At each step in the impeachment saga, President Trump’s defense has shifted as prior ones fell apart. At first, Democrats were dragging things out. Now they’re moving too quickly. For months, the Inspector General probe would prove the FBI acted out of political bias in opening an investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. Now that the IG concluded otherwise, the report is irrelevant.
Likewise, when all else fails and Republicans have had to defend the president’s conduct on substance, they inevitably seem to embrace Russian propaganda. GOP lawmakers now argue that Trump was justified in withholding military aid to Ukraine because it was actually Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered with the 2016 election, despite recent briefings from Trump’s own intelligence officials that this is a fabrication peddled by the Kremlin. Nevertheless,, the Republican House leadership put out what is essentially the Republicans’ pre-trial memo making that case.
It asserts that Trump’s “deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine” is justified by Ukrainian “sabotage” and “interven[tion], however indirectly,in a US election.” What “sabotage” and “indirect intervention” did Ukraine commit against our democracy? According to Republicans, it consists wholly of “statements made by senior Ukrainian government officials in 2016 that were critical of then-candidate Trump.”
The evidence they cite consists entirely of the following:
- An op-ed in the Hill by Ukraine’s ambassador to the US lamenting Trump’s support for Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory.
- A member of Ukraine’s parliament telling the Financial Times that most Ukrainian politicians were “on Hillary Clinton’s side.”
- A former prime minister criticizing Trump on Facebook.
- The internal affairs minister calling Trump a “clown” on Twitter and “a dangerous misfit” on Facebook.
- A Politico report claiming that unnamed Ukrainian government officials had questioned Trump’s “fitness for office.”
Apparently, a variety of people in Ukraine felt the same way many Americans felt during the 2016 campaign. That was enough, it seems, to merit turning U.S. defense posture 180-degrees from what virtually every professional specialist in our government recommends, including almost all of Trump’s own top advisers. If that’s the case, personal effrontery is now the determinant of national security.
And that means we’re in real danger: There’s only one country on earth whose leaders haven’t at some point evinced an antipathy toward our Dear Leader—and that’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
While it’s true that various Ukrainian officials expressed concerns about the possibility that Trump might become President of the United States, that isn’t exactly surprising: Trump repeatedly displayed his affinity for Putin and suggested that he should be allowed to take the Crimea region from Ukraine. It’s easy to see why Ukrainians might have been apprehensive that he could become the leader of the free world.
But they weren’t alone: You can find leaders and officials in almost every country who were worried about Trump, for many, obvious reasons. In fact, you don’t need to be a member of an intelligence service to have been aware of this. You only needed to have met almost anyone from anywhere outside the U.S.
I don’t claim to be a foreign policy expert. I’m just an average American. But in the run-up to the 2016 election, I had the opportunity to speak at a number of conferences around the world on global politics, including in South Africa, Copenhagen, Paris, and Brussels.
At all these events, the Europeans routinely expressed concern at the prospect of a Trump administration. Those who lived under repressive regimes elsewhere, such as Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela, went out of their way to warn of how authoritarians took over their own countries in terms that were eerily evocative of Trump’s rise.
The most striking contacts I had with foreigners in 2016, however, came on Election Day itself, when I moderated a panel of political experts from around the world in Washington, D.C. I had emailed the panelists in advance asking them to let me know what points they wanted to make. A Russian political consultant, described to me as close to Putin, emailed back to say that, “obviously,” Putin wanted Trump to win, because Clinton was a “globalist”—promoting international human rights that overrode state prerogatives—while Trump was “an American nationalist” more consistent with Putin’s worldview.
That evening, I watched the returns at the National Press Club with all the conference attendees from around the world. I realized very early that Trump was going to win and decided to leave before the reality hit everyone else: the foreign political insiders there were almost-uniformly rooting for Clinton.
While I was waiting for my wife outside the coatroom, the Russian suddenly emerged from the washroom. He was surprised to see me readying to leave. He looked perplexed and asked why I was going so early. As I described in detail why Trump was going to carry the Electoral College, his mouth kept turning up in a broad smile despite his repeated efforts to suppress it. When I concluded that it was a good night for his country, he swaggered away with a jaunty “Sure is!”
After he trotted off, a young man with a vaguely familiar accent approached me. “I heard what you told the Russian,” he said. “You are absolutely right.” He was with the Estonian embassy. His government, he told me, was worried that Trump would greenlight a Russian invasion of their country. The next morning I met with similarly shaken officials from across Sweden’s political spectrum, who were convinced as well that Trump would give Putin free-rein.
In retrospect, it’s striking how clear Trump’s subservience to Putin was for months in advance of the election to everyone but the American public. If Iwas picking this up in casual travels and meetings with foreign acquaintances, it it hard to believe that U.S. officials weren’t picking up far more.
Of course, they were—and not only in the FBI and CIA. The Republican congressional leadership was caught on tape discussing in early 2016 Trump’s apparent status as a Russian asset. Kevin McCarthy even said—jokingly, he now claims—that he believed Trump was on Putin’s payroll. When some of his colleagues laughed at this supposed “joke,” however, McCarthy responded, “Swear to God.”
So, everyone, except American voters, seems to have known before the election that Trump represented a golden opportunity for Putin. Prominent individuals in just about every country, including our own, were very concerned about it. Many expressed those concerns publicly; most Republicans did not. Those who did now deny they had those concerns at all. They pretend they don’t understand why the FBI would have opened an investigation into what they themselves suspected. They even claim that, because some Ukrainians publicly voiced some of the same reservations about Trump, they were engaged in “sabotage.”
If that logic were true, then almost every country on the planet engaged in “sabotage” against America. We should be withholding defense assistance from all of them. Only one country, then, is our ally in this foreign policy Fun House: the only one whose leader wanted Donald Trump to be president of the United States.