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.