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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Trump’s choice: National security or political obsession

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

By: New York Times | Updated: November 15, 2019 3:37:45 pm
donald trump impeachment proceedings, trump impeach, US democrats trump impeachment President Donald Trump (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

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 the U.S.’ national interests in the weightiest geopolitical confrontations of their eras.

The sober, just-the-facts testimony of two previously little-known diplomats Wednesday left no doubt that the investigation into President Donald Trump’s actions is fundamentally different. 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 Putin’s broad plan of disruption. That effort starts in Ukraine, where a hot war has been underway in the east for five years and a cyberwar underway in the capital, Kyiv.

It is exactly that policy that Trump appears to have been discarding when he made clear, in the haunting words attributed to Gordon 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 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 Trump’s closest aides have endeavored to keep hidden.

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

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

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 said 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, 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,” Taylor said. When pressed to explain what he meant, 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 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 Sept. 30.

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

One was into Burisma, the energy company in which the son of former Vice President Joe Biden 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 breach 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 hackings in U.S. political history. The indictment was issued last year by Jeff Sessions, who was then serving as attorney general.

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

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

It was clear from the testimony that Taylor and Kent have been pressing for — and carrying out — 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 Sens. Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders voted against it. That veto-proof majority forced Trump to sign the legislation.

Still, the evidence this pressure is working is scant. Be it Syria or Libya or 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 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 the president, 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.

But what Taylor’s and Kent’s accounts reveal is a department that was keeping its own diplomats in the dark. Taylor, sitting in the Kyiv embassy as a temporary successor to the mysteriously ousted Marie Yovanovitch, never received the formal notes from Trump’s conversation with Zelenskiy. He only heard by accident that military aid was frozen. He said he did not figure out how that was related to 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 one, secretly trading a Russian nuclear presence in Cuba for the withdrawal of U.S. 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 U.S. national interest.

That is drastically different from what Trump sought: U.S. military aid in return for dirt on his opponents.

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