President Trump and his Republican defenders on the House Intelligence Committee want the public to see the testimony Wednesday from two diplomats — William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. representative in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of State for Eastern Europe and the Caucasus — as a rebellion of sorts by “deep state” figures unwilling to accept Trump’s leadership. Ditto, no doubt, for the statements to come from other witnesses drawn from the government’s diplomatic and national security ranks.
“We hate to break it to these unelected, career government bureaucrats who think they know best: the President of the United States sets foreign policy, not them. And disagreement on policy is not an impeachable offense,” the Trump campaign said in a statement after Taylor and Kent testified.
The problem with that argument is that it assumes that diplomats and security officials have to fall in line behind any policy a president sets, regardless of how it may conflict with U.S. national interests. In other words, it assumes that the president is acting in good faith and with legitimate objectives, both of which have been called into question in Trump’s case on Ukraine.
In their opening statements Wednesday, both Taylor and Kent testified about Ukraine’s strategic importance and long-standing U.S. efforts to build stability and respect for the rule of law in nations formerly within the Soviet bloc. One aspect of that, Kent said, is to end the corrupt use of state prosecutors against the ruling party’s political opponents.
“U.S. efforts to counter corruption in Ukraine focus on building institutional capacity so that the Ukrainian government has the ability to go after corruption and effectively investigate, prosecute and judge alleged criminal activities using appropriate institutional mechanisms — that is — to create and follow the rule of law,” Kent said in his opening statement. “If we think there has been some criminal act overseas that violates U.S. law, we have the institutional mechanisms to address that. It could be through the Justice Department and FBI agents assigned oversees, or through treaty mechanisms, such as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. As a general principle, I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country.”
And yet, that’s exactly what Kent and Taylor said that the Trump administration was asking. In fact, the request is laid bare in the summary of the transcript the White House released of Trump’s July 25 call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump sought a “favor” from the Ukrainian leader: that Zelensky conduct a pair of investigations into actions under the previous Ukrainian administration that could help Trump politically.
That’s why Taylor and Kent — who has spent many of his years in government helping countries change their systems to stamp out corruption — pushed back against what they saw as Trump’s effort to entangle Zelensky, a newly elected reformer, in U.S. politics. From their point of view, Trump and his unofficial mouthpiece in Ukraine, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, were telling Zelensky’s team to do the opposite of what U.S. officials had been encouraging Ukraine to do for years, and the opposite of what they were assured was official U.S. policy.
Beyond that, Trump put a hold on nearly $400 million of congressionally approved aid to Ukraine supposedly out of concerns about corruption weeks after the Defense Department had certified, on behalf of all the federal national security agencies, that Ukraine met the anti-corruption benchmarks Congress had set for the money. And for what reason? Because he wanted investigations that had nothing to do with Zelensky or his new government, and everything to do with Trump’s reelection bid.
So, who went rogue here, “career government bureaucrats” or Trump?