As early images of Russian tanks and smoldering buildings emerged from Ukraine last week, the first thought that crossed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ (D-N.Y.) mind concerned the safety of the Ukrainian people. His next thought was the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump. “My first reaction, in the horror of the attack, was, ‘This is why what we did was so important,’” Jeffries, one of the managers of that impeachment, recalls.
A similar recognition set in among Democrats on social media as they watched a video of Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky stand defiant of his Russian invaders in the streets of Kyiv. The leader, now regarded as an international hero, had been in office for less than two months when Trump had asked him to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family. “I sense the first impeachment sounded kinda obscure to some people,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted last week. “But withholding lethal aid was both an actual crime and a moral crime.”
At the heart of the first impeachment was a quid pro quo: The president withheld nearly $400 million in defense aid Congress approved for Ukraine in an effort to coerce Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter. The aid had been crucial to fending off Russian hostilities that had plagued the country since 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine. For the Democrats charged with crafting that first case against the former president, the latest Russian invasion represents a mournful validation of their efforts.
Americans have “gotten to see how severe those consequences are and gotten to see the measure of Zelensky, the man that Trump was trying to extort,” says Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee who had led the impeachment efforts. “It hammers home how despicable an act it was to treat Ukraine as a political plaything.”
In a now-infamous July 2019 phone call, Zelensky told Trump he wanted to purchase Javelin anti-tank missiles, to which Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” The former president then asked Zelensky to “look into” spurious claims about the Bidens’ dealings with Ukraine and an unfounded theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that tried to meddle in the 2016 American presidential election. The call, which Trump later described as “perfect,” came months after the president had denied Zelensky a diplomatic meeting and ousted the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. A whistleblower reported the alleged shakedown, which unfroze the aid and launched the investigation that led to Trump’s impeachment.
The Democrats’ case against the former president centered on the propriety of political favors, building up to the impeachment article that claimed an abuse of power. But equally central were Russia’s unabating hostilities against Ukraine — “a stable, but still hot war,” as former Colonel Alexander Vindman put it to the House Intelligence Committee in 2019. “We put a very strong emphasis on showing the American people why they ought to care about Ukraine, and bring home to the American people the war that was going on,” Schiff says. The testimonies of Fiona Hill, a senior director for European and Russian affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, and Bill Taylor, the U.S.’s top envoy in Ukraine, had been intended to build that case — as was showing film footage of the war during hearings.
That war “could, at any moment, turn existential for Ukraine,” adds Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), another impeachment manager. “Any crack in the alliance, any show of weakness, any wavering by America and our allies with regard to our support for Ukraine would be taken advantage of by Vladimir Putin.” When Trump made that phone call, “it sent a message to Putin that the U.S. doesn’t care about Ukraine,” Schiff says. In Jeffries’ estimation, the episode “definitely damaged” the U.S.’s relationship with Zelensky. “At minimum, it froze the relationship at a time when it needed to be strengthened,” he says.
Nearly all congressional Republicans rejected the Democrats’ reasoning. Many echoed Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), then the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, who accused Democrats of simply swapping Russia for Ukraine in “their impeachment crusade,” and the media of enabling a witch hunt. This isn’t to say Republicans agreed with Trump’s dealings: The legislation underwriting that then-withheld military aid had passed the House and Senate with generous bipartisan support. “The issue was whether they were willing to hold the then president to account for really overturning that support, and for the most part, they were not,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another impeachment manager, says. The only willing Republican was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a longtime Putin detractor who said he couldn’t stand how Trump delayed aid to an ally facing a Russian invasion.
Trump’s refusal to release aid imperiled Ukraine’s welfare and put the country in an “awkward position” at the time, says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. “On the one hand, the Ukranians wanted to stay on good terms with the Trump administration,” Kupchan explains. “On the other, they felt used.” But the dynamics Democrats described in their impeachment case amounted to an “unfortunate hiccup” more than any long-term diplomatic consequences, Kupchan argues, adding that any damage suffered between Kyiv and Washington faded once Trump left office. “I don’t think that episode has a big impact on the crisis that’s unfolding today,” he says.
The crisis unfolding today is, however, having an impact on U.S. domestic politics. The terrible human drama unfolding in Ukraine has forged a rare bipartisan consensus condemning Putin’s invasion, with Americans registering their disapproval by, among other means, dumping Russia vodka down their drains. Democrats believe Republicans could suffer from Trump and other right-wing figures’ continued embrace of Putin as the authoritarian wages war on one of America’s allies. Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, released a pair of ads on Friday that feature clips of Republicans praising the Russian leader and recall the details of Trump’s first impeachment. “The GOP’s decision to side with Putin is deeply concerning and demonstrates how extreme the party has become, says Aneesa McMillan, Priorities USA’s deputy executive director. “We know that will be one of many issues voters consider in 2022.”
“It was always clear to me that history would not look kindly upon those Republicans who chose to vote against convicting Donald Trump,” Jeffries says. “It wasn’t clear to me that history would reveal itself to me in such a short period of time.”