The bitter political battle underway on Capitol Hill between House Democrats investigating President Trump and House Republicans clinging to any explanation that excuses the president’s actions may seem bad enough. But the public impeachment hearings last week serve as a reminder that an actual war is taking place in Ukraine as it fights to protect its independence. Amid that war — which puts human life, not just political power, at risk — the public testimony in the House impeachment hearings suggests the president of the United States has failed to uphold American national security interests.
Since 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and seized a large swath of Ukrainian territory, Ukraine has been fighting against Russian forces to maintain its independence in a conflict that, as career diplomat and deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent told lawmakers on Wednesday, has claimed more than 13,000 lives. As Kent, acting US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, and former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch underscored in their testimony, Ukraine’s independence is not incidental to the United States’ interests or, for matter, to that of the world’s democracies: It is a critical bulwark in a decades-long strategy to contain Russian aggression and dominance and to secure our NATO allies against the proven expansionist ambitions of Russia’s leadership.
The most alarming information in Taylor’s public testimony was his account of the moment his colleague, David Holmes, also an American diplomat in Ukraine, overheard President Trump asking US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, on the phone from Kyiv, about the status of “the investigations.” His testimony — and Holmes’ private testimony — further support the argument that the president personally sought the investigation of a political opponent in exchange for releasing military aid to a foreign ally — what would amount to extortion. (That the aid was released after a whistle-blower filed a complaint about the exchange does not diminish the magnitude of the offense. A failed extortion is still a crime and impeachable offense, just as the failed 1972 robbery at the Watergate Office Building was still a crime, and its coverup an abuse of power.)
Taylor, who has five decades of experience in military and diplomatic service, testified that he had never before seen a US president make foreign aid conditional on his own personal or political interests. That doing so would be a historic aberration should bolster the case for impeachment if the evidence continues to support this version of events.
Perhaps equally important for the American public to know as it looks to 2020 is that Holmes privately testified that he was told by Sondland that President Trump cares more about the investigations of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden than he does about the war in Ukraine. To hear the nonpartisan diplomat’s impression stated so clearly — that the president of the United States was more deeply invested in digging up dirt on a political opponent than in his own administration’s strategy for Ukraine — might not surprise Trump’s most cynical critics. But it ought to wake up his more ambivalent supporters, especially those who profess to care about the nation’s security and the long-term prospect of US leadership around the globe. Taylor and Holmes described a leader with a callous disregard for the lives of Ukrainians, the interests of the United States and our European allies, and the fate of a democracy that faces an existential risk. The president should have looked at Ukraine and seen a country whose vulnerability meant it needed US help; instead, it seems he looked at that vulnerability and saw an opportunity for a shakedown.
Republicans in Congress should pay attention to the nonpartisan career public servants who spoke on Capitol Hill last week, and to their insistence that what they have witnessed in our foreign policy with Ukraine this year is without precedent — and moreover, wrong. And even if the impeachment process does not lead to the removal of Donald Trump from the presidency, these are grounds for Republicans, Independents, and Democrats alike to abandon him at the ballot box in favor of a leader who will put the country first — and fiercely defend its interests above his or her own.