In Impeachment Trial, Geography Dictates Politics

WASHINGTON — When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a curse-laden tirade to a reporter on Friday, asked, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” he was getting at an essential element of President Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial. White House officials are convinced that Americans are indifferent to what happens in the struggling former Soviet republic, and they may well be right.

But the impeachment trial is about more than the fate of Ukraine — and whether Mr. Trump sold it out for a “domestic political errand,” as his former adviser, Fiona Hill, put it so bitingly. To Democrats, it’s about a president who undercut his own administration’s stated goal of pushing back hard against Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia — the geopolitical challenge of a new, very different Cold War.

It is one of those cases where the geography of the debate shapes the politics of the argument.

As long as the president’s lawyers can focus the debate on the narrower question of Ukraine, they can argue that the charges against the president focus on a foreign policy sideshow: how the president uses the spigot of American aid and attention to mold another country’s behavior.

“They basically said, ‘Let’s cancel an election over a meeting with the Ukraine,’” Mr. Trump’s White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, said on Saturday, characterizing the Democrats’ arguments as he opened the president’s defense. Mr. Cipollone made the case that the Democrats are seeking to undo Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory or fear that they cannot beat him in 2020.

Yet the defense team’s characterizations about Ukraine are also designed to make the impeachment charges appear to be on a fundamentally trivial affair, surrounding the treatment of a faraway country that, as Mr. Pompeo suggests, most people could not find on a map stripped of country names. (He challenged the NPR reporter, Mary Louise Kelly, to identify Ukraine, and she reported that she did.)

That is precisely why the man leading the Democrats’ prosecution of the case, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, focused so relentlessly on Russia last week.

Mr. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, understands that Russia resonates in a way that Ukraine never can. His argument revives questions of whether Mr. Putin has some strange, still unexplained control over the American president — which is why Mr. Schiff played the cringe-worthy tape of Mr. Trump’s news conference with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Finland, in summer 2018. In his public statements, Mr. Trump appeared to adopt the Russian leader’s self-interested theory that someone else was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers in the last presidential election.

“It’s a breathtaking success of Russian intelligence,” Mr. Schiff said. “This is the most incredible propaganda coup,” he continued, because “it’s not just that the president of the United States standing next to Vladimir Putin is reading the Kremlin talking points. He won’t read his own national security staff talking points.”

Cast that way, this is no argument over the history of American aid to Kyiv. It is part of a battle over Russia’s use of Ukraine as a petri dish in disruption — the place where Mr. Putin has experimented with seizing territory, undermining a hostile government and conducting cyberattacks that literally turned off the lights.

And it is an argument over Mr. Putin’s efforts to manipulate the 2020 election, at a moment when even Mr. Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security says the Russians are already testing new techniques. By demanding that the new president of Ukraine investigate Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president and a political opponent of Mr. Trump, and reviving theories that the Democratic National Committee’s server is somewhere in Ukraine, Mr. Trump was essentially joining that manipulation effort, Mr. Schiff was saying.

“The threat that he will continue to abuse his power and cause grave harm to the nation,’’ Mr. Schiff said of the president, “is not hypothetical.”

In less partisan times — say, when a presidential election does not loom — Mr. Schiff’s argument might strike a political chord, chiefly because it is the Republicans who, until recently, have been particularly hawkish about Mr. Putin’s Russia.

It is easy to forget now, but when Mr. Trump tried to water down sanctions on Russia two years ago, his own party pushed back so hard that new penalties for Moscow passed 98 to 2. (In one of the strange twists of history, one of the two opposing votes was cast by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is a leading contender to take on Mr. Trump in November.) In the House, the measure passed 419 to 3. Angry, Mr. Trump signed the bill, knowing any veto would be overturned.

But the politics of impeachment are different than the politics of sanctions. So it is no surprise that, as the Republicans focus on Ukraine and the Democrats focus on Russia, both are bending the facts to fit their case.

Mr. Pompeo, for example, has been known to pause his episodic blasts at State Department correspondents to make the legitimate point that it was the Trump administration that gave powerful anti-tank weapons — called Javelins — to Ukrainian forces, a step that President Barack Obama refused.

The issue came up this weekend, as Jay Sekulow accused the Democrats of keeping that fact out of their 23 hours of arguments. “Javelin missiles are serious weapons,” Mr. Sekulow, the president’s personal lawyer, reminded the senators at the trial on Saturday. He quoted the testimony of the two previous top American diplomats in Ukraine, including Marie L. Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her post last year, in one of the events at the center of the impeachment charges.

The Javelin decision is the best piece of evidence that the Republicans have at hand that Mr. Trump has been willing to stand up to Mr. Putin. Almost everything else cuts the other way, leaving little doubt that in twisting the arm of the new Ukrainian government, Mr. Trump was not only pursuing his own political interests but also helping Mr. Putin’s.

Even before he was elected, Mr. Trump wondered aloud why the United States was helping Ukraine fight off the Russians. It made no sense, he argued in a March 2016 interview on foreign policy, his first extended discussion of his worldview as a candidate.

“Now I’m all for Ukraine, I have friends that live in Ukraine,” Mr. Trump said during the interview at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida golf resort. He complained that when the Obama administration moved to sanction Russia for its annexation of Crimea and “was getting very confrontational, it didn’t seem to me like anyone else cared other than us.”

He added: “Even their neighbors didn’t seem to be talking about it. And, you know, you look at Germany, you look at other countries, and they didn’t seem to be very much involved.”

In fact, they were very involved and continue to provide aid to Ukraine to prop up its democracy and its economy while often complaining about rampant corruption. But in the interview, Mr. Trump made no mention of corruption; instead, he lumped Ukraine in with the many other examples he cited of nations that the United States supports while other countries freeload.

The release over the weekend of a recording of Mr. Trump at a dinner in 2018 makes clear that the president understood early in his term that unless aid continued to Ukraine, it could be easily overrun.

“How long would they last in a fight with Russia?” Mr. Trump asked at the dinner.

“I don’t think very long,” said Lev Parnas, the Soviet émigré who worked for Rudolph W. Giuliani in pressuring Ukraine. “Without us, not very long.”

What’s missing from the record of Mr. Trump’s manipulation of the aid to Ukraine last summer is any indication that he sought an assessment from the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies or his own National Security Council over whether suspending American help could, in fact, lead to the downfall of the government.

And that, in the end, may be the most telling fact of all.

If nothing else, what Americans learned from watching the impeachment trial over the past week is that Mr. Trump regarded the conduct of foreign policy the way he has regarded any other policy: a chess move toward re-election rather than geopolitical advantage for the United States. Otherwise, there would be conversations weighing the benefits of restricting aid against the harm to American interests in countering the power of Russia.

There is anecdotal evidence that many around Mr. Trump did in fact push back — including Mr. Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, and the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel. Their arguments were ignored until a whistle-blower’s complaint made clear that the suspension of aid to Ukraine was about to become public.

So far, not one has testified as part of the impeachment process or spoken publicly about what they told Mr. Trump about the potential consequences of his domestic political errand. It is a silence that speaks as loudly as the arguments made in the Senate.