“The United States has been very very good to Ukraine,” Trump continued. “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.”
Zelensky agreed, telling Trump that he had met with leaders from France and Germany and pushed them to do more.
“The European Union should be our biggest partner but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union and I’m very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine,” he said. “Much more than the European Union especially when we are talking about sanctions against the Russian Federation.” Those sanctions, it’s worth noting, were imposed by Congress and only reluctantly implemented by Trump.
Zelensky then says that Ukraine is anticipating soon buying Javelin missiles from the United States for defensive purposes, the sort of transaction that Trump has used as a rationale for being accommodating to countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Trump doesn’t seize on that offer, though. Instead, having just reminded Zelensky of how much the United States does for Ukraine, he goes in a different direction.
He asks for a favor.
Here’s what Trump said next:
“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
As is often the case when Trump discusses complex issues, he refers to various things using a hard-to-decrypt shorthand. That shorthand is important here, though, so let’s break it out.
This call occurred one day after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified on Capitol Hill about the contents of his report looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election. That investigation determined that Russia had tried, moving along multiple tracks, to influence the election that brought Trump to the White House. Russia spread misinformation and dissent on social media. Russians linked to the government sought interactions with Trump’s campaign team. And Russians working for the government hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s network and the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, stealing information that was ultimately released publicly by WikiLeaks. It’s all documented in the report Mueller described to legislators on July 24.
Trump has long rejected that assessment, specifically casting doubt on the idea that Russia was behind the hack of the DNC data. Since even before he was elected, he alleged that the culprit was uncertain, and he has claimed that the investigation of the DNC’s “server” was incomplete because the FBI never looked at it.
In April 2017, he went further, telling the Washington Examiner that he had heard the company that did look at the server was “owned by somebody from the Ukraine” — shortly after describing the Russia story as fake. (He made a similar claim to the Associated Press.) He is referring to CrowdStrike, a company that conducted an initial review of the breach of the DNC network, linking it to Russian hackers in June 2016. (What was deployed by the DNC, incidentally, was not a single server held in-house at the party’s headquarters, although that’s ancillary to this discussion.)
What’s the link to Ukraine? Apparently that one of CrowdStrike’s co-founders, Russian-born Dmitri Alperovitch, is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a group supported by a foundation established by Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. Given CrowdStrike’s investigations, including of Ukrainian targets, the company regularly has been in opposition to the Russian state.
Remember that Ukraine and Russia have been in a state of open military conflict since Russia seized Crimea in 2014. That seizure followed a popular revolt in Ukraine that ousted a pro-Russian president — one who had risen to power with the help of Trump’s eventual campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Russia and Russia-sympathetic insurgents currently occupy portions of eastern Ukraine bordering Russia.
So Trump’s assertion in April 2017 that Ukraine might have been the power evaluating Russia’s role in the DNC hack is meant to suggest a motive for CrowdStrike misrepresenting what it found. The links to Ukraine are so thin as to be translucent, but the rationale is obvious.
It’s also remarkably resilient, appearing again in Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. Granted, Trump’s presentation here is jumbled. He seems to be under the impression that perhaps the DNC had a server that was owned by a wealthy Ukrainian, instead of there being an investigation of intrusions into the DNC network by a company loosely linked to a Ukrainian. Nonetheless, Trump presses forward with a request for more information.
That despite how much we’ve learned since April 2017 about the Russian hacking effort. The Mueller report does note CrowdStrike’s initial investigation, but Mueller’s team went much further in establishing Russia’s culpability. A lengthy indictment obtained against a dozen Russians walks through that effort, going so far as to match language used in public posts about the stolen information to searches in online translation tools. That document, summarized in detail in Mueller’s report, leaves little question about Russia’s role.
What’s particularly important is what Trump asked of Zelensky. After reminding the Ukrainian leader of past U.S. assistance and hearing Zelensky say that he likely wanted to buy American weapons, Trump asked Zelensky to dig up information that Trump seems to believe might show that assessments of Russia’s role in the hacking were overstated or incorrect.
In other words, Trump seeks to leverage Zelensky’s desire for a strong relationship with the United States to undercut Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation — and, therefore, to exonerate a country with which Zelensky’s nation is actively in conflict. For all of Zelensky’s praise for how the United States has backed Ukraine, Trump sees clearing Russia’s involvement in interference — and, therefore, dissipating some of the concern about his relationship with that country and questions about his 2016 victory — as a top priority in his conversations with Zelensky.
Trump is less interested in getting Ukraine those Javelin missiles to help defend against Russia than he is in getting Ukraine to help him defend Russia against his critics.
Zelensky’s response is vague but encouraging.
“Yes it is very important for me and everything that you just mentioned earlier,” he replied according to the rough transcript. “For me as a President, it is very important and we are open for any future cooperation.”
And from there, somehow, the conversation somehow got more complicated.
Update: At a press conference prior to a bilateral meeting between Trump and Zelensky on Wednesday, the president offered a remarkably simplistic assessment of the relationship between the two countries.
“I really hope that Russia, because I really believe that President Putin would like to do something, I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem,” Trump said to Zelensky. “That would be a tremendous achievement. And I know you’re trying to do that.”