It’s Not What the President Did—It’s Why He Did It

Today’s impeachment hearings depicted a president whose interest in Ukraine was personal, not policy-based.

Erin Scott / Reuters

In his opening statement at today’s first public impeachment hearing, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee argued that the real story of the Ukraine scandal is not any inappropriate behavior by Donald Trump, but rather the actions of a deep state that hates the president and is determined to subvert his leadership.

“Elements of the civil service have decided that they, not the president, are really in charge,” Representative Devin Nunes charged. “After expressing skepticism of foreign aid and concern about corruption on the campaign trail, President Trump acted skeptically about foreign aid and expressed concerns about foreign corruption … Officials showed the surprising lack of interest in the indications of Ukrainian election meddling that deeply concerned the president at whose pleasure they serve.”

In the picture Nunes was drawing, unelected officials tried to block Trump’s pure-hearted battle against corruption. But Nunes’s argument did not fare well over the course of today’s hearing. Instead, the testimony depicted a president whose interest in Ukraine was personal, not policy-based. Trump never made an attempt to change American policy toward Ukraine, or to fight corruption broadly. His goal was to extort assistance in his reelection effort from the Ukrainian government.

Most important, Trump never really changed American policy. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified, strengthening the Ukrainian government against Russia was part of the Trump administration’s articulated global strategy. In May, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked William Taylor to serve as acting ambassador to Ukraine, Pompeo affirmed the existing policy.

“During my meeting with Secretary Pompeo on May 28, I made clear to him and the others present that if U.S. policy toward Ukraine changed, he would not want me posted there and I could not stay,” Taylor testified. “He assured me that the policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue and that he would support me in defending that policy.”

By mid-August, with military aid to Ukraine frozen for no clear reason, Taylor sought to understand whether American policy had changed. He called Ulrich Brechbuhl, a top official at the State Department, who told Taylor that he was unaware of any change. The next day, Taylor called Tim Morrison, who oversaw European policy for the National Security Council. “I asked him if there had been a change in policy of strong support for Ukraine, to which he responded, ‘It remains to be seen,’” Taylor recalled. “He also told me during this call that the ‘president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.’”

The president does have the power to change policy, of course. It’s just that Trump never did that—or that if he did, he never told any of the people involved in implementing it. (After public and congressional scrutiny, the aid was released. There still has not been a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.) No one, from the top leaders of the State Department to the White House to the embassy in Ukraine, was informed about any new policy. They were, as far as they knew, continuing to implement President Trump’s strategy.

Moreover, Trump could hardly have been seeking a new, anti-corruption policy in Ukraine. As The Washington Post reported in October, the Trump administration has sought to cut billions of dollars from anti-corruption programs around the world, including in Ukraine. As Kent testified today, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had worked against corruption, earning her enemies—who then mounted a smear campaign and successfully advocated for Trump to fire her.

Instead, Trump showed a consistent focus on two specific cases that are connected to his political fortunes: first, Burisma Holdings, the natural-gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served; second, a conspiracy theory that lacks substantiating evidence about Ukrainian hackers in the 2016 election. These are the cases that Trump brought up on his July 25 call with Zelensky, and they are also the cases that his aides, including Ambassadors Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker, informed the Zelensky administration were essential to investigate in exchange for a White House meeting and the release of the military aid.

During questioning, the Republican counsel Steve Castor suggested to Taylor that the involvement of Sondland and Volker was not “outlandish,” and Taylor agreed, weakly. But the question is not whether they could be involved in the abstract, but rather what they were trying to do in this case. As Kent noted, the United States does press foreign countries to investigate lawbreaking, but it does so through established methods.

“If we think there’s been a criminal act overseas that violates U.S. law, we have the institutional mechanisms to address that,” he said. “It could be through the Justice Department and FBI agents assigned overseas, or through treaty mechanisms. As a general principle, I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.”

Taylor testified that he recommended Volker contact a U.S. deputy assistant attorney general. Taylor also recommended that any statement be made in coordination with a probe into the origins of the 2016 election-interference investigation, which is being led by U.S. Attorney John Durham and overseen by Attorney General William Barr.

But this is not, by all available evidence, what happened. Instead, Trump ran his requests for Zelensky to announce investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election through an irregular channel, including Sondland, Volker, and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. One possible reason for this is that, despite the unsavory nature of Biden’s appointment to the Burisma board, and despite Trump’s frequent innuendo, no one has yet produced public evidence of wrongdoing.

The president’s position, according to testimony under oath, was that Zelensky would have to make a public announcement before he’d get the promised meeting and congressionally appropriated funds. Sondland initially told the Ukrainians that they needed to make the announcement in order to get a meeting, but he then told Taylor that he had misspoken.

“In fact, Ambassador Sondland said, everything was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor recalled. “He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky in a public box, by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”

That’s important for two reasons. First, it shows Trump withholding not only what he had the power to give or take—a meeting—but also what he didn’t: the funds Congress had appropriated. Second, it indicates that Trump’s concern was not about broad-based corruption, nor was it a gripe with the government of Ukraine, nor was it any personal animosity with Zelensky. It was just about Trump’s personal political gain. If these investigations served the U.S. national interest, then the Trump administration could and would have offered an explanation as to how they did so. It has not.

“During our call on September 8, Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman,” Taylor said. “When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check. Ambassador Volker used the same language. I argued to both that the explanation made no sense. Ukrainians did not owe President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for political gain was crazy.”

There was only one big factual revelation in today’s hearing, and it, too, points to Trump’s motivations being personal and not based on policy. Taylor testified that on Friday, one of his staffers in Ukraine told him something new. On July 26, the staffer was with Sondland when Trump called. The staffer asked what Trump thought about Ukraine. “Mr. Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden,” Taylor said.

Later, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff asked Taylor about that: “And I take it the import of that is, he cares more about that than he does about Ukraine?”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor replied.

As I’ve noted before, Trump’s demand for Zelensky to announce investigations while disavowing electoral interference was Orwellian, since the announcement itself would have constituted election interference. President Trump, like any president, has the right to change American policy, though any major shift invites scrutiny from Congress and the public. But the impeachment hearings are not about combatting corruption or reorienting American foreign policy. Congress is instead investigating whether the president solicited bribes or extorted a foreign government to improve his domestic political fortunes. And a growing amount of evidence indicates that he did.