In the past two weeks, the news cycle has been dominated by what could be the biggest bombshell of the Trump presidency. After being stalled by the White House for weeks, a whistleblower complaint, meticulously detailing a nefarious phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that took place on July 25, became public.
The phone call featured a discussion between the two leaders in which President Donald Trump appears to have leveraged the withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine to force Zelensky to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponent, Joe Biden. After these revelations came to light and notes from the phone call were released, all hell broke loose in Washington D.C. Moderate Democrats who had still been holding out on impeachment finally announced in a unified gesture that they would support an impeachment inquiry, giving the House Democrats a majority support for impeachment. This action led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce officially that the House of Representatives would move forward with impeachment, a decision Democratic leadership has been pressured to make since Mueller’s testimony before Congress over the summer.
For Government Professor Justin Peck, the Ukraine angle for impeachment gained immediate traction where the Russia investigation stagnated because the Ukraine story has a clear cut narrative that is more palatable to the American electorate.
“Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats, I’m sure, thought this through thoroughly,” Peck said. “If I had to guess, just based on what Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats have said, they are now going forward with impeachment primarily because of the threat of the invitation for future interventions in 2020. It is their concern that, compared to the Russia investigation, what was rumored wasn’t ever totally proven: that Trump explicitly solicited help in 2016. While the links there remain ambiguous, or at least convoluted for most voters, this phone call from their perspective seems pretty cut and dry, there’s no ambiguity. I also think part of their calculation is that this is the angle that opens us up to the least amount of risk in terms of backlash.”
While recent polls have shown that public support for impeaching the president is at an all-time high, Peck highlighted the political risks Democrats take if the impeachment process can’t gain enough public support in the long run or if their efforts are stymied by Republicans in the Senate.
“There is an immediate short term risk of this backfiring,” he said. “Part of what the Clinton impeachment tells us is the classic story of the backfire. The Republicans pursued this impeachment, and it ended up hurting them in the next elections, and they lost the House. So I think probably one of the calculations on the part of Democrats, with this fallout in mind from 1998, is that this angle opens us up to the least amount of risk in terms of backlash.”
Peck also argued that there is just as much of a political risk if they choose to oppose impeachment and removal from office in the Senate.
“Republicans aren’t looking carefully enough at the residual effects of defending him,” Peck said. “Even if they believe it is illegitimate, there’s just not enough consideration beyond the immediate short-term political effects of what we are actually now embarking on and what that will mean in a longer term sense. I think that, no matter how you feel, it, it’s bad.
However, Peck foresees Republicans potentially coming around on impeachment if more information comes out about some of Trump’s (falsely) classified phone calls with Putin and the Saudi royal family.
“I have this debate with people in the Government Department a lot,” said Peck. “I would not be surprised if the Republican party, if more of these phone calls come out and there’s conversations with the head of Saudi Arabia about the murder of the Washington Post journalist for example, which has been rumored, I think there you could very well imagine there being something that is so egregious that the Republicans do turn. I am not a person who believes that they will hang with him come hell or high water. I think, I think there is the potential for them turning.”
Fundamentally though, Peck said he sees some of the political and media reaction as mischaracterizing the extent to which this type of dealing is unprecedented. While Trump’s willingness to advance his own political interests is new, Trump’s hard-ball style of foreign policy dealing, for Peck, has been less of a rupture from past American diplomacy and more of a continuation.
“These types of transcripts with foreign leaders aren’t normally released, or at least that has not been the precedent for past presidents,” said Peck. “So my point is that we don’t really know what other presidents have said or implied. So I don’t know that this kind of like back dealing, ‘I scratched your back, you scratch my back’–type thing has not been done before. I don’t know that it’s been done to investigate another presidential candidate that the president defeated. Yeah, I mean that is probably novel, but I don’t know that on this dimension Donald Trump has changed anything or behaved in any way differently, other than it does seem to be far more personally motivated than maybe some prior presidents have been…. I think the larger question that this gets to is how many public eyes do you want on the types of things this president is doing.”
On the point, Associate Professor of Government Douglas Foyle, who specializes in American foreign policy, offers a different perspective. While the method itself might not be novel, Foyle views Trump’s explicit weaponizing of foreign relations for personal political ends as distinct from past presidents.
“While I don’t think the mechanism of using political leverage or, or talking very explicitly to foreign leaders by putting pressure on them for certain issues such as, for example, human rights violations is unique, the fact that Trump is doing it because he wants an investigation of Biden, I think that’s new,” Foyle said. “The other new thing with Trump is the public nature of all these interactions, that when he tweets about something or he says something in public, you force the other side to publicly comply. Maybe they want to play ball with you, but they don’t want to look like they’re playing ball with you, that’s the risk.”
From a foreign policy perspective, Foyle said he has been struck by the degree to which the phone call reveals the president’s utilization of diplomacy to advance his political interests rather than the interests of the American people.
“I think what’s so shocking is how much he’s willing to mix substantive foreign policy issues with his personal political ambitions in such a clear and explicit way,” Foyle said. “And the phone call transcript, the intermingling of military aid to a country that’s on the front line of a conflict with Russia with sort of Mueller investigation 2016, campaign things and also the 2020 looking forward to investigation. And Biden, you don’t see that intermingling, you know, with a foreign leader, like in a phone call that just doesn’t, that doesn’t happen.”
On the question of Trump’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine that the phone call with Zelensky verges on, Foyle shed light on the way the Trump Administration’s foreign policy has built off and diverged from Obama’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. After the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and subsequently invaded eastern Ukraine, both of which were highly controversial and excoriated by Western powers. The Obama Administration countered Vladimir Putin’s act of aggression by placing sanctions on Russia and giving military aid to Ukrainian forces.
“While the Trump Administration has continued military funding and sent more heavy duty artillery weapons to the Ukrainians, the key piece that’s different with the Trump Administration relative to Obama is the treatment of Russia,” Foyle said. “The Trump Tower meeting back in June of 2016 is about Russia wanting to get the sanctions that were imposed on them lifted, after their invasion of Ukraine, getting those removed and alleviated. And so, you know, you, you, the Obama Administration was pushing very hard against against Russia trying to make their actions in Ukraine be costly. And so to the extent that Trump, the tone of the Trump Administration policy relative to Russia is less aggressive, that would be a shift.”
Lydia Tomkiw ’11, a Wesleyan alumnus who has been reporting on Ukrainian politics since the revolution in 2014, offered her own take on the degree to which Trump’s foreign policy has worked in conjunction with the Obama-era policies towards Ukraine.
“The Obama Administration did not want to sell weapons to Ukraine,” Tomkiw said. “That actually changed under Trump with the fail of the javelin anti-tank missiles. But before that, under Obama and continuing until today, a lot of U.S. military has been sort of training Ukrainian troops in Western Ukraine. They’ve been sort of helping bring the Ukrainian military up to grade, so the phone call with Trump very much is a new Ukrainian president [Zelensky] coming in and wanting to make sure the aid keeps coming. And then you have, you know, that famous sort of line from Trump with, you know, that ends with ‘though,’ which implies that he’s asking for a favor.”
Tomkiw is referring to a quote from the phone call, in which Trump says, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
Another key component of the Obama Administration’s policy towards Ukraine that has come under scrutiny is the administration’s encouragement, along with other Western powers, to have Ukraine’s head prosecutor step down on accounts of corruption. Republicans have pushed the narrative that Joe Biden as vice president initiated this move because of his son Hunter Biden’s shady business dealings with a Ukrainian natural gas company that could have been investigated by this head prosecutor.
“So all of this has been incredibly muddied by Rudy Giuliani,” Tomkiw said. “The last couple of prosecutors in Ukraine have not been ones that activists and anti-corruption folks have been supportive of. Back in 2015, as part of continued U.S. support and aid, Joe Biden says that the then prosecutor general really isn’t doing enough, but this was also a move that the [European Union], the IMF [International Monetary Fund], and anti-corruption activists in Ukraine were all calling for as well. So this whole Giuliani-Trump thing has really muddied the timeline there. Biden’s son doesn’t come to serve on that energy company board until 2014, and the investigation that was happening into that company was happening back in 2010.”
With a multitude of complex layers and angles to the Zelensky phone call and whistleblower complaint reaching an almost labyrinthine scale, journalists, political experts, and congressional representatives are still unpacking the full context and future implications of the phone call.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.