Impeachment 2.0 is Trainwrecking U.S. Foreign Policy
As impeachment fever grips Washington, the long-ranging and damaging foreign policy implications of the release of a memo summarizing President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were largely overlooked.
Trump released the readout of his call for personal and political reasons; White House officials say the president felt Republicans were fumbling the messaging. His decision means that international leaders will be left wondering whether, at any moment, embarrassing details of a private phone call with the American president could be leaked for political gain.
“This is a big mistake — terrible precedent, as no foreign leaders in [the] future will speak candidly with the president on any future calls,” tweeted Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration. “Presidents need to have the right to conduct diplomacy privately.”
And that’s not all: impeachment 2.0 is a veritable minefield of diplomatic disasters. Ukraine is a small country, very much in need of aid in its fight against its neighbor Russia, and extremely leveraged by U.S. demands.
The Ukraine story paints a deeply troubling picture of information security within Trump’s inner circle—even more so because details of his private phone calls with Mexico and Australia were also leaked two years ago. In that case, The Washington Post published the leaks over White House objections. This time, Trump himself authorized the release.
After Trump released the memo, he trotted out Zelensky for an awkward press conference wherein he alleged that he’d placed “no pressure” on the Ukrainian president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden’s son.
Seated across from Trump, Zelensky said the July call was a “good phone call” and “normal,” and that he discussed “many things.”
“Nobody pushed me,” said Zelensky.
But the White House memo of the call paints a different picture. Zelensky flatters Trump, says he stayed at his hotel, and credits him with inspiring his “Servant of the People” campaign. When Trump complains about the lack of aid from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Zelensky echoes him.
The comedian-turned-politician then asks to purchase more Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Ukraine desperately needs in its ongoing fight against Russian-backed separatists.
“I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump responds. He then requests investigations into cybersecurity company Crowdstrike and a Ukrainian prosecutor that Trump says failed to investigate Hunter Biden. At Trump’s insistence, Zelensky agrees to work with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr on the investigation.
While the details of the phone call are unlikely to hurt Zelensky’s 71 percent approval rating in Ukraine, they do have the potential to damage the country in other significant ways. Ukraine relies on the support of France and Germany in its campaign for sanctions on Russia, and Zelensky’s criticism could hurt his relationship with them.
That’s probably why Zelensky made it clear he didn’t think his conversation should have been released to the public.
“I think such things, such conversations between heads of independent states, they shouldn’t be published,” he told reporters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
“I am grateful for any assistance to Ukraine from our European leaders, from Ms. Merkel, from Mr. Macron, and from others,” he said.
Zelensky’s obsequiousness to Trump won’t help him in negotiations with hostile leaders either. The fact that in the call Zelensky “looks like a whipping boy” will not make things easy for him when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Vitaly Sych, editor of the Ukrainian news magazine Novoye Vremya. More than anything, Zelensky sounds out of his depth, Sych told Politico. “He looks like a very weak negotiator. It’s very tough for him, it’s not his level. The only thing he did was agree with Trump.”
At one point in the call, Zelensky tells Trump, “yes, you are absolutely right. Not only 100 percent but actually 1,000 percent.”
Several passages of the memo are embarrassing to Zelensky, says Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies.
“It will be a lesson for him what to say and not to say in the future,” says Fesenko.
Fesenko’s assessment underscores the chilling effect this will have on world leaders’ ability to speak freely to the U.S., and to trust that their words will remain private.
This also holds true for the whistleblower and his complaint. How is it that a third party was able to access intimate details of the president’s discussions with a foreign leader from White House officials? And how did details of the whistleblower’s complaint make headlines before a congressional investigation was completed? These security lapses have long-term foreign policy implications.
That Trump only agreed to the phone call with Zelensky after the Ukrainian president agreed to discuss the corruption investigations only compounds the public image problem for Ukraine, and further damages the international reputation of the U.S.
“It was clear that Trump will only have communications if they will discuss the Biden case,” Serhiy Leshchenko, an anticorruption advocate and adviser to Zelensky, told ABC News. “This issue was raised many times. I know that Ukrainian officials understood.”
That Democrats were first to use Ukraine for help in U.S. elections does not ameliorate how toxic this is for both countries.
Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, boasted after meeting Zelensky in Kiev that he told the new Ukrainian leader U.S. aid was his country’s “most important asset” and if he cooperated with Guiliani’s demands to investigate past corruption allegations, it would be viewed as election meddling and “disastrous for long-term U.S.-Ukraine relations.”
This is the very epitome of the swamp. International aid is funded by taxpayers, and is presumably spent in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. It is not meant to be the plaything of venal politicians, a bargaining chip in partisan political maneuvers.
Ukraine depends on the U.S. in its fights with its powerful neighbor Russia, but “we are just small change in their games,” a senior Ukrainian security official told Politico. There is real fear that Ukraine, like Russia before it, will become politically toxic in Washington.
Thus it is not surprising that State and Defense Department officials were reportedly angry over Giuliani’s shadow Ukraine agenda. After the abrupt removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine earlier this year, “the circumvention of senior officials on the National Security Council, and the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid administered by the Defense and State departments…key officials from these agencies” had to piece together what Giuliani was up to by reading news reports, The Washington Post reports.
Asked whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was “unhappy” with him, Giuliani responded, “I’m the legitimate whistleblower. I have uncovered corruption that this Washington swamp has been covering up effectively for years and his State Department, you know, asked me to do this. So Mike, if you’re unhappy with me, I’m sorry but I accomplished my mission.”
“I have no idea if he is unhappy with me or not,” Giuliani said. “Frankly, I don’t care. I’m the president’s lawyer!”
Imagine what leaders in Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea think of all this. One thing is certain: a government full of officials unspooling in real time, publicly battling their competing agendas on the evening news, does not project a strong image to the world.
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.