U.S. presidents have often been accused of using foreign policy as a distraction from domestic problems. The Trump administration may choose to focus on international issues to move attention away from the looming threat of impeachment facing the president. If the administration does turn its attention to foreign policy, North Korea offers one potentially tempting international issue.
We may have already seen indications that Donald Trump will try to use foreign policy as a distraction. With the crisis growing over reports that he withheld funds from Ukraine in an effort to gain political favors, Trump announced that he could meet with Kim Jong Un soon despite North Korea’s failure at the time to keep to its commitment to hold working level talks with the United States.
The question, however, is how the impeachment inquiry will affect the ability of the administration to conduct foreign policy. The experiences of the Nixon and Clinton impeachment inquiries provide some insights into the challenges of conducting foreign policy during impeachment proceedings.
While an impeachment inquiry will inevitably constrain any administration’s ability to govern, foreign policy will continue, as it did with previous presidents facing impeachment. After the House began impeachment proceedings against Clinton, he hosted Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to negotiate the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. After formally being impeached, the Clinton administration authorized strikes on Iraq in response to its refusal to allow in UN inspectors. The Nixon administration was faced with trying to end the Yom Kippur War and ending the related oil embargo under the cloud of impeachment.
In both cases the administrations were able to continue to function relatively normally and the impeachment process did not necessarily inhibit the ability to undertake significant foreign policy initiatives such as arms control agreements with adversarial countries. A little more than a month before the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to release the Watergate tapes, he concluded the Threshold Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.
Impeachment proceedings did, however, have some effects on foreign policy. Individuals such as Henry Kissinger during the Nixon impeachment became more empowered to pursue policies, while the president dealt with the domestic impeachment crisis. Impeachment also meant that existing divisions with Congress were reinforced. During the Clinton administration, Congress denied requests to provide funds to the IMF to handle the Asian Financial Crisis.
Foreign policy can also be of benefit to a president under impeachment. In the case of Nixon, impeachment briefly faded from the news after an agreement was reached between Israel and Syria to disengage from hostilities. Fleetingly Nixon was seen as politically strengthened as it received bipartisan praise for negotiating the agreement.
However, the potentially impending impeachment process for Trump is different from those of Andrew Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton in that the core problems are rooted in the conduct of a president’s foreign policy. That fact alone suggests that managing foreign policy could be more complicated during Trump’s impeachment inquiry than during prior impeachments.
The Nixon and Clinton impeachments also took place during a period in U.S. history where there was a general understanding among Republicans and Democrats that politics ended at the water’s edge. Foreign policy has become a more partisan issue in recent years. As recently as the Obama administration, 47 Republican Senators sent an open letter to the leaders of Iran suggesting that a future U.S. president could undo the Iran nuclear deal, something that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War.
With working level talks with North Korea already strained, the administration will be pursuing its strategy in a more complicated environment in which its actions could be viewed through the lens of impeachment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that he did listen to the call with the Ukrainian president, potentially casting himself as a central figure in the crisis. In that light, he may be unable to play the role of a Kissinger in foreign policy.
If one member of the administration were to emerge as a pivotal figure on North Korea policy, it could be Stephen Biegun. Before the Hanoi summit, it had been suggested that Biegun and the president were fighting a war over North Korea policy with the rest of the administration. With the departure of John Bolton as national security advisor and Pompeo potentially entangled in the impeachment inquiry, there may be less resistance internally to reaching a deal with North Korea. Though, even if Trump were to empower Biegun in a way that might not have been possible only a few weeks ago, North Korea would need to be more flexible than it has suggested coming out of the recent meeting in Stockholm.
With Trump reaching out to other governments to aid in his quest to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family, it also makes the politics of a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un to seal any deal problematic. Without a genuinely substantive agreement, a summit meeting similar to Singapore that only produced general promises, or Hanoi, which made no progress, would likely be criticized as an effort to distract the public and could further the narrative of Trump using his office for personal gain.
The prospect of impeachment also imperils what South Korean President Moon Jae-in had hoped would be his signature achievement. Much of the Moon administration’s North Korea policy has been built around Trump’s willingness to engage North Korea personally and to take risks that prior U.S. presidents had been unwilling to take. If Trump is removed from the equation it is unclear that North Korea will maintain its interest or that it would continue on a bilateral path with Seoul in the absence of a clear indication from South Korea that it would be willing to break with international sanctions.
The impeachment inquiry also changes the incentive structure for North Korea. There is now a real prospect that any deal reached with Trump might not survive his presidency, but also a new negotiating environment that might provide North Korea a negotiating partner willing to conclude a deal even more towards Pyongyang’s liking.
The early returns suggest North Korea may see leverage in the current crisis. In taking a hard line after the recent working level talks, North Korea put out a statement saying that “The U.S. has actually not made any preparations for the negotiations but sought to meet its political goal of abusing the D.P.R.K.-U.S. dialogue for its domestic political [interests].” If the administration does place a priority in reaching a deal soon, North Korea’s hard line could play to its advantage.
Another consideration for North Korea will be if Trump were to be impeached and removed from office. The politics in the United States would become more complex, but Democrats and Republicans might not want to reopen an agreement when they have more pressing matters at hand. At the same time, with Republicans no longer beholden to Trump they could revert to being skeptical of North Korea’s willingness to uphold its end of any agreement.
While the impeachment inquiry has implications for the United States, South Korea, and North Korea as talks proceed over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs, history would suggest that impeachment should not hinder the prospects of reaching a deal. However, the specific nature of the Trump impeachment could change those calculations and make reaching a deal even more problematic.