When he took the job as president, Donald Trump swore an oath to faithfully execute the responsibilities of the office. One of those tasks, passed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support, was to provide almost $400 million in military aid this year to Ukraine to help the Eastern European country resist Russian aggression. The war there has claimed 13,000 lives, and American aid is critical to Ukraine’s — and Europe’s — defense. Trump’s responsibility — his sworn duty — was to deliver that aid to Kyiv.
To use the money instead for his own personal purposes would be a breathtaking abuse of presidential power, and a betrayal of national security. And yet, with each passing day, there’s more evidence that Trump did just that. The latest evidence came in explosive testimony from a US diplomat who told Congress Tuesday that the president held up the military aid as part of a pressure campaign to get the Ukrainian government to assist Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.
If Congress lets this abuse of power pass, they’re creating an alarming precedent for this and all future presidents: Go ahead and use taxpayer money to help yourself, even when the funds were earmarked to support an important American national security goal. The consequences would be long-lasting: A superpower like the United States cannot allow its foreign policy to be subordinated to the president’s personal needs and expect to maintain any international support or respect.
It was appalling enough that Trump had asked for political favors from Ukraine, and it was that request for Kyiv to meddle in a US election that triggered the House’s impeachment inquiry. The fact that the president seems to have used congressionally approved military aid for leverage makes the abuse of power that much graver. He sought to make Ukraine choose between participating in a corrupt scheme or losing American aid in the face of an existential threat.
The new information came from the current US envoy to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, who testified that Trump had held up the aid to Ukraine not for any legitimate reasons, as the White House has tried to argue, but to compel the country to help his reelection campaign. Specifically, he wanted Ukraine to launch two phony “investigations,” both of which would be politically beneficial for the president in defending himself and attacking a prospective rival. He wanted Ukraine to investigate a preposterous theory that that country, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 election, and to launch a probe into potential Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The mere existence of those investigations, if Ukraine had opened them and announced them publicly, as Trump wanted, would help his campaign.
The testimony from Taylor buttresses the public admission of acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who acknowledged last week that Trump had held up the aid money in part to pressure Ukraine. Mulvaney backtracked, and the administration has been trying to retroactively invent legitimate-sounding reasons for the holdup, but Taylor’s account is said to be backed up by contemporaneous notes he took at the time.
Taylor — along with the other officials who have testified — deserves the public’s gratitude for ignoring the White House’s efforts to prevent him from appearing. Unlike the president, he has put duty and the national interest first. Officials who have participated in the stonewalling, like Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, are putting a permanent blot on their reputations.
Taylor’s testimony strengthened the case for impeachment but also injected a dose of foreign-policy realism about the wider consequences of the scandal. The president’s misconduct is not some kind of minor lapse. By holding up the aid, Trump put in doubt American commitment to its own foreign policy priorities. And he sent the message to the world that American support is for sale, undercutting decades of diplomacy based on supporting shared democratic values. In the world’s eyes, every US foreign policy decision is now tainted by the knowledge that the president makes major decisions based on what’s in it for him, and that the safeguards in the American political system meant to prevent just that kind of abuse have failed because of the spinelessness of congressional Republicans.
Or at least, they have so far. Some of the damage is already done. But if members of Congress of all parties want to defend both their own power and the integrity of American foreign policy, impeachment is the proper constitutional remedy.