For most of my life, I have had a deep interest in politics, but most important, international affairs and international history. In high school, I remember watching the Arab Spring protests after school and wondering how far they would go. In college, I majored in Political Science and took as many international affairs classes as possible, and ended up with an International Studies minor, held a weekly radio show on campus focusing on international issues and was President of our campus Model United Nations team for two of my four years. To this day I remain in contact with the fantastic professors I took those classes with, and am preparing to attend graduate school for International Affairs.
While this is my personal passion, one question and complaint that I often hear from those around me is “why should I care about international affairs?” or “how is any of that going to impact me?” Sometimes, people are right to ask those questions. But sometimes, international affairs can be intertwined with the most important political issue of the year: impeachment. A number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress have repeatedly noted that impeachment is the “second most important vote any Member of Congress can take, second only to war.” Given the fact that the last impeachment was during Bill Clinton’s Presidency, and the last formal vote to declare war was during the George W. Bush Presidency, this is the most important vote a number of members will take or have ever taken in their careers.
It also just so happens that the 2019 impeachment inquiry and investigation against President Trump is focused on what Democrats consider to be an improper phone call between President Trump and the newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Last week, House Democrats released two Articles of Impeachment against President Trump, the first being Abuse of Power, and the second Obstruction of Congress. This piece will focus on the first article.
In the Article I, House Democrats allege that President Trump abused his power as President in pressuring Ukrainian President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President and current Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter for their role with the Ukraine energy company Burisma. Democrats pushed the inquiry indicating that the phone call was improper in pressuring Zelensky, but that the White House also ordered critical foreign aid withheld to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to open the investigation.
However, Zelensky never opened an investigation, and the foreign aid was released to Ukraine in September.
Over the course of the investigation, House Democrats subpoenaed a number of State Department and White House officials to testify both in private and public over the White House’s actions and the phone call. Democrats allege that the investigation began when a still anonymous whistle blower filed a complaint over the phone call, to which they were not on. This sparked a chain reaction in which the former and current Ambassadors to Ukraine, current and former officials from the White House National Security Council and other State Department and White House staff testified to what they knew about the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine, the aid and the phone call.
As the issue centered around a foreign country, foreign policy, and featured many mid to high level administration officials, it is imperative for anyone following to understand the background of the entire situation, something the impeachment hearings have not done the best job of doing. Below are some of those vital facts.
1. US Foreign Aid and Ukraine
Each year, the United States gives a significant amount of foreign aid to a number of countries around the world, most notably our allies. Some of this aid is directly financial, but a lot of it is also in military equipment. This was the case with Ukraine, which is slated to receive nearly $400 million from the United States this year, much of which came from the State Department and the Department of Defense and would be used to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine. However, Trump administration officials have testified that the aid for Ukraine, and other nations, is conditioned on efforts to combat corruption.
2. Ukraine’s Corruption Problem
It is a well known problem across the international community that Ukraine, like other former Soviet states, has had a major problem with corruption since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2018, Transparency International gave Ukraine a score of 32 out of 100 on their Corruption Perceptions Index (the lower the score, the more corrupt the nation is). While it had been an improvement of the previous years, a 32 still puts Ukraine 120th out of 180 countries (for comparison, Denmark was the least corrupt, pulling in a score of 88, and Somalia the most corrupt with a score of 10). Officials who testified in the inquiry have backed these accusations, but have noted that officials believed President Zelensky to be the “real deal” and serious about tackling this corruption.
One major allegation that has been leveled is against the very same Ukrainian company Hunter Biden served on the Board of Directors for, Burisma. In 2014, the President of Ukraine at the time was forced to flee to Ukraine following public pressure, and it was rumored that the head of Burisma, a close ally of this President, fled with him. Afterwards, multiple investigations were launched into the founder and the company. However, Republicans have alleged that Vice President Biden pressured a Ukrainian prosecutor to close the investigation early.
3. “Those Involved” and Diplomacy
While the impeachment hearings thus far have not featured the most well known figures in American foreign policy (President Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, etc.) the witnesses that have been featured are extremely important. Among them, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, current US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, former National Security Council official Dr. Fiona Hill and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Thus far, Ambassador Sondland has been the most important witness, in part due to his own misstep. A few days after Sondland testified, Embassy staffer David Holmes testified that he overheard a phone call in a crowded Kiev restaurant between President Trump and Ambassador Sondland. Holmes noted that Sondland and Trump spoke loudly, and Sondland held the phone away from his ear. Holmes also claimed that President Trump and Sondland discussed an investigation. Despite the allegations against President Trump, the lack of concern regarding Sondland’s improper actions in a crowded Ukrainian restaurant is problematic. No one knows who else could have heard the call and picked up the conversation between Sondland and President Trump.
The Takeaway: Too Important to Ignore
At minimum, for the American people to understand the ongoing impeachment efforts against President Trump, they should understand the background behind the call, why there are allegations of corruption in Ukraine, the importance of the foreign aid in question and who has been involved thus far. If I were to explain the entire impeachment inquiry and the events surrounding it, I would be writing another book.
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on impeaching and removing President Donald J. Trump from office over these allegations. President Trump was elected in 2016 with nearly 63 million votes, and will run for re-election in 2020. It is vital that every single American voter, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian or unaffiliated understand the background and the investigation.
The American people are watching, and it is the job of Congress, the media and groups like World Affairs Center to ensure that the American people are armed with the facts to make a decision when they head to the ballot box in November. I will not use this platform to advocate for or against impeachment, but I will instead make one final plea for voters to do as much research as they can, and make an informed decision.
As of right now, this is the most important vote that members of the 116th Congress will take. America is watching.
For more on the situation in Ukraine and Donald Trump’s Presidency, check out my book America 2020: The Grand American Political Landscape. Available at Amazon.
By Pat OBrien. Follow us on Twitter @worldaffairsctr or @patobriennyusa