The second day of public impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee went about as well for Democrats and as poorly for Republicans as it possibly could have. The lone witness, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, was impressive and poised—and her testimony about the campaign to drive her from office was damning.
The Republicans again scrambled to find solid footing for a defense of the president, with some committee members making points that would sound more natural in the original Russian. It’s worth taking a moment to revisit the geopolitical context of the Ukraine scandal—because in their desperation this week to portray any critic of President Trump as a villain, Republicans have given Moscow a valuable propaganda victory.
It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were hawkish toward Russia—and advisably so. Russian president Vladimir Putin announced his intention to make his country the primary antagonist to the transatlantic liberal international order in a famous 2007 speech. “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” he chided. “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”
Since then, in response to what Putin characterized as American arrogance, Russia invaded two countries to prevent them from deepening their political and economic relationships with their neighbors; sent expeditionary forces to Syria and Venezuela to prop up failing, bloody dictatorships; attempted at least one coup in a foreign country; ordered an assassination on foreign soil using weapons of mass destruction; and launched an unprecedented campaign of political skullduggery from Tallinn to Tucson.
With each of these transgressions, Putin’s goal was to halt and, if possible, reverse the liberalizing trend of Russia’s neighbors and the world more generally. He sits atop a vast system of informal patronage networks fully intertwined with state power. Free markets, the rule of law, and true democracy threaten not only his hold on power, but billions of dollars of illegitimate wealth held by him and those he’s lifted up around himself.
That’s why Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” was met with such a drastic reaction: Putin knows that the closer Ukraine gets to becoming a free, transparent, open country, the more likely that Russians might get the idea that they could follow suit.
Which brings us back to the impeachment hearings. The Republicans on the committee who for some reason still felt morally justified in defending the president—that is, almost all of them—didn’t have any good arguments to make. Their optimal strategy would have been to admit that, yes, the president’s shadow foreign policy toward Ukraine was bad, and no, the phone call wasn’t “perfect,” but look, it’s just not impeachable conduct. If they had made these slight concessions, they could have defined impeachable conduct as narrowly as they wanted.
That left Republicans with nothing to do except change the subject. They changed it to Ukraine.
Over and over, they asked Amb. Yovanovitch about Burisma, Hunter Biden, corruption in Ukraine, the previous two prosecutors general, and why, why, why she sat idly by and allowed all of this corruption to happen? Over and over again, they observed that Ukraine is plagued by systemic corruption. Who could trust such a country, run by a gang of crooks and scoundrels?!
They also outlined an imaginary scheme by various Ukrainians to interfere in American elections. One of them involved former ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Another centered on an op-ed by former Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly criticizing some of then-candidate Trump’s statements. And a third accused former DNC consultant Alexandra Chalupa of coordinating with the Ukrainian government against Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Faced with these rank conspiracy theories, Amb. Yovanovitch repeatedly reminded the committee members that the American intelligence community agrees unanimously that Russia had launched a campaign of election interference, not Ukraine. Details, details.
To review: The Republican party, which not so long ago warned that Russia was a serious geopolitical threat, now parrots Kremlin talking points about the nefariousness of the Ukrainians. Every one of their constituents who believes their crackpot theories is one fewer friend the fledgling Ukrainian democracy has in America.
And Ukraine doesn’t have many friends to begin with.