Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

The Ukraine scandal has split the US administration in unprecedented ways

Senior officials are not only divided by internal rifts but how to implement stated policy

US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak during a meeting in New York, September 2019. Saul Loeb/ AFP
US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak during a meeting in New York, September 2019. Saul Loeb/ AFP

All governments are divided but the Trump administration has developed a set of schisms unlike any of its predecessors.

The House of Representatives' investigation into the Ukraine scandal has revealed a government that is divided, not only in familiar, virtually inevitable ways but along unprecedented lines that have often rendered both policy and implementation contradictory.

Obviously, there will be a vast division between any White House and the Congress, particularly when some or all of it is controlled by the opposition. And there is usually considerable space between political appointees at the top of the policymaking structure in the executive branch and career public servants who mostly implement those policies. Add to that ideological factions and institutional and personal rivalries.

There has never been a government anywhere that didn't have such internal rifts and consequent infighting. Still, the US administration is not only split along these familiar lines but between senior politically appointed officials who are trying to implement stated policy versus those following president Donald Trump's personal agenda and most capricious impulses.

That is not the same as any of the traditional schisms. It is the difference between officials who take policy seriously and those who are almost entirely interested in Mr Trump's personal political agenda.

The Ukraine policy is the most dramatic example but not the only one.

In that case, now mostly former officials such as Mr Trump's two ambassadors to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovich and William Taylor, as well as national security adviser John Bolton and National Security Council staffers such as Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, among many others, struggled to implement long-standing and stated Ukraine policy. That included promoting an anti-corruption campaign in co-ordination with various European countries and others, and support for Ukraine’s resistance to a separatist push by pro-Russian insurgents.

As they sought to implement these policies according to the law, these officials found themselves confronting another group, led not by a rival official but the president’s private lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

He was directing a troika consisting of Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, energy secretary Rick Perry and European Union special envoy Gordon Sondland in an effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to initiate or at least publicly announce a criminal investigation into a company associated with US presidential candidate Joe Biden's son and another into a long-debunked conspiracy theory suggesting that foreign interference in the 2016 election came from Ukraine on behalf of Democrats.

To secure Mr Trump's political agenda, this faction was willing to sacrifice stated policy and allegedly try to circumvent the law. After initially denying it, Mr Sondland now acknowledges he told Ukrainian leaders that a White House meeting with Mr Trump and $400 million in emergency military aid would not be forthcoming without such an announcement.

It's easy to see why Mr Trump wanted that. However, insisting on a politically motivated criminal investigation runs directly counter to decades of US anti-corruption policy, which is why none of this was ever shared with the international Ukraine anti-corruption coalition. Moreover, Congress had appropriated the military aid pursuant to Ukraine's obviously dire needs and the legal requirement to transfer it was consistent with policy to support Ukraine.

So the Giuliani faction was pursuing a political agenda directly at odds with the stated policy of the Trump administration. Considerable outrage when these activities became widely known within the government prompted the whistleblower complaint that initiated the House investigation and yielded such testimony.

The law and policy faction, meanwhile, sought to mitigate political pressure on Kiev as much as possible and find a way to provide the military assistance anyway. Armed with a legal finding that the appropriated aid could not be lawfully withheld or even delayed without a set of formal actions that were never taken, this group allegedly went behind the back of White House acting chief of staff and budget director Mick Mulvaney, who was continuing to enforce a hold ordered by Mr Trump, and released at least $141 million to Ukraine.

So what was the Ukraine policy anyway?

When Mr Giuliani and his cohorts were in action or Mr Trump was on the phone to Kiev, apparently it was to withhold all forms of co-operation pending political favours. Otherwise, it was to continue to strongly back Ukraine against Russia and support genuine anti-corruption efforts.

Similar tussles over immigration policy have riven various agencies in the department of Homeland Security, such as immigration and customs enforcement, and customs and border protection. An extraordinary number of senior officials have been ousted because they resisted draconian anti-migration measures that are politically useful to Mr Trump but are contrary to stated policies and in many cases probably unlawful.

Family separation, long-term detention of children, denial of the right to apply for asylum, summary deportations and other harsh policies are still being fought over between officials seeking to implement stated policy and follow the law versus those focused on advancing Mr Trump's nativist political agenda.

Mr Trump has reportedly even suggested obviously unlawful measures such as shooting at the legs of would-be migrants and summarily seizing privately owned land for his border wall.

There are many other areas of foreign and domestic policy where similar extraordinary divisions have emerged. The ongoing struggle over the US role in Syria and disputes over North Korea are two other obvious examples among many. All this is new.

It may be unique to the Trump administration because until now there has never been a US president who consistently and strongly privileged a personal political agenda over stated policies. But it leaves everyone at home and abroad wondering what agenda at any given moment this administration is really pursuing and what it might do next.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: November 11, 2019 10:19 PM

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