For pro-Trump Republicans, Ukraine is ground zero for complaints that Trump has been unfairly persecuted. They saw Ukrainian allegations in 2016 about Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as part of a drive to undermine Trump’s bid for the White House and then reverse the election result through what Trump keeps insisting is a “witch hunt” of “endless investigation.”
Ukraine is a chip on Trump’s shoulder. So when he saw an opportunity to turn the tables and use Ukraine against former vice president Joe Biden, his leading potential Democratic rival in 2020, he grabbed it. As the narrative shows, he bent the tools of office to his personal political purpose.
Biden deserves some blame, too. Putting aside the false Trump conspiracy theories about him, Biden used poor judgment in playing a role on Ukraine policy while his son Hunter was working for Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Either the son should have quit, or the father should have shut up. Denying this obvious fact only weakens the Democrats’ case against Trump.
Trump’s resentment of Ukraine — and his disinterest in the country’s fight for freedom against Russia — appears to begin in 2016, when Ukrainian officials were sharing information about payoffs to Manafort with reporters, Hillary Clinton supporters and FBI officials. (Manafort was eventually convicted of crimes including fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 7½ years in prison.)
The idea that Manafort’s troubles were a Ukrainian-Democratic plot surfaced in a January 2017 piece in Politico, which quoted Andrii Telizhenko, a political officer in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, complaining that “the embassy worked very closely” to provide information about Manafort to a Clinton supporter. More than two years later, in May 2019, Telizhenko would meet with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as he was accelerating his efforts to gather dirt about Biden and other Democrats. “I can’t tell you a thing about the meeting,” a hush-hush Giuliani told The Post
in a May 24 article.
Trump cared little about Ukraine’s battle against Russian proxy forces. But he softened when then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko visited the White House on June 20, 2017, and offered to buy what became $80 million in Pennsylvania coal.
The coal purchase rang a political bell for Trump. In July 2017, he announced the appointment of Kurt Volker, an experienced diplomat, as special representative on Ukraine. Volker began meeting quietly with Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emissary, to hammer out a deal to stabilize eastern Ukraine. Backed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Volker also pressed Trump to sell Javelin antitank missiles and other weapons to Ukraine to gain leverage in the talks.
Volker met with Surkov four times, in Minsk, Belgrade and a final session on Dubai in January 2018. By the last meeting, the two diplomats explored an agreement for deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine, local elections, an amnesty plan and a pathway to eventual stability, according to a State Department official. Surkov said he would send a paper outlining Russian views on this formula, but he never did. The back channel proved a dead end.
The Trump administration had decided in December 2017 to sell 210 Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine, at Mattis’s urging. For Trump, it was more a matter of marketing U.S. weapons abroad than taking a firm stand against Russia, say several former U.S. officials.
By 2018, the White House had become obsessed with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian election interference. “Trump had a deeply negative image of Ukraine. ‘They’re all corrupt, and they tried to take me down,’ ” recalls the former State Department official.
Sensing the political resentment, Poroschenko apparently decided to remove an irritant. A May 2018 article in the New York Times reported that Ukraine had halted its investigation of Manafort and its cooperation with Mueller.
After the Mueller investigation finally concluded with the released report in April, Trump and Giuliani saw Ukraine as a place to settle political scores — and perhaps damage Biden. The pliant Poroschenko had been replaced by President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected that month. A new influence game began.
Trump’s leverage on the Ukranians was the military package, which had grown to $391 million. As Zelensky struggled to form his government in spring and early summer, he was counting on that aid.
But in July, just as Zelensky was beginning his outreach to Washington, military deliveries were halted. When Volker and others questioned the holdup at an interagency meeting July 18, no explanation was given, but it soon became clear the order came from the White House. Volker protested to his colleagues: “We have to keep this aid moving, This is important for our negotiating position with Russia,” the State Department official recounts. But the stall continued.
Trump wanted something very personal and political before he would offer congratulations to Zelensky and unfreeze the military aid. Hoping to break the logjam, Volker had breakfast on July 19 with Giuliani and later texted him to introduce Andrey Yermak, a close Zelensky adviser, according to records released Thursday by House investigators.
That same day, Volker texted two senior U.S. officials: Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, and William Taylor, the charge running the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. Based on what he’d heard from Giuliani, Volker explained what the White House wanted in the upcoming telephone call between Trump and Zelensky. “Most impt [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation.”
Volker warned Giuliani that the allegations about Biden were based on an unreliable informant, according to the State Department official. What’s astonishing is that Giuliani responded, “Yes, I know that,” said this source. But the call — and the plan to impugn the former vice president — went forward anyway.
Volker offered instructions to Yermak, the Ukrainian adviser, on July 25, the day of the call with Trump. Volker texted: “Heard from White House — assuming President Z [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate/ ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”
The proposed transaction became explicit later that day, when Trump telephoned Zelensky. Despite all Trump’s fluff about how the call was “perfect,” it was a naked power play. According to the rough transcript released by the White House, Zelensky said, “We are almost ready to buy more Javelins” and Trump responded immediately: “I would like you to do us a favor though.” With that, Trump meandered through conspiratorial talk about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 campaign, and the “incompetent” Mueller, and “they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
And finally, the real plum: Would Zelensky talk to Giuliani about “The other thing. There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General [William P. Barr] would be great.”
The Ukrainians thought the call had gone well. But in an Aug. 9 text to Volker, Sondland cautioned: “I think potus really wants the deliverable.”
The Ukrainians didn’t press Volker about the aid suspension until Aug. 28, when Yermak texted Volker a story from Politico about the cutoff. The squeeze tightened when Trump canceled a trip to Warsaw where he would have met Zelensky on Sept. 1. Was there an implied deal here, U.S. diplomats wondered.
Here’s how Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev, put it in a Sept. 1 text to Volker and Sondland: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” To which Sondland responded obliquely: “Call me.”
Taylor warned Sondland in a Sept. 9 text: “The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario.” The military aid was finally released in mid-September.
The Ukraine story, like everything about that country, has a gnarled, murky past. But this one isn’t complicated, really. The facts — what people said and did, in confirmed reports — are clear. The president linked support for an embattled ally to what he called “a favor” that would help him attack political opponents. If this behavior is acceptable, there really are no rules left.