The conversation between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky did not occur in a vacuum.
Starting in February 2014, Russia backed separatist militant forces in eastern Ukraine, setting off an off-and-on civil war in that part of Ukraine. Around that time, Russian troops rolled into Crimea and the following month they declared it part of Russia. In July, Russian-backed forces shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing 298 innocent people. That same month, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the civilian-taken satellite images showing that Russia was firing shells across the border at Ukrainian military forces.
By August, two columns of Russian tanks had crossed the border into Ukraine. By October, independent analysts had determined that at least 30 Russian army units had moved into Ukrainian territory. By January 2015, several hundred civilians were killed in fighting between the Ukrainian military and heavily armed militia groups calling themselves “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia”; Ukraine’s government contended that this was all backed by the Russian army, and that same winter, separatists forces took over the Donetsk airport after months of bloody fighting. In 2018, Russian warships fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels.
Just because you’re not hearing much in the U.S. media about fighting in eastern Ukraine doesn’t mean it stopped. Day in and day out, there are more attacks, more casualties, more convoys of Russian military hardware spotted. Roughly 13,000 people have been killed. Russia and Ukraine are at war, and while there are intermittent glimpses of good news such as prisoner exchanges, Russia would appear to have the better prospects in the long term.
This is the context of that July 25 conversation between Trump and Zelensky: Russia is trying to take over Ukraine, and it is using military force to do so, and if Ukraine doesn’t have the United States on its side, sending it advanced military equipment, Ukraine is eventually toast. Trump doesn’t single-handedly control the fate of Ukraine, but he can either help or hinder the Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s forces a great deal.
Even if an American president wanted to thaw out the bad relationship with the Russian government, he has an obligation to vocally oppose raw aggression and the seizing of territory through military force. Even if an American president saw minimal U.S. national interest in Ukraine, he has to understand that Russian forces rolling into a neighboring country would understandably freak out our NATO allies such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, etc. Even if an American president wants to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, he’s got to recognize that any outcome that rewards Russian’s leaders for their actions will only encourage more aggression in the future.
In the readout of the Trump call with Zelensky, the word “Russian” is used only once by either man: when the Ukrainian president briefly refers to “sanctions against the Russian federation.” Trump never says anything about Russia, the ongoing military conflict, or NATO. By every indication, Trump simply has no interest in those topics.
Trump describes past American support for Ukraine as if it were a loan so they can gamble it at the racetrack: “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine. 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.”
The United States “has been very, very good to Ukraine” because they’re being invaded by Russia, and up until very recently there was a broad bipartisan consensus that Russia invading Ukraine was a bad thing, even if policymakers disagreed on just how much the United States should do about it.
After being effusively thankful, Zelensky raises the issue of Javelin anti-tank missiles. “We.are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps,” he says. “Specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
But Trump isn’t interested in discussing sales of anti-tank weapons. His immediate response is “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.” Crowdstrike is the cybersecurity firm that analyzed the DNC servers. “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.”
Is this an explicit quid pro quo? No. But it’s Trump asking for a favor immediately after Zelensky mentions something he wants. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see what Trump is getting at here.
Zelensky is the first to mention Rudy Giuliani: “I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.” His comments are full of vague but generally positive pledges to Trump: “I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us. I will make sure that I surround myself with the best and most experienced people. I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends and you, Mr. President, have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership.”
Trump’s main interest in the conversation is telling Zelensky who’s good and who’s bad. He mentions the recent “very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance.” “Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor.” “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” referring to former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. (Some might wonder why, if she was such bad news, the Trump administration kept her on in her position instead of appointing a new ambassador to Ukraine once he was in office.)
At least the public can rest assured that Trump’s private conversations with foreign leaders are indistinguishable from his public statements to the press and in his Twitter feed. There is no more sinister side of Trump that is revealed only behind closed doors; when he wants somebody to do something for him, he’s obvious about it.
Perhaps the best defense of Trump is that he doesn’t threaten to withhold the Javelin missiles or any other form of military or foreign aid. He sounds eager to start a long and happy relationship with Zelensky, but he’s also consumed with the idea that the Ukrainian government can illuminate a slew of sinister plots bedeviling him — Crowdstrike, crimes by Hunter Biden, and Joe Biden withholding aid to ensure that his son escapes consequence.
President Trump is clearly convinced that if Ukraine looks at Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma Holdings long enough, some crime will reveal itself. Critics of the president are correct that the commander-in-chief should not be urging foreign leaders to investigate a rival’s son. But that doesn’t mean that the rival’s son shouldn’t be investigated; Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings, shady partners, and expensive gifts unnerved Obama-administration officials.
Trump’s interest in the Bidens is not mere altruistic concern about corruption; of course he’s operating out of naked self-interest. But he’s also got a good reason to think that Hunter Biden has largely escaped scrutiny because the media, most of official Washington, and campaign-finance watchdogs cut Joe Biden slack that they would never give to Donald Trump.
If you were Zelensky, would you fear Trump after this call, feeling a desperate need to find something incriminating on the Bidens? Or would your bigger worry be that Trump had little to no interest in Ukraine’s problems at all?
The words of Trump on that call are not worthy of the office of commander-in-chief. But American presidents say and do a lot of things that aren’t worthy of the office, like seducing 19-year-old White House interns, addressing White House reporters while naked on Air Force One, joking about launching nuclear missiles at Russia within five minutes (setting off a red alert in the Soviet military), vomiting on the Japanese prime minister, or losing the nuclear-launch codes. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Trump being his usual self-interested, conspiracy-minded self could lead to the third impeachment in American history, when much more consequential acts, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and lying about the real situation on the ground in Vietnam led to no such consequence.
Democrats want to impeach Trump over what he said about the Bidens. And yet after two years of furious allegations about Russian influence, they don’t care that during a lengthy conversation with the Ukrainian president, Trump didn’t say a single thing about Russia.