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National Security Professionals: Trump's Actions Are 'An Unconscionable Abuse Of Power'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR has confirmed that the Trump administration's special envoy to Ukraine has resigned. Kurt Volker was among those State Department officials due to give depositions before House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry. Earlier, I spoke to former Ambassador Nicholas Burns. Burns is one of 300 national security professionals who signed a letter saying the president's actions with respect to Ukraine were an abuse of power. Burns now teaches at Harvard and is an unpaid adviser to the Joe Biden campaign. Burns says a few things in particular trouble him about Trump's actions.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Trying to help Ukraine protect itself from the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been a very high priority for the United States. And here's the president, President Trump, withholding $391 million in U.S. military assistance to the Ukrainians until the Ukrainians agreed to work with the president to investigate former Vice President Biden. That is a corrupt act by the president, and it weakens the United States in trying to help Ukraine, and it actually helps President Putin. That's one aspect of this.

The other is the United States had a very fine professional career ambassador, Ambassador Masha Yovanovitch in Kyiv. She was pushed out of office by the president and by Rudy Giuliani apparently because she was trying to fight corruption in Ukraine, but she also wasn't going along with what Rudy Giuliani was up to in his conversations with the Ukrainian government.

CORNISH: And so this is your read of the president's comments, as noted in the calls.

BURNS: Exactly right. And in this call that the president had with President Zelenskiy, President Trump literally threw Ambassador Yovanovitch under the bus. He made very derogatory comments about her. I can't imagine an American president and I can't remember any American president in the past torching their own ambassador in a phone call with a foreign leader. It's one thing to have disagreements inside a government, but the president is supposed to be defending our career civil servants, and he didn't do that in this case.

CORNISH: What advice, if any, have you given to the Biden campaign, as they also are on the defensive in this controversy, right? The White House has talked repeatedly about Joe Biden, repeatedly about Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden.

BURNS: I think the vice president has spoken for himself. He's made a lot of - Vice President Biden made a lot of public statements this week, and I certainly support what he's been saying. This is not about him.

CORNISH: But as long as he's stuck defending himself - right? - then he's constantly talking about it. And for someone who's advising him about foreign policy, like, how do you combat that? What is your sense of things?

BURNS: I would say this to you. Every news organization in America, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have looked into President Trump's charges. They say that there's nothing here. This is a fabrication. So I think we all have to be very careful here to know where the problem is. The problem is President Trump trying to suborn the Constitution of the United States and engage in what may well turn out to be illegal acts. That has to be investigated, and that's where the attention should be.

CORNISH: The national security community has always had a country-first approach. Partisanship was not supposed to be part of the deal.

BURNS: That's right.

CORNISH: It doesn't seem like that's the case the last couple of years. Are those days effectively over?

BURNS: I hope they're not over. You know, every American civil servant, foreign service officer, military officer, takes an oath to the Constitution. That's been the tradition since 1789. We don't take an oath to the president. And here you have a series of events that have dramatically weakened the State Department by the Trump administration. You have their poor treatment of Ambassador Yovanovitch. You have the president complaining about the State Department publicly.

And yesterday, he said, whoever talked to the whistleblower, they're spies, and we know how to treat spies; we once knew how to treat spies. That's the kind of statement that a thug would make, someone with an authoritarian heart and authoritarian soul. And so for me - and I can't speak for everyone who signed the letter. I do think the president's actions merit impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate. I think he's proven to be unfit for office, unfit to lead us, the American people.

CORNISH: That's Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Thanks for speaking with us.

BURNS: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.