Home Politics Trump’s Choice: National Security or Political Obsession – The New York Times

Trump’s Choice: National Security or Political Obsession – The New York Times

28 min read

The last two impeachment investigations of the past half-century began with a third-rate burglary and an extramarital affair. They quickly expanded to question the credibility and ethics of the president, but never touched on America’s national interests in the weightiest geopolitical confrontations of their eras.

The sober, just-the-facts testimony of two previously little-known diplomats on Wednesday left no doubt that the investigation into President Trump’s actions is fundamentally different. Mr. Trump had a choice between executing his administration’s own strategy for containing Russia or pursuing a political obsession at home.

He chose the obsession.

In an otherwise divided Washington, one of the few issues of bipartisan agreement for the past six years has been countering Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s broad plan of disruption. That effort starts in Ukraine, where there has been a hot war underway in the east for five years, and a cyber war underway in the capital, Kiev.

It is exactly that policy that Mr. Trump appears to have been discarding when he made clear, in the haunting words attributed to Gordon D. Sondland, who parlayed political donations into the ambassadorship to the European Union, that “President Trump cares more about the investigation of Biden” than about Ukraine’s confrontation with Mr. Putin’s forces.

It was perhaps the most telling, and to some the most damning, line of the torrent of revelations in the past two months — the distillation of an internal argument inside the Trump administration that Mr. Trump’s closest aides have endeavored to keep hidden.

That single line, relayed by William B. Taylor Jr., the avuncular, experienced diplomat sent back to Kiev last May by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, encapsulated the now-obvious truth that Mr. Trump had little interest in the central national security strategy that his own administration published in late 2017.

That strategy ostensibly reoriented American diplomacy from a 18-year-long focus on counterterrorism to a new approach to the world’s two “revisionist powers,’’ Russia and China. Each one poses very different challenges to the United States.

Mr. Taylor, a veteran — first of Vietnam and then of the Cold War and its messy aftermath — has devoted much of his career to building fragile democracies from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Those who know him say they do not know his politics. So it was no surprise when he cautioned the committee that he had no desire to take part in impeachment proceedings.

“I am not here to take one side or the other or to advocate for any particular outcome of these proceedings,’’ he said, a line that brought visible skepticism from those on the committee who believe he epitomizes the diplomatic “deep state.” Instead, Mr. Taylor, who served as ambassador to Ukraine under the George W. Bush administration, portrayed himself as a “fact witness” who had just returned from the Donbass, the eastern area of Ukraine where 14,000 people have already died.

But his facts led him to a pretty politically-charged conclusion. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,’’ Mr. Taylor said. When pressed what he meant, Mr. Taylor added that because “that security assistance was so important for Ukraine as well as our own national interests, to withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense.”

“It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do,” he added. “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

The issue is explained away by Mr. Taylor’s superiors in the State Department and the White House, who argue that the story of withheld aid is a political concoction. Ultimately, the funds were released. It was like paying your credit bill on the last day possible — in this case, the deadline was the end of the government’s fiscal year on September 30.

No real harm, no impeachable foul, they contend, and didn’t President Barack Obama decline to provide the Ukrainians with Javelin anti-tank missiles? One of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers noted that Washington’s press corps was not writing several years ago that Mr. Obama was, in this official’s words, leaving Ukrainians to die. In contrast, Mr. Trump offered them the Javelins. (Mr. Trump’s sale of those weapons prohibited the use of Javelins on the front lines, in an effort to cast them as a deterrent weapon.)

But from where Mr. Taylor was sitting in Kiev, it hardly seemed that withholding the aid was harmless. The power of his testimony lay in how starkly he laid out what amounted to an extortion scheme: that Mr. Trump was personally refusing to release the funds unless Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, publicly announced two investigations.

One was into Burisma, the energy company in which the son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had taken a board seat and payments of as much as $50,000 a month. The other was an investigation into a completely discredited theory that Ukrainian hackers, not Russia’s military intelligence unit, may have been responsible for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee. If that was true, the Justice Department might have to consider withdrawing its indictment of a dozen Russian intelligence officials for masterminding and executing one of the boldest hacks in American political history. The indictment was issued last year by Jeff Sessions, who then was serving as attorney general.

Of the many odd twists in the partisan noise around the impeachment, Mr. Trump’s effort to divert attention from suspicions about the hack away from Russia — implicit in his July 25 telephone conversation with Mr. Zelensky — may be the oddest. Ukraine has been Mr. Putin’s favorite cyber target, the petri dish where the Russian leader has tried out many of the techniques he later turned on the United States, from influence operations to tinkering with voter systems to riddling the electric grid with malware.

As George P. Kent, the assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Ukraine, told the committee Wednesday, the funds appropriated by Congress, and withheld on Mr. Trump’s orders, were designed “to fight Russian aggression in the defense, energy, cyber and information spheres.”

It was clear from the testimony that Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent have been pressing for — and implementing — some version of that policy for several administrations, and deeply believe in it. But it has become more urgent. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 unified Republicans, Democrats and Western allies; they issued sanctions and threw Russia out of the Group of 8, where its presence had been intended to integrate the nation with Europe.

When the Senate voted in 2017 to extend sanctions on Russia, the vote was 98-2; only Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders voted against it. That veto-proof majority forced Mr. Trump to sign the legislation.

Still, the evidence this pressure is working is scant. From Syria to Libya, and elsewhere in Africa and Eastern Europe, Russia has stepped up its actions, and here in the United States the big question is whether the United States is prepared to stave off Russian interference in next year’s presidential election.

All this made tightening the alliance with Ukraine more important, as a signal, and as a deterrent.

But Mr. Trump has never signed on to that strategy; the evidence now is that he sought to undercut it. In fact, it was an open secret in the White House that Mr. Trump, who has little patience for long documents, never read the full national strategy published under his name, according to several of his former national security officials.

He has never repeated its main tenets, particularly its references to Russia, in public; instead, he makes vague references to how it would be a good thing if Russia and the United States got along. His actions, as opposed to his strategy documents, have been a quilt of contradictions. He has pulled out of treaties with the Russians — most recently the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty — and invested in a new nuclear arms race. But he has also questioned why the United States needs to keep up the sanctions imposed on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea and the attacks on Ukraine, and, by pulling back from Syria, he has ceded territory that Mr. Putin coveted.

As it seeks to quash the impeachment parade, Mr. Pompeo’s State Department has added to the confusion by declining to answer questions about what happened this summer, as the aid was frozen. Mr. Pompeo himself has declined to be drawn into those discussions, saying simply that they are internal conversations that should be kept confidential.

That is now over: Mr. Taylor’s lengthy, calm recitation of each interaction over the summer with his colleagues back in Washington, based on his copious notes, gives a window into policymaking unmatched since the revelation of the State Department’s internal cables by WikiLeaks in 2010.

But what Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent’s accounts reveal is a department that was keeping its own diplomats in the dark. Mr. Taylor, sitting in the Kiev embassy as a temporary replacement for the mysteriously ousted Marie L. Yovanovitch, never got the formal notes from Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Zelensky. He only heard by accident that military aid was frozen. He said he did not figure out how that was related to Mr. Trump’s demands until late in the summer.

The Cold War, too, was filled with incomprehensible moments and quid pro quos. President John F. Kennedy struck the most famous, secretly trading a Russian nuclear presence in Cuba for the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons in Turkey. The details were kept secret for years. But both the quid and the quo were rooted in some plausible definition of American national interest.

That is dramatically different from what Mr. Trump sought: American military aid in return for dirt on his opponents.

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