We can break them down as follows.
The clearest evidence of a quid pro quo right now has to do with an Oval Office meeting the White House dangled over Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s head for months. Trump said he would meet with Zelensky in a May letter, but his aides then withheld the meeting for months and made clear they needed Zelensky to announce Trump’s politically beneficial investigations before setting it.
The entire situation may seem familiar to Zelensky’s predecessor as president, Petro Poroshenko.
In February 2017, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump and Poroshenko had spoken by phone and “discussed plans for an in-person meeting in the future.”
Even as Trump met with a procession of foreign leaders in those early months, though, a meeting with Poroshenko wasn’t scheduled. Indeed, it didn’t happen until late June. And why is that date significant? Because it was very shortly after Poroshenko’s government took action on an investigation of personal interest to Trump — and in a Trump-friendly direction.
Here’s a quick timeline:
- June 8, 2017: Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani meets with Poroshenko and then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko.
- June 9, 2017: Lutsenko’s office joins an existing investigation into the “black ledger,” which implicated former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The investigation had previously been handled only by Ukraine’s independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), and critics alleged the new move was meant to bury the scandal.
- June 14, 2017: Reports in Europe indicate Poroshenko will meet with Trump.
- June 19, 2017: Spicer says Poroshenko will meet with Vice President Pence, but doesn’t confirm a meeting with Trump.
- June 20, 2017: Poroshenko gets a brief “drop-in” visit with Trump.
Poroshenko’s government had other motives for trying to delay the “black ledger” investigation, apart from trying to please Trump. (The investigation risked implicating officials in Poroshenko’s own government.) But the move was probably beneficial to Trump, and it was followed very shortly by a White House meeting that has been coveted by Ukrainian leaders.
And at the very least, as with Zelensky, it appears the White House was stingy with a meeting with Poroshenko, even as it was awarding them pretty openly to other allies. Even when Poroshenko got one, it was, for some reason, a low-key visit.
This wasn’t the only time Poroshenko’s government made a key decision on investigations in Trump’s favor — and arguably got something out of it.
The second key juncture before the events currently being investigated came in late 2017 and early 2018.
In December 2017, the Trump administration made a key decision to provide Ukraine with lethal aid — specifically antitank missiles called Javelins. This is the same weaponry Trump and Zelensky would later talk about on their fateful July 25, 2019, phone call.
Republicans have hailed Trump’s decision to provide such weaponry as evidence of his support for Ukraine and as a counterpoint to the idea that he has been leveraging it. But what if the Javelins were also used as leverage?
What we can say is that they weren’t delivered until after another significant investigatory decision from Ukraine in Trump’s favor — one that was even more narrowly beneficial to Trump.
In early April 2018, according to the New York Times, Ukraine halted its investigations of Manafort and also its cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation. In addition, it reportedly allowed a potential witness in Mueller’s collusion investigation to leave the country for Russia, where they couldn’t be interviewed.
Later that month, the Javelins arrived. Poroshenko posted as much on Facebook on April 30, and U.S. officials soon confirmed it.
As with the first sequence, it’s possible that’s all simply a coincidence; the decision to provide the Javelins had already been made months earlier, after all. But here’s what’s key: In the same May 2, 2018, Times article that broke the news about Ukraine’s decision on the investigations, Ukrainian officials conceded that the decision was made with the Javelins in mind. Indeed, the piece was titled, “Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Missiles, Halted Cooperation With Mueller Investigation.”
Volodymyr Ariev, a key Poroshenko ally in Ukraine’s Parliament, said at the time that the Ukrainian administration wanted to put the Manafort stuff “in the long-term box” and make sure it wasn’t alienating Trump.
“In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” Ariev said. “We shouldn’t spoil relations with the administration.”
So to recap:
- Early April 2018: Ukraine halts Manafort probes, stops cooperating with Mueller.
- April 30, 2018: First delivery of Javelins is announced.
- May 2, 2018: Ukrainian officials are quoted suggesting the former was done with the latter in mind.
Even at the time, there was talk that perhaps there was some kind of quid pro quo for the Javelins, though even Poroshenko’s opponents suggested it might not be an explicit one. David Sakvarelidze, a former deputy prosecutor general, said Ukrainian officials probably connected the two on their own.
“Can you imagine,” Sakvarelidze told the Times, “that Trump writes on Twitter, ‘The United States isn’t going to support any corrupt post-Soviet leaders, including in Ukraine.’ That would be the end of [Poroshenko].”
It’s yet another eerie parallel to today. These days, Trump has claimed his decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine was indeed because of such corruption — even as the alleged corruption he seems interested in is very selective and of the self-serving variety.
But it seems quite possible Ukrainian leaders could have come away from these two experiences believing that both a White House meeting and U.S. military aid come with strings attached — strings that relate to Trump’s personal political desires rather than official U.S. government policy. So when Zelensky comes into office and it all happens again under very similar circumstances, what other conclusion could he and his aides draw?
At that point, does the Trump team even need to tell Ukraine that the military aid is being withheld and that there is an explicit quid pro quo on the White House meeting? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the quid pro quos would simply have been well understood, and these two timelines only add to it.