White House

We’re Asking the Wrong Questions on Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy listens during a bilateral meeting with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, September 25, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Of course there was a quid pro quo. What matters is whether the request ‘to get to the bottom of it’ is of interest only to Donald Trump.

My job is to have well-formed, sharp, interesting opinions. And in a moment like this — when House leader Nancy Pelosi has announced an impeachment inquiry, and when extensive documents are landing in my inbox and on my browser every few hours — it should be easy to reach a firm conclusion. But I have this odd suspicion that the terms of the debate are wrong. I feel like I’m asking basic questions.

In the lead-up to the release of the rough transcript of Donald Trump’s call to President Zelensky of Ukraine, we were led to think there was no explicit quid pro quo. And then the document itself appears. Defenders of the president kept to their line that there was no explicit quid pro quo. This is utterly delusional.

It’s not just that Donald Trump sought a “reciprocal” relationship, and asked, “I would like you to do us a favor.” These phrases in themselves would be enough to prove the quid pro quo nature of the conversation. It’s the entire political context of the conversation. The U.S. had authorized aid funds for Ukraine. These funds had been held up by the administration, and now the administration was on the phone with the president of Ukraine and making requests.

The president of Ukraine also very dutifully, almost embarrassingly, scrapes and bows before Trump, flattering him endlessly. We’re so happy for the United States support, Mr. President. We stayed at one of your places, Mr. President. Clearly the memo has gone around the capitals of the world that flattery works with President Trump. When Trump raises questions about the kind of people that populate the new government of Ukraine, Zelensky assures Trump “you have nobody but friends around us.” After the requests, Zelensky spoke with officials from the EU to discuss how to handle them.

The answer to whether there was a quid pro quo in the phone call is also true about the nature of foreign relations itself, especially between a rich military superpower like the United States and a vulnerable, politically riven, geostrategically vulnerable state such as Ukraine. Joe Biden himself explained his own quid pro quo with Ukraine: “I said, ‘You’re not getting the billion.’ I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours,” Biden told the Council of Foreign Relations. “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’” That’s a quid pro quo too.

When news items purporting to debunk Trump’s suspicions and claims, and pronounce that Yuriy Lutsenko, former prosecutor general of Ukraine, has cleared the Bidens, they are not at all giving the full political context. These stories have led people to conclude that “all the reporting” shows that there is nothing untoward about the Biden relationships in Ukraine, and that the removal of the prosecutor that Joe Biden bragged about on video had wide support and did not originate with him.

Well, of course it did! This isn’t exculpatory. Hunter Biden was invited into his lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company after the Obama administration had worked hard with the European Union and Euromaidan activists in Ukraine to bring down Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency there. Yanukovych would not sign an association agreement with the European Union. Given the way business and politics follow each other in Ukraine, one might reasonably conclude that the new regime in power rewarded its foreign sponsors by allowing aligned oligarchs to give the American vice president’s son a plum position for which he was not qualified. That the European Union agreed with the removal of the prosecutor because he was slow to root out “corruption” is not a surprise in the least. Once one faction in Ukraine gets into power, it tries to railroad the last regime as criminal. This is why Zelensky keeps emphasizing to Trump that they brought in “new people” and not the “usual politicians,” that future appointees will be “100 percent my people.”

So the question that matters is not whether it is a quid pro quo. It is whether the request “to get to the bottom of it,” where “it” refers to issues involving Crowdstrike and the Bidens, is only of private political interest to Donald Trump. Is a request for informational assistance with the Department of Justice investigation into the origins of the Russia probe one of legitimate U.S. interests?

Obviously, it would benefit the president if the person leading him in the polls was mixed up in Ukrainian political corruption. But that is not dispositive. Neither is the use of the wildly incompetent Rudy Giuliani for the task. Presidents frequently ask people whom they trust to be special representatives, envoys, and gophers.

To my mind, the entire impeachment case hangs not on whether there is a quid pro quo nature to the conversation, but to whether there are any legitimate reasons to the request for information itself. Is the request for information itself interference? Prove it to me.

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