For all the talk about Ukraine in the House impeachment inquiry, there’s a character standing just off-stage with a dominant role in this tale of international intrigue: Russia.
As has so often been the case since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, Moscow provides the mood music for the unfolding political drama.
“With you, Mr. President, all roads lead to Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared last week, and not for the first time.
The impeachment investigation is centred on allegations that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine’s new leader over the summer to dig up dirt on Trump political rival Joe Biden, holding up U.S. military aid to the Eastern European nation as leverage.
In her testimony before the House impeachment panel last week, diplomat Marie Yovanovitch suggested that the president’s actions played into the hands of Vladimir Putin, whose government has backed separatists in a five-year-old war in eastern Ukraine.
Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the State Department known for fighting corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere, was ousted from her position as ambassador to Ukraine after Trump and his allies began attacking her and claimed she was bad-mouthing the president.
Her ouster, she and several Democratic lawmakers argued, ultimately benefitted Putin.
“How is it that foreign corrupt interests can manipulate our government?” Yovanovitch asked House investigators. “Which country’s interests are served when the very corrupt behaviour we’ve been criticizing is allowed to prevail? Such conduct undermines the U.S., exposes our friends and widens the playing field for autocrats like President Putin.”
After two days of public testimony and the release of thousands of pages of transcripts from witnesses who’ve met with investigators behind closed doors, Democratic and Republican lawmakers seem further entrenched in their partisan corners about whether the president abused his powers.
Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to do him a “a favour” and investigate Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine. At the same time, Ukraine was awaiting nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid.
While Democrats say the request to investigate the Bidens represented a quid pro quo, Trump insists he was within his rights to ask the country to look into corruption. Democrats, trying to make their accusations more understandable, have now settled on framing the president’s actions as a matter of bribery, which, as Pelosi noted, is mentioned in the Constitution.
Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice-president or his son.
Trump has dismissed the impeachment proceedings as a “joke” that deny him and Republican lawmakers due process.
A key ally on Capitol Hill, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., casts the impeachment inquiry as a continuation of the Democrats’ “spectacular implosion of their Russia hoax.”
“In the blink of an eye, we’re asked to simply forget about Democrats on this committee falsely claiming they had more than circumstantial evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russians,” Nunes said.
Democrats, for their part, are trying to brighten the spotlight on their theory that Trump is doing the bidding of Putin.
Russia, a historic adversary of the United States, has too often emerged as a benefactor of Trump’s actions, says Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat.
In his July call with Zelenskiy, Trump pushed discredited information that hackers in Ukraine — rather than Russia — interfered in the 2016 elections.
Last month, Trump abruptly moved U.S. Special Forces from northern Syria at Turkey’s urging and as result created a security vacuum for Russia to fill.
Trump has also repeatedly disparaged and even suggested withdrawing from NATO, the military alliance that has served as a deterrent to Soviet and Russia aggression since it was formed after World War II.
“It’s clear that the Trump administration foreign policy is chaotic and incoherent with one exception: Many of his actions benefit Russia,” Lieu said.
Both in open hearings and closed-door testimony, Democrats have sought to highlight concerns that Trump’s foreign policy frequently benefits Russia.
The concerns about Moscow linger even after special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election dogged Trump for much of his first term and led to the conviction of five campaign advisers or close associates of the president.
Mueller, a former FBI director, did not clear Trump of wrongdoing when he ended the probe nor did he allege the president committed misconduct.
“If Putin doesn’t have something on him, he’s doing all this for some bizarre reason,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee.
In her testimony before impeachment investigators last month, Fiona Hill, until July the Russia analyst on the National Security Council, delivered an impassioned warning that the United States’ faltering resistance to conspiracy theories and corruption represents a self-inflicted crisis and renders the country vulnerable to its enemies.
“The Russians, you know, can’t basically exploit cleavages if there are not cleavages,” she said. “The Russians can’t exploit corruption if there’s not corruption. They can’t exploit alternative narratives if those alternative narratives are not out there and getting credence. What the Russians do is they exploit things that already exist.”
Other witnesses, including Deputy Secretary of State George Kent and Ambassador William Taylor, the acting chief Ukraine envoy, also testified that Russia was the chief beneficiary of Trump’s decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine.
“Our holding up of security systems that would go to a country that is fighting aggression from Russia for no good policy reason, no good substantive reason, no good national security reason is wrong,” said Taylor.
U.S. diplomats also worried that the hold on the security assistance would undercut Zelenskiy, whom they viewed as a reformer in a nation that has repeatedly endured tumult spurred by endemic corruption.
“I think the signal that there is controversy and question about the U.S. support of Ukraine sends the signal to Vladimir Putin that he can leverage that as he seeks to negotiate with not only Ukraine but other countries,” Kent said.