The House is set this week to begin the first in a series of impeachment hearings. As we listen to testimony and consider the facts, we should bear in mind the big picture.
So far, the focus is rightly on Donald Trump’s extortion—the correct legal term—of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for personal political gain. Our attention is on his warping of American foreign policy, putting the service of our national interests below his own. That alone is an abuse of power that the framers themselves thought was worthy of indictment by a majority of the the US House of Representatives.
But as the Editorial Board has argued, that’s not the big picture. Focusing on Ukraine is a tactical decision on the part of House Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and others apparently believe they have enough evidence, and are going to procure more, that can impeach (indict) Trump. This crime, however, is almost certainly just one of a galaxy of crimes that may later come to light. Some Republicans are prepared to go to the wall for the president. Only a full context can reveal the depth of their betrayal.
Betrayal? Yes. To paraphrase Pelosi, all roads lead to Moscow.
It would be one thing for the Republicans to argue, as they are, that Trump didn’t do anything wrong in asking Zelensky to investigate corruption in Ukraine. It would be one thing if that investigation just happened to include corrupt practices by an energy firm on whose board of directors sat Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. It would be one thing to suggest, as some Republicans are saying outright, that the president hasn’t done anything worse than any other president. They’ve all done a little quid pro quo.
But it’s another thing entirely for Trump to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid in exchange not for an investigation but for Volodymyr Zelensky’s public declaration that an investigation is underway. It’s absolutely another thing when the president refuses to meet with Zelensky at the White House unless he announces that his government plans to investigate the Bidens. According to all witness testimony from Trump-appointed State Department officials, it was clear to everyone involved that there was a difference in the president’s mind between Ukraine investigating and just saying it was investigating, and that saying it was more important than doing it.
What conclusions can we draw from that difference? For one thing, that actual corruption, whether or not it involved the Bidens, was beside the point. For another, that actually investigating corruption didn’t matter either. What mattered to Trump was Zelensky announcing an investigation in order to give the impression that it’s valid and legitimate though it had no grounding in fact. Public statements that have the appearance of truth but that are empty of truth are classic tools of propaganda. The president didn’t withhold military aid in exchange for an investigation. He tried to straw-boss Zelensky into becoming an accomplice in turning lies into reality.
The question then: why would Trump put a higher value on propaganda than on his own country’s national interests (which were said to be anti-corruption for the sake of liberal western-style democracy). To answer that, we have to ask another question: who does the propaganda serve? To be sure, it serves Trump, but that’s not all. We know that’s not all because the president linked three things in his bid to extort Zelensky, according to testimony by George Kent, a senior State Department official. Those three things were “investigations, Biden and Clinton.” Yes, meaning you-know-who.
With the addition of Hillary Clinton to the mix, we know the president wasn’t just trying to rig the next election against a leading Democratic rival. He was trying to rewrite the history of the 2016 election, meaning write Russia right out of it. The president says he believes, and wishes the rest of us would believe, that it wasn’t the Russians who attacked our sovereignty in 2016. It was the Ukrainians. And it wasn’t his campaign that conspired to defraud the American people. It was the Democrats. If the Democrats are the bad guys, then he’s the good guy, and whatever role Russia played in Clinton’s defeat was only to the extent that it exposed the enemy within.
This disinformation story has its origins in Russia. Efforts to validate this “false narrative”—to make it real—began with Paul Manafort, continued with The Hill’s John Solomon and concluded, to the best of our knowledge, with Rudy Giuliani, who has led Trump’s “shadow diplomacy” to Ukraine. Giuliani’s goal has been finding ways to launder Russian propaganda through mainstream political discourse. That has given him the confidence to cast even a combat veteran as a disloyal saboteur. To put this in the starkest of terms: Trump’s interests are not America’s. They are Vladimir Putin’s.
This is the big picture to bear in mind as the House begins impeachment hearings. This is the context in which the Republicans are operating. To know this is to know the potential depths of their betrayal. Just remember: all roads lead to Moscow.