be up to the president, not unelected bureaucrats, to decide US foreign policy.
Even if their recollections are accurate, the consequence of embracing their collective worldview is worth considering. We do not need wade far into the intricacies of the Russia-Ukraine conflict to know that the position of Taylor, Vindman, and Morrison—and by extension, the entire liberal political and media establishment now cheering them—is well to the right of what the Democratic Party embodied just one administration ago.
The very US military assistance that Trump froze is the same that President Barack Obama refused to provide during his last years in office. Obama feared, as The New York Times noted in 2015, that US weapons sent to Ukraine “would only escalate the bloodshed” in the Donbass and possibly “[end] up in the hands of thugs” (a likely reference to far-right Ukrainians, which proved prescient).
In refusing to send that US military aid, Obama rejected intense pressure from the bipartisan DC foreign policy establishment. This includes Taylor himself, who, as he notes in his opening statement, unsuccessfully lobbied Obama to arm Ukraine. Taylor’s contemporaneous view is captured in a December 2014 letter he wrote to The Washington Post. Taylor denounced an opinion article, co-authored by a former Obama State Department official, that had opposed sending US arms to Ukraine and advocated an agreement between NATO and Russia to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. Backers of such steps, Taylor wrote, are “advocating that the West appease Russia.… Now is not the time for appeasement.”
The very fact that Ukrainegate now has Democrats advocating a policy that Obama rejected should be enough to spark consideration of whether briefly not arming Ukraine is really the issue on which to pin removing a president from office. Moving toward impeachment over Ukraine policy also has potential electoral consequences: In 2016, voters rejected the neoconservative worldview that national security bureaucrats like Taylor, Vindman, and Morrison now espouse. Trump, after all, campaigned on improving ties with Russia and falsely presented himself as an opponent of the hawkish legacy that these star impeachment witnesses embody. On this note, the fact that John Bolton may become the Democrats’ next star witness might also hasten some reflection.
The Cold War mindset that liberals have embraced threatens not just their own political fortunes but also global peace. Lost in the outrage over Trump’s potential—and ultimately unrealized—interruption of US military assistance to Ukraine is that Zelensky, the new Ukrainian president, openly campaigned on ending the war with Russia that this military assistance fuels. Zelensky is now under heavy pressure from Ukraine’s far right to abandon his pledge to make peace with Moscow. It does not bode well for Zelensky’s chances if the official opposition party of his US patron is effectively joining hands with his country’s own right-wing forces to continue the war.
The dangers extend beyond Ukraine’s borders. The day after the House impeachment vote, Russia warned that there is not enough time left to renegotiate the New START Treaty, the last remaining accord limiting the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, before it expires in 2021. The treaty’s demise, The New York Times notes, would leave the world’s top two nuclear powers “free to expand their arsenals without limits” on “the most powerful weapons both sides can launch.” According to Vladimir Leontyev, Russia’s top arms control official, the Kremlin hopes to renew or revise the accord, but “the US administration is silent about it.” The Russians’ impression, Leontyev added, is that the Trump White House “is organically against any restrictions being imposed on the United States.”
The Russian warning, the Times adds, is “the latest in a sobering list of signals that the great powers appear headed for a new arms race,” following Trump’s earlier withdrawal from another critical nuclear accord, the INF Treaty. It is also the latest in a long list of Trump administration policies that have escalated tensions with nuclear-armed Russia—including authorizing the US military assistance to Ukraine that Obama once opposed and that Democrats now seek to impeach him over. The fact that this list includes increasing the threat of nuclear conflict should be sobering to any liberal who continues to push the falsehood that Trump does Russia’s bidding—all the more so given that the propagation of this falsehood helps worsen, rather than reduce, those tensions.
There is another list worth being mindful of: The many Trump administration scandals that Ukrainegate, like Russiagate before it, overshadows. The day after the House impeachment vote also coincided with the end of the comment period for a Trump administration plan to cut food programs for low-income Americans. According to government estimates, around 3 million recipients face the loss of food stamp benefits and close to 1 million children are at risk of losing automatic placement in federal school lunch programs.
“Instead of declaring a war on poverty, this president has declared war on our most vulnerable citizens,” Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on nutrition, said last month. That is undoubtedly correct, which makes it all the more puzzling that Democrats are preoccupied with an impeachment scandal that overshadows Trump’s attacks on the vulnerable and encourages him to escalate wars abroad. The same goes for their stance on Syria, which saw bipartisan opposition to an announced US withdrawal but next to no opposition to Trump’s sudden reversal with the explicit aim of stealing Syria’s oil.
It is true that polls currently show that a majority of Americans support impeachment. It is also encouraging that Democratic presidential candidates are sidelining the impeachment drama to focus on serious policy issues on the campaign trail. At the same time, it appears that Democrats are not moving the needle in the battleground states that will decide the next election. A new New York Times/Siena College poll of the six closest swing states that went Republican in 2016 finds that Trump’s “advantage in the Electoral College relative to the nation as a whole remains intact or has even grown since 2016.”
With 2020 on the horizon, the dangers of the Democratic establishment’s priorities cannot be emphasized enough.