Weakest Link: Impeachment and National Security

Barack Obama talks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Ukraine. Photograph Source: White House – Public Domain

In the summer of 2016 President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump didn’t agree about much, except for one obscure issue of U.S. foreign policy: lethal military aid to Ukraine.

As commander in chief, Obama objected to such assistance, even in the face of a Russian proxy war. So did candidate Trump.  On the eve of Trump’s nomination, his allies replaced the GOP platform’s demand for “lethal defensive weapons” with a call for “appropriate assistance,” a formulation that Obama might have used.

Now four years later, Article I of the House impeachment bill charges that Trump abused his power by endangering U.S. national security in two ways: first,  by withholding lethal military assistance to Ukraine, and second, by soliciting foreign interference in a U.S. election.

The Democrats’ argument that Trump “endangered U.S. national security” is expansive. The president supposedly “jeopardized our alliances and undermined our efforts to promote the rule of law globally.” Ukraine, they contend, “is a ‘strategic partner of the United States’ on the front lines of an ongoing conflict with Russia. The United States has approved military assistance to Ukraine with bipartisan support since 2014, and that assistance is critical to preventing Russia’s expansion and aggression.”

This is the militarized rhetoric of threat inflation. Ukraine may be a “strategic partner” but it is not a member of NATO or any other military alliance. The invocation of a “bipartisan” consensus papered over the fact that Obama wanted no part of it, while implying, wrongly that the policy he pursued endangered American lives. After throwing Obama’s principled non-interventionism under the proverbial bus, the Democrats adopted a rationalization for U.S. policy rarely heard in U.S. politics in the past decade.

“This military assistance—which President Trump withheld in service of his own political interests— ‘saves lives’ by making Ukrainian resistance to Russia more effective,” the House managers claimed. “It likewise advances American national security interests because, ‘[i]f Russia prevails and Ukraine falls to Russian dominion, we can expect to see other attempts by Russia to expand its territory and influence.’ Indeed, the reason the United States provides assistance to the Ukrainian military is ‘so that they can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here.’”

And so the Democrat first impeachment charge echoed the rhetoric of President George W. Bush, The failed president defended the invasion of Iraq, proclaiming, “We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.”

The idea—persistent in the annals of American exceptionalism—is that waging war or intervening militarily overseas (sometimes described as “supporting the spread of democracy”) will somehow make Americans safer in their homes. The Iraq catastrophe, which destabilized the Middle East, stoked mass migration and turbo-charged jihadist terror networks, seemingly proved the folly of the notion. But not, it seems, to the House managers.

Such is the peculiar strength of the national security party in American politics. Once firmly aligned with the Republican party, this Washington faction (which Trump demonizes as “the deep state”) has shifted into de facto alliance with the Democrats. The former leaders of the national security agencies—the CIA’s John Brennan, Mike Morrell, and Michael Hayden, along with the NSA’s James Clapper—all supported the Iraq invasion. All now support of the president’s partisan opponents. Not since George H. Bush, a former CIA director, was elected President in 1988 has the intelligence community leadership intervened so openly in American politics.

Small in numbers, the national security faction is influential in the civil service, the military, the media, and on Capitol Hill. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was contemplating how to respond to the revelations of Trump’s Ukraine extortion last September, it was a CIA whistleblower and a Washington Post op-ed, signed by seven House freshmen Congressmen with national security experience, that prompted her to drop her opposition to impeachment.

But if the “Trump endangers national security argument” was supposed to persuade the stony-faced Republican senators, it failed, and for good reason. The danger of Americans fighting Russia “over here,” meaning in the United States of America, is non-existent.  Such thinking, judging by Trump’s excoriation of Bush’s Iraq “lies” and open fondness for Putin, has little support in today’s Republican party. It has just a little appeal to the war-weary Democratic rank and file. The argument was implausible, if not risible. It undermined the otherwise strong case for impeachment.

‘Stalwart Friend’

On Monday, deputy White House counsel Mike Purpura responded deftly. He took to the Senate podium  to play sound bites from Ambassadors William Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch, and Kurt Volker.

The three diplomats have given credible and devastating testimony about Trump’s furtive efforts to extract an official Ukraine investigation of his rival Joe Biden. They have all testified to Trump’s abuse of power. Yet they all agreed the Ukraine policy he implemented was a welcome corrective to Obama’s policy. Taylor called it a “substantial improvement.”

“President Trump is a more stalwart friend of Ukraine that President Obama,” Purpura declared said. If you judge friendship in the coin of lethal weaponry–which the House managers do in Article I—then he had a point.

Over the objection of his hawkish advisers, Obama had blocked lethal military assistance to Ukraine on principled grounds (and he did so in a transparent and legal way.) His sensible position was summarized by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic in 2016:  “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.” Obama’s policy was to support Ukraine in every way but militarily and to promote peace talks.

Obama’s dovish views about the limits of U.S. power were also grounded in the realities of Ukraine. The country’s economy, based on agriculture and extraction, is not dynamic. Its national institutions are weak. Its politics are dominated  by shifting coalitions of oligarchs, some who align themselves with Moscow, others who look to the West for help. Some, like Mykola Zlochevsky, a former cabinet minister in a pro-Russian government, financier of the Burisma gas company, and patron of Joe Biden’s son, look both East and West for support. In any case,  Ukraine was a weak reed for U.S. military intervention.

By contrast, Trump’s views about Ukraine were grounded in admiration for Vladimir Putin. In 2014, when a pro-Putin oligarch was ousted by the popular protests, supported by Washington (and Western intelligence services),  Putin responded by snatching Crimea, the easternmost department of the country. Then he launched a proxy war to bleed and debilitate the pro-Western government in Kiev. Some 13,000 people have died in the conflict. Trump’s take: “Obama was outsmarted by Putin.”

Like Obama, Trump downplayed the danger of Putin’s aggression to core U.S. interests, albeit for very different reasons.

About Face

Upon taking office, Trump quickly came around to the hawk’s point of view, if only to differentiate himself from Obama. The national security establishment, embodied by Taylor, Yovanovitch, and Volker, approved of his about-face–until Trump used the militarized U.S. policy for his own political advantage.

As national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his coming book, Trump withheld the aid on the condition that President Volodymyr Zelensky announce an investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma. Trump’s action was corrupt and illegal. But it was not an abuse of power that threatened the safety of the United States of America, any more than Obama’s prudential policy was a national security menace. On a day when Ken Starr’s hypocritical testimony inspired ridicule and Bolton’s name went unmentioned, Purpura effectively scored a point in favor of the embattled president

The second prong or Article 1 charges that Trump’s Ukraine power play endangered national security by soliciting the assistance of a foreign government in a U.S. election. This is a much more credible allegation. It is consistent with Trump’s non-criminal collusion with Russians in the 2016 campaign, and a much more serious threat to U.S. national security. If things go wrong in Ukraine, the American people will not suffer. If the 2020 election is not considered legitimate, the foundations of American democracy are not safe.

Purpura didn’t address this second national security argument in his abuse of power argument. He didn’t have to. He had illuminated the weakest link in the abuse of power charge against the president.

This article first appeared on Jefferson Morley’s DeepStateBlog.

Jefferson Morley is the author of the forthcoming Scorpions’ Dance; The President, the Spymaster and Watergate, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in June 2022.