A recurring theme among those who have testified in the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump is that his administration was politicizing Ukraine foreign policy.

But why does that matter? It can be hard to grasp if you’re not involved in or don’t have a fundamental understanding of foreign policy and national security principles.

Transcripts of testimony released this week from two former Trump administration officials, both of whom resigned right as this inquiry was heating up, explain why they were troubled by what was happening around them in ways that get at the heart of why the House has launched an impeachment inquiry. Like:

Why Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president was troubling to those in the know on Ukraine policy

Former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker was at the center of U.S.-Ukrainian negotiations with Ukraine’s new president this summer. He testified that he knew Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was pushing unsubstantiated theories about former vice president Joe Biden helping out his son in Ukraine.

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When Volker read the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, he said was surprised to hear the president bring this up, too. Volker testified that it was “extremely unfortunate” for U.S. policy on Ukraine, a country that helps the United States strategically counter Russia, because it puts Ukraine in the middle of America’s 2020 election.

It forces the Ukrainians to choose sides between the current U.S. president and a potential future president. And Volker said he thought the request overshadowed everything else Ukraine actually needs — like help countering actual corruption and Russian influence, including fighting Russian-backed separatists in their own country.

Volker on Trump’s call:

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It creates a problem again where all of the things that we’re trying to do to advance the bilateral relationship, strengthen our support for Ukraine, strengthen the positioning against Russia is now getting sucked into a domestic political debate in the U.S., domestic political narrative that overshadows that. And I think that is extremely unfortunate for our policy with Ukraine.
… [A]sking the President of Ukraine to work together with the Attorney General and to look into this, you can see, as it has now happened, this becomes explosive in our domestic politics.

Later, he said: “I agreed with the Ukrainians they shouldn’t [issue a statement mentioning the Bidens and 2016], and in fact told them just drop it, wait till you have your own prosecutor general in place. Let’s work on substantive issues like this, security assistance and all.”

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So Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine says he was so troubled by what Giuliani was pushing that he urged the Ukrainians to drop it. That’s a pretty remarkable indictment of what Trump wanted Ukraine to do.

On why diplomacy matters to the United States in the first place

Much of the impeachment inquiry centers on the State Department and specifically the Foreign Service, which stations U.S. diplomats around the world.

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Former top State Department aide Michael McKinley got basic in his testimony about why these officials’ jobs matter so much to everyday Americans, whose paths don’t cross with the Foreign Service. He’s been referred to as the dean of the Foreign Service after serving for 37 years, and he had this to say:

Being a diplomat for the United States means supporting millions of Americans overseas. It means supporting our companies to create jobs at home. It means resolving conflicts that impact the United States. It means keeping the homeland safe. It means working with our military, the agency, all of our civilian agencies on projecting our interests and influence overseas. It means projecting American values. … I’ve worked in conflict areas the world over. And by diplomats doing what they do overseas, they help keep this country secure and prosperous and also offer us the possibility of being linked to the outside world. In terms of supporting our values, we’re also the front line in promoting issues of human rights, democracy, and cooperation internationally.

All of that was a setup to explain why he resigned in protest as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s top aide: He didn’t think Pompeo was helping support these diplomats as some of them were threatened to be drawn into the Trump administration to help Trump’s reelection:

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In this context, frankly, to see the emerging information on the engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes, combined with the failure I saw in the building to provide support for our professional cadre in a particularly trying time, I think the combination was a pretty good reason to decide enough, that I had — I had no longer a useful role to play.

On politicizing the Foreign Service

McKinley also testified that diplomats serve an administration that is inherently political, of course, but they try to maintain their distance from all that.

He talked about why that nonpartisan appearance matters and even somewhat paradoxically helps the president achieve his goals. If they were seen as a partisan diplomatic corps, other countries might not take them seriously:

I have seen other Foreign Services where it’s very clear what people’s political leanings are and, the more senior those bureaucrats are, how they play the game with different governments that are elected in their countries. The beauty of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Service that I’ve known through some incredibly difficult moments for our country and in bilateral relations with different places, is I don’t know the political views of the vast majority of my colleagues. They certainly don’t know mine. And we are able to work together and project working for the administration of the day. That’s absolutely central to our work. The day we begin to identify ourselves as partisan, that capacity to project support for the interests of the United States and to do our work for administrations we are bound to work for the administration that has been elected by the American people. But you begin to break that down if you begin to inject politics into the equation.
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