The potential impeachment case against President Donald Trump hinges on his alleged effort to condition continued U.S. support for Ukraine on the former Soviet republic’s cooperation in helping him politically, including digging up dirt on potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.
Given the fact that Trump was credibly — though not criminally — accused of entertaining similarly questionable assistance from Russia in 2016, it’s hardly surprising his threats raised warning flags throughout the White House and on Capitol Hill.
But the key testimony against Trump came from a senior diplomat and a military aide who feared the president was threatening significant national security damage by weakening Ukraine’s ability to maintain its independence. That aspect seemed secondary to the president.
“A strong and independent Ukraine is critical to U.S. national security interests because Ukraine is a frontline state and a bulwark against Russian aggression,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified. If Ukraine pursued probing the Bidens, he concluded, “it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”
Ever since Ukraine gained independence during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its Western allies have seen it as a vital bulwark against renewed Russian expansion. But the nascent nation has struggled to fulfill that role under the burdens of domestic turmoil, corruption and pressure from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Trump hasn’t explicitly disdained that goal. But his actions and comments have been consistent with his persistent pattern of helping Putin, rather than opposing him.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Trump last month: “All roads lead to Putin.”
The United States got off to a bad start in its relationship with Ukraine.
I was in the columned Ukrainian Parliament building for former President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 so-called “chicken Kiev” speech urging the country to remain within the Soviet Union, rather than become
independent. Just 23 days later, Ukraine declared its independence.
But U.S. policy since then has sought to provide military, political
and moral support. The first ambassador Bush sent Ukraine was Roman Popadiuk, the son of Ukrainian peasants who was his deputy press secretary.
And one of those envoys pursuing that policy was William B. Taylor, the career diplomat who was placed in charge after Trump forced out Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. “Our national security demands that this relationship remain strong,” he told the impeachment inquiry
Trump, however, has seemed oblivious to the national security aspects, using Ukraine as a cudgel for his criticism of former President Barack Obama and now as a source for boosting his 2020 prospects.
Another motive, The Washington Post reported Sunday, is that Trump accepted former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s unsubstantiated argument that Ukraine conspired against Trump in 2016. “They tried to take me down,” The Post said Trump told aides. “They are horrible, corrupt people.”
Starting in 2014, when Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula prompted Obama and other Western leaders to retaliate by applying sanctions and disinviting Russia from the annual economic summit, Trump has blamed his presidential predecessor more than Putin.
In 2016, he said he would consider recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, declaring on ABC’s This Week he heard its people “would rather be with Russia.”
Since then, Trump has continued to blame his predecessor. “It was sort of taken away from President Obama — not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama,” he told a news conference at last August’s economic summit, where he pushed unsuccessfully to re-invite Russia. “He was outsmarted by Putin.”
“It could have been stopped but President Obama was unable to stop it, and it’s too bad,” he added.
Trump did something else in 2016 that raised questions about his commitment to Ukraine. At the Republican National Convention, his
operatives engineered a change in the GOP platform, replacing an explicit promise to provide “lethal defensive weapons” for Ukraine with a vaguer one to provide “appropriate assistance.”
Nevertheless, the Trump administration joined Congress in providing lethal arms aid that Obama had refused to send. When the current controversy blew up last summer, a third package totaling $391 million was awaiting Trump’s approval.
Though the details remain somewhat hazy, it’s clear that Trump held up the aid as he pressed the Ukrainians to reopen a probe of the Bidens and that alleged but unproven Ukrainian role in the 2016 campaign.
Resistance came from officials, including Vindman and Taylor, who understood Ukraine’s strategic importance. Taylor called it “crazy” to withhold aid while it remains “under armed attack from Russia … in exchange for help with a domestic political campaign.”
Ultimately, the aid was released, but only after several Republicans led by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham threatened to join Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin in freezing some Pentagon funds Trump wanted.
It was not because Trump had a change of heart and decided that helping Ukraine was more important than helping himself.