Opinion: Trump settling scores through Ukraine

Washington — Through all of President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, he has rarely focused on the job for which he was elected — steering the foreign policy of the United States. Instead, for Trump, Ukraine has been a continuing story of personal resentment and political opportunism.

A narrative of the Ukraine affair — drawn from conversations with some of the principals, text messages released by the House and other documentation — solidly supports the claim of the still-anonymous CIA whistleblower that “the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”

Ukraine is a chip on Trump’s shoulder. He saw Ukrainian allegations in 2016 about his then campaign Chairman Paul Manafort as part of a plot to undermine his bid for the White House, and then reverse the election result through what Trump keeps insisting is a “witch hunt.”

So when Trump saw an opportunity to turn the tables, and use Ukraine against former Vice President Joe Biden, his leading rival in 2020, he grabbed it. As the narrative shows, he bent the tools of his office to his personal political purpose.

Biden deserves some blame, too. He used poor judgment as vice president in directing Ukraine policy while his son Hunter was working for the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. Either the son should have quit, or the father should have shut up. Denying this obvious fact only weakens the Democrat’s case.

Trump cared little about Ukraine’s battle against Russian proxy forces. But he softened when then-President Petro Poroshenko visited the White House in June 2017 and offered to buy what became $80 million in Pennsylvania coal.

The coal purchase rang a political bell for Trump. In July 2017, he announced the appointment of Kurt Volker, an experienced diplomat, as special U.S. envoy to Ukraine. Volker began meeting quietly with a Russian emissary to explore a deal to stabilize eastern Ukraine. But this proved a dead end.

At Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ urging, Trump decided in December 2017 to sell 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Former officials say that for Trump, it was more a matter of marketing U.S. weapons abroad than taking a firm stand against Russia.

By 2018, the White House had become obsessed with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference. “Trump had a deeply negative image of Ukraine. ‘They’re all corrupt, and they tried to take me down,'” recalls the former State Department official.

Sensing the political resentment, Poroshenko apparently decided to remove an irritant. A May 2018 story in The New York Times reported that Ukraine had halted its investigation of Manafort and its cooperation with Mueller.

After the Mueller investigation finally concluded in April, Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani saw Ukraine as a place to settle political scores — and perhaps damage Biden. The pliant Poroshenko had been replaced by President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected that month. A new influence game began. Trump froze $391 million in military aid in July, just as Zelensky was dickering for a meeting.

Trump wanted something very personal and political before he would offer to embrace Zelensky. Hoping to break the logjam, Volker had breakfast July 19 with Giuliani and introduced him to a close Zelensky adviser.

Volker also warned Giuliani that the allegations about Biden were based on an unreliable informant, according to the State Department official. What’s astonishing is that Giuliani responded, “Yes, I know that,” said this source. But the plan to impugn the former vice president went forward anyway.

Despite Trump’s fluff about how his July 25 call with Zelensky was “perfect,” it was a naked power play. According to the rough transcript released by the White House, Zelensky said, “We are almost ready to buy more Javelins,” and Trump responded immediately: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Trump then meandered through conspiratorial talk about Ukraine’s role in 2016, the “incompetent” Mueller, and finally, Biden and his son.

Was Trump proposing a transaction? That’s what William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev, asked in a Sept. 1 text to Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” To which Sondland responded obliquely: “Call me.”

The Ukraine story, like everything about that country, has a gnarled, murky past. But this one isn’t complicated, really. The president linked support for an embattled ally to what he called “a favor” that would help him attack political opponents. If this behavior is acceptable, there really are no rules left.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


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