Analysis

How Impeachment Forced Foreign Policy Back Into the 2020 Race

The Democratic candidates didn’t really want to talk about the rest of the world. But the devastating testimony on Capitol Hill this week—however it ends up—ensures they will.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Unio
Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The thunder outside the debate hall has become, finally, too loud to ignore. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates want to talk about Medicare, inequality, and immigration. Civil rights, guns, and education. Instead they are finding they must address U.S. policy toward a faraway country so little understood that many Americans aren’t sure whether it ought to be preceded by the word “the.” 

Strangely enough, U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects could well turn on what voters think about his behavior toward that country, Ukraine (no “the” needed), and its chief antagonist, Russia—and what that says about Trump’s competence and character. 

Weeks of impeachment hearings have turned into a stark, perhaps unprecedented lesson in the difference between the way U.S. officials are supposed to behave in the national interest, and how Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani did behave. While many wavering voters may have had a vague sense of this difference before, the spectacle of Trump and Giuliani making political sport with a nation under lethal threat from Russia—while Trump’s professional staff collectively tried to ameliorate the worst from their own president—could form a lingering and devastating impression right up until Election Day. 

One by one this week, members of Trump’s National Security Council and other administration officials testified that the president had leveraged strong bipartisan U.S. support for the beleaguered nation of Ukraine into a request for political favors from the new and vulnerable Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said National Security Council aide Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel and Purple Heart recipient who was one of those who listened in on the infamous July 25 phone call between Zelensky and Trump. “It was probably an element of shock that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out, was playing out—and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”

In the end, the biggest issue likely won’t be impeachment itself. Based on how the hearings before the committee have played out so far, Trump is almost certain to escape removal from office by conviction in the Senate. House Republicans, led by Rep. Devin Nunes of California and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have made plain during the ongoing hearings that they don’t consider Trump’s apparent abuse of U.S. national interests in pursuit of his political interests to be worthy of impeachment. The Senate Republicans, a mostly silent and scared bunch up until now, will very likely follow the House’s lead. 

Nor is the issue that Trump’s behavior points to outright guilt. As has happened so many times in Trump’s life, incompetence may prove his best defense. This is a president who often can’t “remember what he’s said or been told” and “has trouble synthesizing information, not occasionally but with regularity,” the person known as “Anonymous”—an unnamed senior staffer in his own administration—writes in his new book, A Warning. The president sometimes appears to be so confused that even in his phone call with Zelensky, Trump can’t coherently articulate his own strange conspiracy theories about the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and the 2016 election, or why they should be investigated, as he pressed Zelensky to do. It’s entirely possible Trump did indeed believe these issues were connected to the general problem of graft in Ukraine—that he somehow persuaded himself that Biden’s behavior was part of it. As Anonymous writes, Trump’s everyday life is made up of conspiracy theories, going back to his seminal political fantasy about former President Barack Obama’s Kenyan birthplace, and White House staffers typically “wonder, does he really believe these conspiracies?” Or as Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the president’s Republican chief defenders, put it earlier this month, how can Trump be guilty when his policy toward Ukraine “was incoherent”? 

But the evidence that Trump did not, as his European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland said, “give a shit” about Ukraine except that it conduct his desired investigations is overwhelming. At one of the most decisive moments in recent European history, Trump was interested mainly in pushing debunked conspiracies about his own political career. No professional diplomat who testified this week has ever seen anything like it, as several of them said.

The Democrats running for president in 2020 are not yet fully grappling with this issue. Wednesday night’s debate in Atlanta began, unsurprisingly, with questions about Ukraine and the ongoing impeachment hearings, but swiftly reverted to the same old debate about social equity and the candidates’ various parsings of Medicare for All.

Yet that will inevitably change. 

Voters often don’t pay attention to foreign policy, but modern presidential legacies tend to be defined by it. And the more distant we get from a presidency, the more an administration’s historical stature tends to be identified with the Oval Office’s constitutional prerogative, foreign affairs. When one thinks of John F. Kennedy, what comes to mind—his many fiscal measures, or his management of the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Lyndon Johnson is remembered for ramming the Great Society through Congress—but far more for bungling Vietnam. And Ronald Reagan is lionized because he “won the Cold War” (though in truth he gets too much credit for that) far more than for transforming the U.S. tax code. 

The same may prove true for Trump’s tenure, for all the wrong reasons. At each of the Democratic debates so far, the candidates have sought to avoid talking much about foreign policy—unless they’re asked. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has wanted to talk about health care and inequality, Biden about Trump’s propensity for sowing social enmity, and the rising Pete Buttigieg about everything else. Until now, the Democrats have also sought to avoid the question of impeachment—and the politically toxic prospect of a trial in the Senate that exonerates Trump and gives him a boost in the polls, as happened to Bill Clinton after his own impeachment ordeal in 1998.

Now they’re going to have to deal with it. And they’ll need to address, in some detail, whether Trump is unfit for office at all—especially where it concerns Washington’s relations with the world. It is likely the Democratic candidates will find themselves increasingly defined by how they answer that question.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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