Despite the hysterical headlines in the mainstream media, there was no bombshell on the first day of public testimony in the House impeachment inquiry. It was actually very boring and tedious.
But for those who had the patience to sit through it on Wednesday, the testimony of veteran State Department officials William Taylor and George Kent did help clarify what this impeachment inquiry is all about: a disagreement between President Trump and a coterie of career State Department bureaucrats about what U.S. policy should be in Ukraine.
To put it more bluntly, the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is about whether the president or unelected officials in the State Department should be able to determine U.S. foreign policy and define U.S. national interests abroad.
What we heard Wednesday was a lot of opinions from Taylor and Kent about what U.S. policy should be in Ukraine and what serves the national interest there. But if President Trump has a different view, whose opinion should matter? Clearly, the president’s opinion is the one that counts because the president, not State Department officials, sets U.S. foreign policy.
But in Democrats’ telling, which has been dutifully parroted by the media, the impeachment inquiry is all about whether Trump made U.S. security aid to Ukraine dependent on an investigation of Burisma and the Bidens—a quid pro quo, an investigation of Trump’s political rival in exchange for hundreds of millions in U.S. aid. To maintain this narrative, Democrats have had to insist there could be no other motive for Trump to want to such an investigation.
That’s why Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman kept referring to “political investigations” during Wednesday’s hearing. Trump wanted dirt on Joe Biden because he thought it would help him win reelection in 2020, end of story.
But of course there are perfectly valid reasons to think that corruption investigations in Ukraine might serve other, broader interests that go beyond just Trump’s reelection. Kent himself testified that such investigations were in fact legitimate, given the history of endemic corruption in Ukraine and specifically a record of corruption at Burisma, whose owner had first been investigated during the Obama administration using U.S. funds.
George Kent testifies that investigations into corruption involving Burisma and former Ukrainian prosecutors are legitimate. pic.twitter.com/2dpByvvaFF
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) November 13, 2019
Moreover, given the lingering questions about the extent to which the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee solicited Ukrainian officials for dirt on Trump during the 2016 election, it’s easy to see how any investigations into these matters would go beyond the narrow interests of Trump and encompass U.S. interests more broadly.
Democrats have painted themselves into a corner here, arguing that only their narrow interpretation of Trump’s motives is valid, when clearly there are other more plausible interpretations that are better supported by the facts.
Trump Versus the ‘Deep State’
One thing that emerged quite clearly from Wednesday’s hearing is that Taylor and Kent, and likely many other State Department officials, disagree with Trump’s view of Ukraine and have a quite separate policy agenda than the White House on Ukraine.
During his opening statements, Taylor talked about a separate, “irregular” diplomatic channel to Ukraine that included Rudy Giuliani, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and others. This irregular channel seems to have troubled Taylor.
But here again we come to the question of the president versus the bureaucracy. If Trump thought he needed a separate policy channel to pursue what he viewed as legitimate U.S. interests in rooting out corruption in Ukraine and getting to the bottom of what happened in 2016, that’s his prerogative as president—especially if he felt that the career bureaucrats at the State Department were not going to pursue these matters or take them seriously.
To take one example, Taylor said Wednesday he doesn’t think Ukraine owes the United States anything other than “appreciation.” Well, many Americans, including the president himself, might disagree with that. There are perfectly good reasons to think Ukraine, or any other country that receives U.S. aid, might owe the United States something more than “appreciation.” Maybe such countries also owe America some level of cooperation in advancing U.S. national interests—as defined by the president of the United States, not Ambassador Taylor or any other unelected bureaucrat.
This is in fact exactly how the Trump administration views the matter, which is likely the reason Trump and other administration officials have been so adamant that there was no quid pro quo. The administration’s interest in the Bidens and Burisma and 2016 election meddling appears to have been backward-looking, not forward-looking.
Trump wanted to know why the Bidens weren’t investigated and who in the Ukrainian government worked to undermine his 2016 campaign. Getting to the bottom of these things and ensuring they don’t happen again would be a reasonable condition to the receipt of hundreds of millions in security aid.
If Taylor and Kent and other State Department officials don’t agree with Trump about this, that’s fine. They are free to disagree. They are also free to be annoyed or even concerned about an “irregular channel” of Ukraine diplomacy. After all, the existence of such a channel itself is a sign that the president lacks confidence in State Department staff.
But Taylor went beyond expressing annoyance or concern in his testimony on Wednesday. He said this irregular channel of diplomacy was running “contrary to longstanding U.S. policy.” That’s a phrase he repeated several times, echoing the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who said that in the spring of 2019 he became aware of “outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency.”
As Mark Hemingway has pointed out, in this context the “interagency consensus” appeared to be in opposition to the actual foreign policy of the United States, which is determined by the president, just as the “interagency consensus” opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria despite Trump having campaigned on a promise to do just that.
Taylor also claimed Wednesday that Ukraine is important to U.S. security, and that Russian aggression cannot stand. But Russian aggression was allowed to stand when Moscow invaded Georgia during the George W. Bush administration, and again when Russian troops occupied Crimea during the Obama administration. What was the “interagency consensus” back then, and why was Ukraine not considered important enough to U.S. security to prompt any pushback against Russia?
The answer is that the president sets foreign policy, not the unelected bureaucrats of the administrative state. So far, the entire impeachment inquiry hinges on this fact, and the more the American people get to see the impeachment debate play out in public hearings, the clearer it will become that Democrats are relying on an incredibly narrow and highly subjective interpretation of the facts to justify their claims that Trump tried to set up a quid pro quo with Ukraine.