The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A presidential loathing for Ukraine is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry

President Trump listens as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media during a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Three of President Trump’s top advisers met with him in the Oval Office in May, determined to convince him that the new Ukrainian leader was an ally deserving of U.S. support.

They had barely begun their pitch when Trump unloaded on them, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the meeting. In Trump’s mind, the officials said, Ukraine’s entire leadership had colluded with the Democrats to undermine his 2016 presidential campaign.

“They tried to take me down,” Trump railed.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the senior member of the group, assured Trump that the new Ukrainian president was different — a reformer in Trump’s mold who had even quoted President Ronald Reagan in his inaugural address, for which the three advisers had been present.

President Trump met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 25 in New York, after the release of a rough transcript of their July call. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

But the harder they pushed in the Oval Office, the more Trump resisted.

“They are horrible, corrupt people,” Trump told them.

So far, a dozen witnesses have testified before House lawmakers since the closed-door impeachment inquiry began a month ago. One theme that runs through almost all of their accounts is Trump’s unyielding loathing of Ukraine, which dates to his earliest days in the White House.

“We could never quite understand it,” a former senior White House official said of Trump’s view of the former Soviet republic, also saying that much of it stemmed from the president’s embrace of conspiracy theories. “There were accusations that they had somehow worked with the Clinton campaign. There were accusations they’d hurt him. He just hated Ukraine.”

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took to the airwaves to defend President Trump — and it didn’t always go well. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

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White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump’s animosity to Ukraine ran so deep and was so resistant to the typical foreign policy entreaties about the need to stand by allies that senior officials involved in Ukraine policy concluded that the only way to overcome it was to set up an Oval Office meeting with Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Once the two presidents actually sat down together, President Trump would quickly conclude that President Zelensky is . . . a charismatic politician who enjoys the support of his people and is worthy of U.S. support,” Kurt Volker, who subsequently resigned as the special adviser on Ukraine, told Congress.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials would spend months in pursuit of a Trump-Zelensky meeting. In their fruitless attempts to make it happen, Perry, Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, would encourage the Ukrainians to accede to demands by Trump and his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that they open investigations that would benefit Trump politically.

Ultimately, Trump, in a July 25 phone call, would press the Ukrainian president directly for dirt on former vice president Joe Biden.

“I would like for you to do us a favor,” Trump told Zelensky, according to a transcript of the call.

The roots of that request trace back to the earliest days of the Trump presidency, when Zelensky was still a Ukrainian sitcom actor and Trump’s top foreign policy advisers were trying to make sense of Trump’s distaste for Kyiv and map out a Ukraine policy.

In the fall of 2017, Trump was set to meet with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the United Nations in New York. At the time, U.S. officials were working to convince Trump that Ukraine, locked in a long war with Russian-backed forces, was worthy of American support.

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Volker that he would have about 45 seconds to brief Trump ahead of his meeting with Poroshenko. If Trump was interested in learning more, Tillerson said, the president would ask questions. Volker rushed through his pitch, according to former U.S. officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic topics.

Trump then peppered Volker with his negative views of Ukraine, suggesting that it wasn’t a “real country,” that it had always been a part of Russia, and that it was “totally corrupt.”

Inside the administration, Trump’s top advisers debated the origins of his ill-feeling. Some argued that Trump saw Ukraine as an impediment to better U.S. relations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, who was angry about U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and for the Kremlin’s ongoing support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

At the time of Trump’s U.N. meeting with Poroshenko, U.S. officials were debating whether to sell antitank weapons to the Ukrainians. In the previous administration, President Barack Obama had decided against the sale, worrying that it would make the conflict bloodier.

Trump’s entire national security Cabinet unanimously supported it. But Trump hesitated. “He kept saying it . . . wasn’t worth pissing off Russia and what a bad country Ukraine was,” said the former senior White House official.

Trump told his top advisers that “everyone” was telling him not to do it because it would anger Russia, the former official said. In fact, his entire team was advising the opposite. After months of delay, Trump approved the sale of the weapons in December 2017.

His skepticism and dislike of Ukraine, though, did not abate but, if anything, seemed to deepen over time, U.S. officials said.

Some advisers, such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who oversaw Ukraine policy on the National Security Council, told lawmakers that “outside influencers were promoting a false narrative of Ukraine” to Trump that was “harmful to U.S. government policy.” Others wondered whether the president’s disdain had to do with his well-known dislike of all U.S. foreign aid.

White House official who listened to Trump call with Zelensky said he was told to keep quiet

Ukraine was weak, war-torn and desperate for U.S. support. It had little to offer Trump, whose foreign policy focus was reversing the U.S. trade deficit.

Sondland, a Trump campaign donor turned diplomat, blamed Giuliani, who had publicly accused Ukraine of corruption and interference in the 2016 election, for the hardening of Trump’s views. And he viewed Giuliani as key to reversing Trump’s hostility.

“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland told lawmakers in October.

U.S. officials were also at odds over how best to convince Trump of Ukraine’s importance to U.S. policy. Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr., the acting chief U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, and many longtime foreign officials made an argument that was based on values and the principle of support for the international order. In testimony to House lawmakers, Taylor noted that by its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia had “violated countless treaties” and “dismissed all the principles that have kept the peace and contributed to prosperity in Europe since World War II.”

In Congress, Republicans and Democrats cast support for Ukraine as a defense of American democratic principles. Ukraine was a fragile democracy battling both internal corruption and its powerful neighbor.

None of those lofty arguments worked with Trump. “Many Americans feel strongly about supporting Ukraine because it’s the little guy and is fighting for values we consider fundamentally American,” said Molly Montgomery, who served on Vice President Pence’s staff and now works for the Albright Stonebridge Group. “But it’s clear that Trump doesn’t share that empathy. He’s more attracted generally to the powerful party in any dispute.”

Since his first days in office, Trump has made clear that he has little patience for alliances or anything that commits the United States to defending a weaker ally. He has repeatedly questioned the utility of NATO and harangued Europeans for not contributing more to the common defense. U.S. officials describe Trump’s mind-set as short term and transactional. Instead of looking for allies, Trump is forever in search of a deal, they say.

This was the impulse that led him to see what he could squeeze out of the Ukrainians in exchange for an Oval Office meeting, officials said.

“The whole episode is sadly unsurprising,” said a senior U.S. official familiar with U.S. policy on Ukraine. “It’s the epitome of impulsive, self-serving decision-making at the top that has undermined American power.”

In the end, most U.S. officials agreed that Trump’s anger with Ukraine, like many of his grievances, was connected with the 2016 election and his feeling that Ukraine was responsible for the humiliating fall of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Trump’s hatred, they concluded, was ingrained, irrational and possibly irreversible.

“Ukraine has always been problematic, from Day One,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally and Russia hawk, said in an interview. “He’s heard a lot about Ukraine from a lot of people.”