The impeachment hearings that took place over two weeks presented a complex scenario for the American public to follow. The post-cold war relationship between Russia, Ukraine and the United States that sets the background for the hearings is even more complicated and was little discussed by the congressional committee or the media. Without this historical context, the average listener would have no reason to understand the importance of Ukraine to American foreign policy. (For background see: Foreign Affairs, Nov. 22, 2019, “The Shoals of Ukraine, Where American Illusions and Great-Power Politics Collide,” Serhii Plokhy and M.E. Sarotte.)
The hearings, designed to gather facts for articles of impeachment, were evidence of something more ominous than a one-time quid pro quo between the Trump administration and Ukraine. The important revelation for me was understanding the chaos that results when the federal government is led by a White House that is uninterested in following accepted procedures and uninformed on its own foreign policy. My fear is that what has been exposed is only one small example of the governance crises yet to come as a direct result of Donald Trump’s hubris and ignorance.
Of the witnesses that testified, all but one, E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, were longstanding, highly qualified career diplomats and policy experts. The experts understood the background on Ukraine and the disinterested and uninformed policies that brought us to a constitutional crisis. Sondland, on the other hand, was a political appointee who paid $1 million dollars to the Trump inauguration to gain his position. Like the president, Sondland’s background was in the hotel business. He had no training or experience in diplomacy.
The loosest canon in this fiasco is Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Giuliani was not a diplomat and in recent years made millions giving speeches and selling himself as a security consultant to authoritarian governments.
None of the well-trained policy experts and diplomats had any contact with the president. They all had valuable information to share concerning Ukraine’s immediate need for military assistance. Their reasoned advice to superiors on the Ukraine political situation and timely warnings to department lawyers were subject to formal protocol and went unheeded.
Only the players with no historical knowledge or diplomatic experience, Giuliani and Sondland, had direct access to the president. Both either encouraged or were on board with what Trump wanted to accomplish.
It is impossible to know whether the ill-advised scheme leading to impeachment would have occurred if White House advisers interested and informed about Ukraine were in place. Reports of the White House in 2017-18 indicated that the chief of staff, White House counsel, national security adviser and key Cabinet heads, all had some positive influence over the president. These officials were able to discourage outrageous or illegal behavior on the part of the president on numerous occasions.
Unfortunately, all of the “adults in the room” are long gone and the president has only his own political instincts, his limited knowledge of the federal bureaucracy, his inexplicable pro-Russian, anti-European view of foreign policy and the commentators on Fox News to guide him. My conjecture is that as uninterested and uninformed political appointees continue to advise the president, the worst is yet to come and that Ukraine and impeachment will be the least of our concerns.
First, consider that the president’s son-in-law, Jerad Kushner, has been given an exclusive profile over foreign policy in the Middle East. Kushner is yet another Trump insider with knowledge of the hotel business and with no diplomacy experience. Both the FBI and CIA recommended that Kushner not receive top level security clearances, a decision overruled by the president.
No one seems to know what Kushner is up to but his progress on the president’s “ultimate deal” between Israel and Palestine has gone nowhere. In September, the only seasoned diplomat reporting to Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, left the White House and was replaced by Avi Berkowitz, a young recent graduate who previously was Kushner’s errand boy. (Politico, Sept. 6, 2019: “Can Jared’s millennial “mini me” bring peace to the Middle East?”)
Second, is the State Department, where key professionals either resigned or were terminated by the previous secretary of state and ignored by the present placeholder, Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is reportedly going to run for the Senate and spends as much time in Kansas as Washington. His goal is to agree with and not upset the president.
Third, there is no coherent policy toward either North Korea or Iran, other than Trump’s wish for bilateral meetings. Both countries have rejected this outreach and continue to solidify their nuclear capabilities.
Fourth, no one knows what other promises, commitments or self-serving deals may have been made by the president to other heads of state.
Fifth, the chaos in governance that was evident during the impeachment hearings did not go unnoticed by Russia, China and other foreign governments. Whether Trump would encourage a foreign military engagement to take off the impeachment heat is unknown. What is known is that uninformed foreign policy decisions made for personal or political reasons are not in the country’s best interests.
I would propose that Republican Senators exercise the art of the deal with the president. In return for supporting him in the upcoming impeachment trial, insist on the following: 1) That a bipartisan foreign policy expert sit in on all conversations with foreign leaders and review transcripts of prior conversations, with authority to report problems to Congress; 2) That the White House move quickly to fill all staff positions in the foreign policy apparatus with qualified candidates; and 3) That the president remove his son-in-law from responsibility for the Middle East and replace him with a seasoned expert.
Such moves would exercise responsible oversight and could save America from another constitutional crisis, or much worse.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.