September 27, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Who Gains from Pushing Ukraine Around?

Sure, Donald Trump does. But he's not alone.

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I wrote Thursday that there’s significant point getting lost in the flurry of news coverage of the whistleblower complaint. Right now, the focus is on Donald Trump’s asking a foreign leader to undermine a domestic opponent. Right now, the focus is on White House officials being complicit in the cover up of Trump’s myriad betrayals. 

That’s as it should be.

But there’s something else the Democrats must remember as they plan impeachment proceedings: the president appears to have tried to rewrite the history of the 2016 election. He seems to have searched for “evidence” that the Ukrainians attacked our national sovereignty, not the Russians, and that the Democrats collaborated with our attackers, not members of his campaign. (Some of whom, of course, are now in prison.)

We should all be prepared for this story to get a lot bigger and a lot more international in scope.

The Times’ Peter Baker is right in saying that the story of the past two months has been “one of a White House scrambling to keep secrets to protect a president willing to cross lines others would not, only to find the very government he frequently disparages expose him.” But I can’t shake off the notion that Donald Trump is trying to turn himself into the hero of a story that has already been written by accusing his enemies of his own crimes, thus cleansing his name of the stink of illegitimacy. 

Bear in mind that Trump himself linked Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe to the “favor” Trump asked of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (i.e., to “investigate” Joe Biden and his son). Also bear in mind that the whistleblower complaint illustrates just how far the highest-profile people in Trump’s circle have been willing to go to help him whitewash the fact that Vladimir Putin sabotaged Hillary Clinton. As someone on Twitter said: “Trump, Barr, Giuliani, Hannity & others with him have been all along pushing the Russian script about election interference. They are actively conspiring to do this even after the Mueller saga [has] ended.”

But there’s more, and here I must warn you that I’m speculating. I’m speculating but I feel I must bring your attention to this possibility. And I must stress that it’s only a possibility. I trust that courageous reporters will in time put flesh on these bones.

My speculation in rooted in the $391 million in military aid the president froze to entice Zelensky to undercut his rivals. My speculation is also rooted in something Trump said, something that was significant enough the whistleblower himself felt compelled to include in his complaint to the Congress. On Aug. 9, the president said:

“I think [President Zelenskyy] is going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House. And we look forward to seeing him. He’s already been invited to the White House, and he wants to come. And I think he will. He’s a very reasonable guy. He wants to see peace in Ukraine, and I think he will be coming very soon, actually.” 

The context here is that Ukraine has been at war with Russian-sponsored separatists on the eastern edge of the country for five years. The Russians are already occupying Crimea. Zelensky leads a small nation in a land battle with a greater power, so he must secure US support. As a result, he’s vulnerable. Trump, being Trump, recognized Zelensky’s weakness, and was trying to extort something in return for “a favor.”

Further context is that the aid freeze happened amid a shakeup in personnel. Three days after the call between Trump and Zelensky, Trump said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and a Russia skeptic, would resign. John Bolton, another Russia skeptic, met with Zelensky on Aug. 27 to reassure him the US would back Ukraine’s fight with the Russians. On Sept 10, Trump said via tweet that Bolton was gone, too.

Editor’s note

Today’s edition of the Editorial Board is free and open to the public. Please forward this message to your friends and family, and tell them how awesome it is! —JS

Trump is very good at “guarding the confidentiality of other conversations involving the former Soviet Union,” the Times Baker wrote. “After his first meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia after taking office, Mr. Trump took his interpreter’s notes and ordered him not to disclose what he heard to anyone.” (my italics). 

Today Putin sent a warning: do not release transcripts of our private talks. Bloomberg: “We would like to hope that things won’t come to such situations in our bilateral relations, which already have plenty of quite serious problems,” a spokesman said of the Kremlin’s reaction to Trump’s decision to release a summary of the July 25 call.

Put all this together, and what do we have? Honestly, I don’t know. Like I said, I’m speculating. But whatever it is, this context suggests the possibility of American president pushing around small country not only for his benefit but for Russia’s. So far, the news is about Donald Trump abusing his power for personal gain. We should all be prepared for this story to get a lot bigger and a lot more international in scope.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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