On its surface, the impeachment inquiry is a threat to President Donald Trump but there’s a good chance it could benefit Republicans. For Russia, the prospect of American democracy in chaos is appealing.
Polls on impeachment have been all over the place, but CNN’s latest numbers indicate rising support for impeachment among independents and Republicans — all for what is arguably standard diplomacy: leveraging foreign diplomacy by using carrots and sticks.
Meanwhile, #TrumpLandslide2020 continues trending on social media. And the last time a president was impeached — Bill Clinton for lying about sexual misconduct, obstructing justice and abusing presidential power in 1998 — he prevailed, and the ordeal only increased his popularity.
Trump is accused of seeking foreign assistance to undermine his political opposition. (Trump has denied any wrongdoing.) The primary concern is that he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for evidence that 2020 rival and former Vice President Joe Biden had engaged in corruption. Trump is also claiming that his 2016 rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had hidden her infamous secret emails on servers in Ukraine. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden, and the claim about Ukraine servers appears to be a conspiracy theory.)
Exploiting international relations for domestic political gain is not only classic Trump — it’s also boilerplate for modern Republican presidents. For example, to defeat Democratic adversaries, Ronald Reagan’s campaign allegedly tried to stall the release of the US hostages in Iran until after the November 1980 election that Reagan eventually won. Richard Nixon was accused of thwarting the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese in 1968 to help his own presidential bid. Conservatives have even expressed pride at this kind of underhanded behavior.
Similarly, Trump himself won office after publicly inciting Russia to smear his opponent. Finding dirt on the Clintons wouldn’t have been too hard — but Trump could have done so without asking Russia for help.
The current impeachment inquiry was launched by a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was bullying the new Ukrainian president to investigate political rivals while withholding military aid that Ukraine needs for its defensive war against a 5-year-old Russian-backed insurgency on the southern border between the two countries.
For much of Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine, former Vice President Joe Biden ran point on US-Ukraine policy. Former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch arrived in the middle of that period. Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani are now spreading debunked rumors that Biden and Yovanovitch conspired against Trump to cover up what they say is the previous Ukrainian government’s alleged effort to help elect Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election.
The truth is that Biden and Yovanovitch did admirable jobs leading the fight against corruption in Ukraine on behalf of Western liberal democracy, and their work was widely celebrated by most of the Euro-Atlantic establishment. They should not be accused of crimes for honorably discharging their duties.
That’s not to say, though, that Biden’s son was justified in trading on the family name with foreign oligarchs. Having his son on the board of a company with some of Ukraine’s most corrupt figures makes the former vice president vulnerable to accusations of nepotism and selective judgment.
But it’s absurd for Trump to suggest that the Ukrainian prosecutor general whom President Barack Obama’s administration pressured out of office didn’t deserve it. Almost every democratic institution in Ukraine worked to get Viktor Shokin fired — and it was the right thing to do. He was a disruptive remnant of the pro-Russian regime that Ukrainians overthrew in 2014. Rehabilitating characters like Shokin could plausibly even provoke another revolution in Ukraine.
Trump’s then-special representative for Ukraine negotiations Kurt Volker went to Ukraine in 2017 in large part to ensure that Russia wouldn’t force Ukraine to surrender on terms that could lead to its partition. Volker had warned about this eventuality in 2015, when the Ukraine conflict was still in early stages and after Ukraine had committed to the dubious Minsk peace agreements.
This impeachment spectacle already threatens to distract Americans from other important news items — including the Minsk agreements favoring Russia, which could end up destabilizing Ukraine. This scandal also encourages Americans to associate Ukraine with the word “corruption.” And nothing pleases Putin more than smearing Ukraine’s reputation among that country’s allies.
Russia and Trump share common grudges: Ukraine, Biden, and the Clintons. Russia started a war in Ukraine in 2014 to prevent the country’s economic development and Euro-Atlantic integration. Trump holds a very negative perception of Ukraine, likely from surrounding himself with pro-Russian voices.
Putin hates the Clintons for many reasons. He blames Bill Clinton for Kosovo’s independence, and for the shock-doctrine privatization of Soviet state industry that some Russians believe destroyed their standard of living after the USSR fell. Putin blames Hillary Clinton for what he considers her attempt as Obama’s secretary of state to inspire a democratic revolution in Russia in 2011.
Impeaching Trump is just as likely to embolden him, and undermine Democratic frontrunner Biden, as it is to propel the US liberal resistance to a dramatic public victory over conservatives. The Republicans and Russians alike could be counting on that first outcome to weaken both the liberal Congress and Democratic presidential field.
As we can deduce from Republican rhetoric and the constant cacophony of negative Russian propaganda about Biden, he is one candidate neither Russia nor the GOP wants to face.
Should this gambit fail, Biden, his son and their undue association with Ukrainian corruption might be the main thing that voters remember. If the impeachment inquiry isn’t a Russian or Republican influence operation designed to own the liberals, it should be — because it has drowned out every other topic and might even dictate the Democratic primary.
Trump has publicly mocked the disabled and bragged about sexual assault, yet many conservatives remain proud they elected him. Compared to what both Trump and other indecent presidents before him have already gotten away with, many Americans might not lose much sleep over these Ukraine shenanigans.