Why the Trump Impeachment Case is Different

Paul R. Pillar

Amid the stream of impeachment-related developments in recent weeks is a largely overlooked contrast with the cases of the three previous presidents who have faced impeachment: U.S. foreign relations are at the center of the impeachment case against Donald Trump. 

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson involved a dispute with Congress over presidential appointment powers, embedded in a larger policy disagreement between Johnson and the dominant faction in Congress regarding post-Civil War reconstruction. Richard Nixon’s offenses centered on a cover-up of criminal activity within the United States undertaken for partisan political purposes, along with an associated obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Bill Clinton was impeached for not being forthcoming about a dalliance with an intern. Events beyond the nation’s borders had almost no role in any of those cases. But what has most energized the current movement to impeach Trump has been his subordination of U.S. relations with foreign countries, and specifically Ukraine, to his efforts to dig up dirt on his political opponents.

Setting aside any assessments of Trump’s behavior and how to judge it, the focus on foreign relations ought to be refreshing for anyone who is concerned about U.S. foreign policy and bemoans the deficiency of attention in U.S. politics to many important foreign policy issues. This deficiency is a long-standing pattern, rooted in the simple fact that most American voters naturally care more about what they can see and feel close to home than about aspects of U.S. foreign relations that ultimately may affect their interests but about which they have little or no awareness. Ukraine is a large country that figures prominently in relations with Russia, European security, and post-communist political development, but without the news about Trump’s and Rudy Giuliani’s doings, most Americans would be hard-pressed to identify even the most basic facts about Ukraine.

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