The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump, Impeachment, and the Bureaucracy

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Atlanta, Ga., November 8, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Andy McCarthy is of course correct in his latest article when he says that the foreign-policy bureaucracy was not elected and is supposed to follow the policies of the president. (I made the same point in my own latest column, adding some thoughts about the difficulty of applying that principle while serving in a chaotic administration.)

Others arguing in the same vein have made much of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony that he was troubled after becoming “aware of outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency.” They go on to argue that the president has a right to set a policy inconsistent with an interagency consensus, and even to lean on outside advisers in setting it.

That is also obviously true. But Andy doesn’t argue (and most other like-minded commentators don’t argue) that the president is therefore acting properly if, in consultation with outside advisers, he decides to set a policy of cajoling a foreign government to kneecap one of his political opponents. A government official who gets evidence that leads him to think that’s what the president is doing might reasonably think it worth calling attention to it. And one sign that something is afoot might be that the president is running one policy through his bureaucrats while seeming to run another through outside advisers.

Andy concludes that the impeachment effort is “driven by policy differences” (emphasis his). I don’t think that thesis can be maintained if the policy differences concern our support for Ukraine against Russia (a matter on which I don’t think that Democratic convictions on Russia and Ukraine run very deep) or concern whether the president or the bureaucracy should be in charge. But I think it holds up well if we think of the policy difference as whether it is proper for the president to use levers of foreign policy, including congressionally-mandated aid, to strike against a political rival.

That question involves a policy dispute, but is better understood as a dispute about the character of our system of government and the appropriate uses of presidential power—in other words, the sorts of questions Congress can legitimately consider when weighing an impeachment of the president.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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