The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Five vile things Trump did to Zelensky and Ukraine that you forgot about

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (AFP via Getty Images)
5 min

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine getting more horrific, Donald Trump and his allies are frantically erasing the truth about Trump’s relations with Ukraine. Trump absurdly claims that as president, he stood strong behind Ukraine and NATO, while his spinners comically downplay his corrupt and deeply malevolent betrayal of our ally.

The obvious rejoinder to this spin is that Trump got impeached for withholding military aid to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into manufacturing propaganda to help Trump’s reelection. This came even as Zelensky pleaded for help against Russian aggression, which the world is now witnessing unfold in all its horror.

But the focus only on that episode risks oversimplifying the story. It casts this recent history as being mainly about Trump’s personal corruption, i.e., his effort to use foreign policy to smear his campaign opponent.

Who is Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady and Volodymyr Zelensky’s wife?

A broader focus shows that this saga was, and is, really about the United States’ foreign policy posture: In episode after episode, Trump aligned our interests with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin and against those of Ukraine, NATO and the West.

“Trump acted against U.S. interests with the consequence of aiding Russian interests,” Alexander Vindman, the former lieutenant colonel who testified dramatically against Trump, told me.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Vindman said the United States should have spent Trump’s term “hardening” Ukraine to “prevent Russia from thinking this is a viable course of action.”

All this is particularly pressing, given that Trump is likely to run for president again. The simplest way to illustrate this is by recalling five other things Trump did with regard to Zelensky and Ukraine:

1. Spread propaganda about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election

As early as 2017, Trump began voicing the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 presidential election. This was one of the things Trump pressured Zelensky to “investigate” while withholding military aid.

It’s complete nonsense, and crucially, it echoed Russian propaganda that had a geopolitical purpose. Putin himself reportedly put this idea in Trump’s head. And Fiona Hill, then a top national security official, testified that this propaganda helped Russia by deflecting attention from Russia’s own interference in 2016 and by dividing the United States from an ally.

And don’t forget: At the time, some Republican lawmakers lent support to Trump’s lie about Ukraine, thus advancing “Russian interests,” as Hill put it.

2. Ousted the well-regarded U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

Trump pushed out Marie Yovanovitch in 2019, after his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani mounted a smear campaign against her. Yovanovitch was perceived as disloyal to Trump.

Here again the move apparently advanced Russia’s geopolitical interests at Ukraine’s expense. As the House impeachment report details, it hampered the United States’ ability to develop relations with Ukraine amid a “period of transition” — Zelensky was then a new president — and amid efforts to fend off Russian aggression.

3. Froze military assistance to Ukraine

Well before extorting Zelensky, Trump alarmed officials by freezing military aid to Ukraine that Congress had appropriated, but without meaningful policy justification. Crucially, officials subsequently testified that granting this aid was important in dissuading Russian aggression, which would be in European and U.S. interests.

4. Withheld a White House meeting from Zelensky

In 2019, Trump communicated in various ways to Zelensky that a much-sought-after White House meeting would be conditioned on doing his corrupt dirt-digging on Joe Biden.

Numerous high level officials later testified that this meeting was critical to Zelensky. It would grant him prestige and send an international message that the United States was siding with Ukraine against Russian aggression.

5. Turned Ukraine policy over to Giuliani

This was one of the most shocking subplots: Trump repeatedly instructed Zelensky to contact Giuliani to discuss what Zelensky would be required to do to please Trump. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security protocols deeply alarmed officials.

That effectively handed potential influence over the future of U.S.-Ukraine relations to Trump’s personal lawyer — to the ringleader of the scheme to pressure Ukraine into helping Trump further corrupt our own elections.

All this has important forward-looking implications, now that Trump may run for president again. As president in 2025, he’d be stewarding relations with Russia, Ukraine and NATO, but after this war has unfolded.

Right now we’re seeing extraordinary unity among the United States and its allies as it imposes harsh sanctions on Russia and otherwise tries to dissuade Putin’s invasion. Trump would almost surely rupture that.

“With Trump as president in 2025, we’re quite likely looking at a world in which Russia may have achieved its objectives and folded Ukraine back into its sphere of influence,” Vindman told me.

Even if Russia falls short, Vindman added, Trump would be president at a time when “a belligerent, aggressive Russia wants to rebuild the Soviet Union” and “potentially get back the Baltics.”

This could be made worse, Vindman said, given “Trump’s established preferences” to “continue to weaken NATO and serve Russia.” The result could be “enormous instability.”

So Trump’s track record on Ukraine is about far more than his own personal corruption. It also raises questions about what would happen if Trump is president again in the aftermath of Russia’s conquest — questions that, to put it mildly, are deeply unsettling indeed.