With Tuesday’s announcement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Democratic lawmakers will launch a formal impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, the US president’s latest alleged effort to recruit a foreign government to improve his chances of election poses the greatest threat yet to his political survival. Remarkably, however, it is because of Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, not Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he is poised to become the fourth president in American history to face impeachment.
It is remarkable because many of the president’s critics have spent the thirty-two months that he has been in office awaiting the discovery of the smoking gun proving that his 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government. In their reading of the tea leaves, Ukraine’s role was that of a potential victim of a Russian-American grand bargain, to be struck by Putin and Trump at a presidential summit meeting without notetakers present. Kiev was in most US commentators’ eyes an actor without agency simply waiting for the axe to fall, first in the form of US abandonment, then in the form of a conclusive Russian takeover of the country.
Far from being helpless, Ukraine has found itself able to either aid Trump in his upcoming showdown with the House of Representatives by denying any impropriety or deliver a blow to his presidency by confirming the worst fears of House Democrats. Zelensky has so far deftly navigated the affair, emphasising that hundreds of millions of dollars in defence assistance are on their way to Kiev and promising to invite Trump to the Ukrainian capital. He has assured that ‘no one can put pressure on me’, while his top diplomat has stressed that ‘there was no pressure’ on Zelensky to reopen Kiev’s 2014–6 Burisma investigation, which Trump’s allies insist then Vice President Joe Biden intervened to shut down because of his son’s role as a paid board member. Inside the Zelensky administration, officials have been prohibited from commenting on the matter, but outside the Bankova’s walls there are hints of amusement at the present state of affairs. ‘[N]ow everyone understands what we [Ukraine] are capable of’, the former foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin recently quipped on Twitter.
Ukraine only found itself in the crosshairs of Trump and his allies earlier this year, after conservative commentators turned their attention to the country’s role in assisting the FBI’s investigation of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as well as their conspiracy theory regarding Joe Biden and the Burisma investigation. Although there had been murmurs in Trumpworld about a January 2017 Politico article claiming that Ukraine’s government had hoped for, and tried to bring about, Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016, there was no real indication that Trump intended to punish Kiev until this past spring. Despite his allies’ 2016 removal of a call for the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine from that year’s Republican Party platform, widely cited as evidence of Trump’s pro-Russian sympathies, Trump did not attempt to abandon, confront, or strong-arm Ukraine upon taking office.
On the contrary, Trump not only continued to morally and materially support Ukraine in its war with Russian-backed separatists but also presided over an increase in military aid, quantitatively and qualitatively. Most ironically, his administration—not Congress—even crossed a line left uncrossed by the Barack Obama administration, regarded as dangerous by some of its alumni, and, as mentioned above, opposed by Trump allies in 2016 in deciding to sell lethal arms to Ukraine.
When the pressure campaign finally came, it was not in the context of Trump’s failed pursuit of improved relations with Russia. Rather, Trump acted to promote his own interests, not a foreign government’s, declining to rule out the provision of hundreds of millions of dollars in defence assistance and the sale of even more lethal weapons but implicitly tying such aid to the reopening of the Burisma investigation in his July 25 call with Zelensky. A move that struck some observers as yet another concession to Moscow turned out to be for purely personal (and electoral) purposes. And far from being compelled by one post-Soviet government’s possession of kompromat, Trump, unforced, gave some to another, even if Washington’s release of a rough transcript of the call diminished its utility for Kiev.
Indeed, Moscow bears so little relevance to the Trump-Zelensky affair that few members of Congress have focused on its Russian dimension in their statements, preferring to stress the aspect that is most obvious and that most closely resembles an impeachable offense: Trump’s attempt to pressure a foreign government into assisting his re-election bid. For (most) House Democrats, there is no need to play up a Russian connection when the spectre of a Trump re-election blatantly aided by a foreign government wholly suffices. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Russia is presently viewed as a greater concern in the context of a renewed European push for peace in the east than it is in the context of the Trump-Zelensky affair.
That said, many aspects of the story are unsurprising, affirming what we already know about the Trump administration and its foreign policy. Trump engages in what is widely understood to be self-dealing and, to this end, freely intervenes in other countries’ domestic affairs. He is open to the recruitment of foreign governments to improve his chances of election, as his campaign was in 2016. And his administration has no qualms about withholding defence assistance and other forms of foreign aid in service of its domestic political agenda.
As such, the Trump-Zelensky affair, which of course may yet fail to unseat the president, is an upset only insofar as it upends expectations regarding Trump’s dealings with Russia and Ukraine. The latter, after all, has already come closer to ousting him than the former—a far cry from the focus of Trump critics on the Mueller investigation and their view of Ukraine as a mere victim of Trump’s transactional foreign policy.
Instead, Trump’s transactional foreign policy has arguably inadvertently empowered Ukraine to shape the US president’s political future and reminded US lawmakers of the need to reaffirm and maintain support for reforms in Ukraine. And it has provided the latest evidence of what we already know to be true about his foreign policy, tendencies of his that will likely feature prominently in House Democrats’ case for impeachment.
Photo by The Presidential Office of Ukraine, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.
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