It's not about Ukraine
The impeachment of President Trump isn't about Ukraine. It's about America.
Let's put this in the simplest possible terms: Trump tried to steal the 2020 presidential election. And he did so by abusing the power of his office to undermine one of his chief political rivals.
It's a simple, easily digestible message that spells out the stakes of impeachment. Democrats should be hammering it home at every opportunity, like Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall did in a recent tweet:
The President used extortion to force a foreign power to sabotage a US election in his favor.
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) November 22, 2019
Unfortunately, after two weeks of impeachment hearings, this reality appears to have gotten buried in theatrics. So much of the testimony was focused on American policy toward Ukraine — and how Trump and his cronies subverted that policy for their own ends — that it is easy to come away thinking that country and its citizens might be the victims of Trump's machinations.
Republicans certainly hope that's the takeaway. If the impeachment of Trump is seemingly about Ukraine, and not about America, it will be easy to defeat — both in the GOP-held Senate and in the court of public opinion.
Fox's Tucker Carlson pressed the point Monday on his show. "Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?" he asked a guest. "I'm serious. Why shouldn't I root for Russia?"
Carlson expressed this position in his usual smarmy and objectionable terms. But he has a point. Many Americans probably don't pay much attention to conflict on the Crimean peninsula: A poll taken early in the Russia-Ukraine conflict reported that while most Americans supported military aid to Ukraine, many Americans can't actually find the country on a map. That doesn't suggest a deep attachment. If Americans think Trump's impeachment requires they take a rooting stance in that faraway conflict, they may shrug and disengage from the process entirely.
That's probably why Republicans, in their arguments against impeachment, have tried to reduce the kerfuffle to a disagreement over policy. Trump may not have delivered military aid to Ukraine immediately, some of his defenders have noted, but the Obama administration wouldn't give that assistance at all.
"The strong support came with this administration, not the Obama administration," Congressman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said during one of the early hearings.
There is, of course, a difference. Members of the Obama administration resisted sending missiles to Ukraine because they feared it might lead to an escalation of the war there. That's a policy decision. Trump delayed the aid because he wanted Ukraine's leaders to smear former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his chief rivals for election in 2020. That's a decision driven by personal interests. The distinction between the two actions, while superficially similar, is significant.
Even making such counterarguments risks muddying the argument. For the purposes of impeachment, Ukraine's status — as an ally of the United States, as an opponent of Russia — is interesting, but also beside the point. Trump could be the best American friend that Ukraine ever had, and it wouldn't matter at all. What matters, again, is that he used to powers of his office — the ability to control military aid, the chance to offer or deny face-to-face meetings — in order to advance his own political interests. As Democrats like Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have asked repeatedly: If that's not impeachable, what is?
But Ukraine's involvement is incidental to Trump's transgression. If he hadn't seen the opportunity for personal advantage in Ukraine, he would have looked to other countries. Indeed, that's precisely what he did.
This is not to say Ukrainians don't matter, or to affirm Carlson's rooting interest in Russia. It is true that Ukraine has been ill-treated by Trump's tendency to see that country as a pawn in his own domestic political contest, and that Ukraine's efforts to clean up corruption have been hindered instead of helped by the selfish acts of this American president. The country could experience long-term consequences
But when it comes to Trump's fate, none of this is relevant. For the sake of impeachment, Ukrainians are not the victims of the president. If only for the sake of keeping their message simple and understandable, Democrats should work to keep the impeachment focus on the real victims: Americans, and American democracy.