How the Trump–Zelenskyy Call Could Reverberate Beyond Impeachment

Chatham House experts examine how the latest presidential scandal might play out in US domestic politics, in Ukraine and in international affairs.

Explainer Published 25 September 2019 Updated 8 September 2023 3 minute READ

In the wake of a whistleblower’s report that alleged Donald Trump linked military aid to Ukraine to the latter’s willingness to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential elections, and his son, Hunter, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has initiated a formal impeachment inquiry. Chatham House experts explore the impact of this latest turn of events.

Questions abound for Congress and for foreign allies

Lindsay Newman

For more than a year, Democrats worked to investigate President Donald Trump’s potential involvement in Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Now, in the span of a week, they appear to have decided that the subject of a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and alleged subsequent efforts by the Trump administration to prevent the release of a related whistleblower report constitute clear, impeachable offences.

Among the key questions ahead will be whether, given the current divide within the Democratic party between progressives and moderates, a majority of House Democrats will vote to impeach Trump, especially if the whistleblower report is released. Even more uncertain is if there any possibility that 2/3 of the Republican-led Senate would vote to convict Trump, especially given his robust polling within the Republican party and reported tepid public sentiment towards impeachment.

Moreover, will the Democrat’s gamble on impeachment now undermine Trump’s support for 2020, or will a ‘Biden Ukraine’ narrative replace the 2016 ‘Clinton email’ refrain?

Outside of the US, the Zelenskyy call will have reverberations for how foreign leaders engage with the Trump administration. Although the conditional withholding of foreign aid is nothing new – in 2013, Barack Obama froze some military aid and equipment to Egypt after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed power – the withholding of foreign aid to an ally unless that ally investigates a domestic US political adversary is, as far as is known, untested territory.

This precedent potentially leaves foreign governments in a precarious position when they answer a call from an administration official and raises the question of whether allies, already weary of a disruptive Trump administration foreign policy, will look to strengthen ties to other powers such as China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

Impeachment will drive a change in attitudes

Leslie Vinjamuri

Donald Trump has been subject to a disproportionately long and storied series of investigations of the president’s circumvention of the norms and laws that govern, among other things, the president’s finances and his obstruction of investigations.

The decision to proceed with a formal impeachment, however, is a gamechanger. This will place pressure on all parts of the US government and polity to support the principle and the practice of investigation. It will galvanize public attention. Impeachment hearings will be long and intensely political.

And if history is anything to go by, impeachment hearings will drive a change in public attitudes, and not necessarily in the president’s favour. In the past two years, the American public has viewed Congressional investigations through a partisan lens. But words matter and formal impeachment hearings are likely to be different.

First, the fact that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, has been deliberate and reluctant to begin a formal impeachment process adds legitimacy to her decision to do so now and also suggests to the public that the most recent allegations are categorically different.

Second, the current allegations are immediately consequential because they are of significance for the 2020 presidential elections.

If Trump is actively seeking to undermine one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, impeachment hearings become directly relevant to the sanctity and integrity of the Democratic primaries and the 2020 election. Congress also risks being seen to undermine the prospects of a sitting president if the whistleblower’s allegations turn out to be spurious. Either way, Congress is under pressure to move quickly. This is a key difference between the Mueller investigations and today’s whistleblower allegations.

Third, the current set of allegations suggest that the president is taking a risk with America’s national security and its democracy, all in one go. Guaranteeing Ukraine’s security is core to America’s foreign policy, especially since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Trump’s alleged willingness to make US military assistance conditional on a demand that Ukraine investigate the former vice president and one of the leading Democratic candidates will be hard even for Republicans to ignore, if confirmed.

A difficult position for Ukraine

Orysia Lutsevych and James Nixey

Caught in the crossfire is Ukraine. It is a laboratory of a democracy facing twin existential threats – internally from corruption, and externally from a Russia that does not believe it should be the independent state that the vast majority of its 45 million citizens and international law state it to be. In this context, US development and military aid to Ukraine remains critical.

Zelenskyy genuinely hopes to resolve the conflict with Russia, though the Kremlin’s goals towards Ukraine have not changed. Peace at the price of Ukraine’s national interest could destabilize the country internally.

Presidents Trump and Putin have remarkably similar views on Ukraine. Both care little for its people and its ambitions, and view it – not Russia – as the principal cause of the nadir in relations between the two ‘great powers’. But the temptation for Trump to pressure Kyiv into a deal, rather than the Kremlin, must be opposed.

To be sure, Hunter Biden was unwise to be involved in a shady Ukrainian energy firm. It remains depressing how so many influential Westerners get involved with dubious characters throughout the post-Soviet space. But without any evidence of wrongdoing by Biden father or son, the principal story for Ukraine appears to be one of de facto blackmail: development and military aid (desperately needed) in exchange for ‘dirt’.