The first hearing of the impeachment inquiry being conducted by the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives did not go well for President Donald Trump. Two bi-partisan career diplomats — the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, and the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, George Kent — confirmed that Trump used the authority of his office to further his personal political agenda. In addition, Taylor presented new facts — a staffer from his office witnessed a phone call between Trump and the US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, where the former inquired about the progress of Ukraine’s investigation into alleged corruption by the former vice president and Democratic presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, and his son.
Both de jure and de facto, the impeachment proceedings are political: They are carried out by the legislature, and in fact, are unlikely to lead to the president being removed from office, given that Republicans enjoy a majority in the upper House, the senate, which has the final say. After a whistle-blower revealed earlier this year that the US president asked his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Biden on charges of corruption in return for aid in its conflict with Russia, Trump’s political rivals seem eager to use impeachment proceedings to embarrass the president ahead of an election year. The efficacy of the tactic, though, is questionable. While opinion polls have indicated that there is growing support for impeachment among Americans, they also suggest that there are a larger number of people who are broadly unhappy with Trump’s leadership but do not support impeachment. Will the revelations and the constant attention on alleged misuse of power over the next few months shore up Trump’s base and allow him to play the victim vis a vis the “deep state”? Or will they swing those on the fence towards the Democrats? So far, since his campaign in 2016, Trump seems to have been strengthened by scandals, whether over alleged racism, tax evasion or sexual harassment.
There is little doubt that the impeachment proceedings will be at the centre of the public conversation in the US till the 2020 elections. But beyond the implications for partisan politics, the hearing this week signalled a disturbing trend: US foreign policy objectives under Trump, it seems, can be all too easily influenced by domestic political vendettas. In the medium and long term, for its own strategic interests as well as stability in international relations, it is important for the US foreign policy establishment to change that perception.