Over the past two weeks, a parade of sober and coldly furious civil servants has come forward to testify before Congress about President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold congressionally approved aid to Ukraine.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor emphasized that “the security assistance we provide is crucial to Ukraine’s defense,” invoking the sacrifice of Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russia. Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, testified that “the stakes for the United States in a successful Ukraine could not be higher.” The former National Security Council aide Tim Morrison emphasized that “Ukraine is on the front lines of a strategic competition between the West and Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia.” Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified that a “secure, democratic, and free Ukraine serves not just the Ukrainian people, but the American people as well.”
Republicans and Trump defenders have sought to cast the impeachment inquiry as an effort to criminalize a policy dispute. Trump’s attempt to coerce a foreign country to frame a political rival was “inappropriate, misguided foreign policy,” in the words of the Texas Republican Will Hurd, but he insisted he had “not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
The president sets foreign policy, after all, and perhaps he didn’t want to send lethal aid to Ukraine. The president’s vocal anti-anti-Trump defenders on the left suggest that perhaps Trump was bucking the bipartisan tradition of Washington imperialism. Maybe Trump was genuinely concerned about corruption. A kernel of truth—that people can reasonably disagree about whether the U.S. should be involved in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine—becomes the basis for sweeping dismissal of presidential wrongdoing.
All of these arguments, ranging from the weak to the false, obscure the core reason for the impeachment inquiry, which is that the Trump administration was engaged in a conspiracy against American democracy. Fearing that the 2016 election was a fluke in which Trump prevailed only because of a successful Russian hacking and disinformation campaign, and a last-minute intervention on Trump’s behalf by the very national-security state Trump defenders supposedly loathe, Trump and his advisers sought to rig the 2020 election by forcing a foreign country to implicate the then-Democratic front-runner in a crime that did not take place. If the American people could not be trusted to choose Trump on their own, Trump would use his official powers to make the choice for them.
It was, in short, a conspiracy by Trump and his advisers to keep themselves in power, the exact scenario for which the Framers of the Constitution devised the impeachment clause. This scheme was carried out by Trump-appointed officials, and by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, running a corrupt back channel aimed at, in his words, “meddling in an investigation.” And it came very close to succeeding. As Brian Beutler writes, “Had the whole scheme not come to light in a whistleblower complaint, and Trump not released his hold on aid to Ukraine, we might have awaken [sic] one morning to a blaring CNN exclusive about international corruption allegations against the Democratic presidential frontrunner and his party.”
As the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified Wednesday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.” And as the U.S. official David Holmes told the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland had told him that Trump was merely concerned about “‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the, quote-unquote, ‘Biden investigation’ that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.”
This point is crucial. Trump was not concerned about “corruption” in Ukraine—his own Pentagon and State Department had certified that Ukraine had taken sufficient steps to root out corruption. Nor was Trump particularly interested in an actual investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden—what he wanted was a public accusation that he could use to cripple a political rival’s aspirations. Trump was not defying the bipartisan war lobby in an effort to extricate the U.S. from foreign entanglements, and he was not engaged in a dispute over policy with unelected bureaucrats pursuing their own agenda, because he was fundamentally uninterested in the policy in question, except in that it might be exploited to benefit him personally.
Trump saw an opportunity to strong-arm a weaker country into helping him win reelection, he abused his presidential authority to coerce it into doing so, and then he and his advisers sought to hide what they had done in order to maximize the public impact of the conspiracy. This plot, spearheaded by Giuliani, had already drawn credulous coverage from sympathetic reporters, and would likely have succeeded had the anonymous whistle-blower not registered a complaint exposing the scheme on September 9, which forced the Trump administration to release the aid to Ukraine on September 11.
A president who was genuinely opposed to U.S. entanglement in Ukraine, concerned about corruption, or involved in an internal struggle with bureaucrats over the ideal policy toward Ukraine would not have released the aid, because those concerns would have remained unaddressed. A president defying the bipartisan war lobby, seeking to prevent U.S. aid from being misused, or seeking to develop a better Ukraine policy would have had no reason to be concerned by the complaint. But the aid was released because a corrupt scheme to defraud the American people had been exposed, and so withholding it served no further purpose.
Trump’s defenders, having previously insisted that there was no “quid pro quo” involved in the president’s effort to extort Ukraine using taxpayer dollars, are slowly shifting to insisting, as much of the president’s base already believed, that Trump did nothing wrong. This is of a piece with the general anti-democracy trend in the Republican Party, which justly fears that the majority of the country no longer supports its agenda, and that extreme measures must be taken to shield its grip on power from democratic accountability.
The Republican Party has responded to the increasing diversity of the electorate with an accelerating intolerance for ethnic and religious minorities, and with elaborate schemes to disenfranchise rival constituencies and rig election rules to its advantage. Crucial to this effort is its conviction that the Republican electorate is the only one that can confer legitimacy on elected officials, and that the party’s political opponents are no longer wrong but fundamentally illegitimate, faithless usurpers with no right to determine the direction of the country. This has manifested in the quasi-religious dogma that Trump represents the will of Real America, and therefore defiance of his will is itself a form of treason.
Believing that Republican officials will be convinced by the evidence proffered by Trump’s own staff and political appointees is a mistake, because the underlying facts are not genuinely in dispute. Trumpists are not operating from an ethical framework that even allows acknowledgment that the president is capable of being guilty. Trump is the nation, and the nation cannot commit treason against itself. On the contrary, it is Joe Biden who is guilty of betrayal, defying the tribune of the people by seeking to run against him, and it is Trump’s treacherous staff who convict themselves of treason with every statement that implicates the president. The more evidence of Trump’s misdeeds the Democrats uncover, the more they reveal themselves as traitors. For Trumpists, there is no higher patriotism than bending to Trump’s will, and no more base corruption than defying it.
The impeachment inquiry has revealed the president’s personal corruption, but it has uncovered a more abstract one as well. The broken reputations of weak, conniving men litter the Trump era like corpses on a Civil War battlefield. Each of them believed, as some Trump officials currently do, that the president’s racism and corruption might be bent toward legitimate ends, and each of them has paid the price for his folly.
In only one sense have they succeeded: The president’s economic populism and his promises not to destroy the welfare state have been replaced with the traditional Republican agenda of providing low taxes for the wealthy, and freeing corporations from regulations designed to protect the public from their greed. But as the impeachment inquiry shows, it is Trump who has bent the establishment to his will, turning the party of Lincoln into little more than a subsidiary of the Trump Organization, with no higher purpose than executing the president’s corrupt schemes and shielding him from the potential consequences.
The rest of the country, however, should not lose sight of why the president is being impeached, and it is not because of a good-faith dispute over Ukraine policy. Trump and his advisers conspired to rig the 2020 election on his behalf, scheming to defraud the American people of a free and fair election. A genuine republic cannot survive chief executives who utilize their powers to make anyone who might challenge their authority into a criminal by extorting weaker entities into leveling false charges at their political rivals. Indeed, the republic’s Founders foresaw such a circumstance, and created the impeachment clause as a last resort against it. The high crime that the president has committed is not against Ukraine, but against America.
This may have little meaning to the minority of Americans who have decided that Trump is the only legitimate vessel of popular will, and that the only legitimate election is one that ends with Trump’s victory. But it matters to everyone else.