It’s worth remembering now, as so many Republicans pin “Stand with Ukraine” images to their profiles, how little most of them cared when Donald Trump withheld critical military assistance from the country in 2019 as he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do his political dirty work.
At the time, Trump’s bold attempt to get Zelensky to announce sham investigations into the Biden family and 2016 conspiracy theories were primarily viewed as a domestic affront. But the sight of Russian rockets raining down on Kyiv this week was a reminder that this obscene “drug deal” had real-world consequences. At the center of the Ukrainian scandal was a sickening truth: Trump did not see the Ukrainians as the heroes we see today; he saw them as pawns to be used for his benefit.
When Zelensky spoke with Trump in that “perfect” 2019 phone call, the newly-elected 44-year old Ukrainian President didn’t want much. Just two things: the military aid Congress had already approved and a White House meeting to show the world that America stood with Ukraine against Russian aggression. Both would have been so easy to give. But Trump never gives anything unless he gets his beak wet, so he tried to use his leverage over the Ukrainian people to coerce Zelensky into doing him a favor.
Trump didn’t care about the people of Ukraine—their lives or their democracy. He simply understood that he had power over them and could abuse this power to help his re-election.
And his fellow Republicans, almost to a person, either helped him with this blackmail or defended it once it came to light.
I wonder how they feel about that now.
Because it was two impeachments ago, let’s do a quick recap on Trump’s quid-pro-quo attempt.
Trump’s scheme was a far-reaching, elaborate shakedown championed by Rudy Giuliani. The House’s December 2019 300-page impeachment report carefully lays out the details.
Some initial dates of importance:
- Zelensky was elected on April 22, 2019.
- Biden declared his candidacy for president on April 25.
- On May 9, the New York Times reported that Giuliani was headed to Ukraine to push the incoming government to pursue investigations to help Trump.
In this, Giuliani’s intentions were clear:
Mr. Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.
One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
Remember: This is contemporaneous reporting.
Giuliani ended up canceling the trip, blaming “bad people” around Zelensky. Vice President Pence was supposed to attend Zelensky’s inauguration but Trump sent his “three amigos”—Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, and Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker instead. They returned with a favorable impression of Zelensky and advocated for the White House meeting that Zelensky wanted. Trump told them to “talk to Rudy.”
Why would high-level government officials have to talk to someone outside the government about their recommendations to the president? Because people in Trump’s circle came to understand that Giuliani was coordinating Trump’s Ukraine policy, which caused a rift with National Security Ambassador John Bolton who later described Giuliani as a “hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.”
On June 18, the Department of Defense said via press release it was preparing to send $250 million in security assistance funds to Ukraine, so long as all the necessary anti-corruption conditions were met. But then Trump’s appointees blocked the money.
The impeachment report summarized:
By July 3, the Office of Management and Budget blocked a Congressional notification which would have cleared the way for the release of $141 million in State Department security assistance funds. By July 12, President Trump had placed a hold on all military support funding for Ukraine. On July 18, OMB announced the hold to all of the relevant agencies and indicated that it was directed by the President.
All of the money was blocked against the wishes of Congress and national security experts. Conveniently, ahead of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.
Those close to Trump knew exactly why the money was withheld.
Ambassador Sondland publicly testified to what he told investigators behind closed doors. “I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Gordon Sondland: "I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?
As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes." pic.twitter.com/mI7CHpkgak
— Axios (@axios) November 20, 2019
Sondland would know; he was a crucial player in the entire affair. At a July 10 White House meeting, Sondland told other officials he had worked out an “arrangement” with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to give Zelensky his White House meeting after Zelensky started the investigations. Bolton ended the meeting, but Sondland carried on. He worked closely with Volker and Giuliani to make the July 25 call happen and prep everyone accordingly.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mulvaney, and Perry were all aware, too.
The report stated:
Ambassador Sondland spoke with President Zelensky and recommended that the Ukrainian leader tell President Trump that he “will leave no stone unturned” regarding the political investigations during the upcoming presidential phone call. Ambassador Sondland emailed several top Administration officials, including Secretary of State Pompeo, Acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney, and Secretary Perry, stating that President Zelensky confirmed that he would “assure” President Trump that “he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’” According to Ambassador Sondland, he was referring in the email to the Burisma/Biden and 2016 election interference investigations. Secretary Perry and Mr. Mulvaney responded affirmatively that the call would soon take place, and Ambassador Sondland testified later that “everyone was in the loop” on plans to condition the White House meeting on the announcement of political investigations beneficial to President Trump.
Volker sent Zelensky talking points: The report said:
On the morning of July 25, Ambassador Volker sent a text message to President Zelensky’s top aide, Mr. Yermak, less than 30 minutes before the presidential call. He stated: “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck!
It seems like Zelensky tried to walk a fine line on the call. The readout, which is not an official transcript, shows that when Zelensky mentioned his desire to “buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” Trump immediately replied with what he wanted.
“I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump said. Then, he mentioned a conspiracy theory about a Ukrainian server supposedly responsible for the 2016 election meddling instead of Russia. “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,” Trump said.
Zelensky, perhaps diplomatically, said he was ready to begin a “new page on cooperation in relations between the United States and Ukraine.” He said he would meet with Giuliani if he came to Ukraine. He emphasized that the United States and Ukraine were “friends” many times.
Then, Trump turned to the Bidens. Zelensky said he could “look into the situation” and “I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us, it would be very helpful for the investigation.” In other words: Show me what you have, and we’ll see.
Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who served as the director of European affairs on Trump’s National Security Council and was sitting in on the call, later recalled:
As head of state for a vulnerable and dependent country, Zelensky was giving it everything he had: trying to build a rapport with the president, flattering a notoriously egotistical character, steering the conversation toward the military aid, and gently trying to elicit the personal White House visit that he and his country so desperately needed.
As a follow-up, an advisor to Zelensky met with Giuliani in Madrid. The report stated:
There, they agreed that Ukraine would issue a public statement, and they discussed potential dates for a White House meeting. A few days later, Ambassador Volker told Mr. Giuliani that it “would be good” if Mr. Giuliani would report to “the boss,” President Trump, about “the results” of his Madrid discussion so that President Trump would finally agree to a White House visit by President Zelensky. On August 9, Ambassador Volker and Mr. Giuliani spoke twice by phone, and Ambassador Sondland spoke twice to the White House for a total of about 20 minutes. In a text message to Ambassador Volker later that day, Ambassador Sondland wrote, “I think potus [sic] really wants the deliverable,” which Ambassador Sondland acknowledged was the public statement announcing the two political investigations sought by President Trump and Mr. Giuliani.
Sondland kept pressing and looping people such as Pompeo in on the plans. The Ukrainians didn’t like it, though. Zelensky’s aide apparently “balked at getting drawn into U.S. politics and asked Ambassador Volker whether the United States had inquired about investigations through any appropriate Department of Justice channels.”
It had not.
Ultimately, Zelensky never announced an investigation. And, by coincidence, he never got his White House meeting with Trump, either. He did, however, get the money.
There was talk about Zelensky making his public announcement about investigations in a CNN interview sometime in September 2019. This interview never happened, though, because, on August 28, Politico reported Trump’s hold on the money. Then all hell started breaking loose, and impeachment talk started.
By September 9, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committees on Oversight and Reform, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs announced investigations. The same day, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community (ICIG) notified Congress that a whistleblower had filed a related complaint on August 12.
Trump finally relented on September 11 and released the money.
The impeachment report noted:
By the time the President ordered the release of security assistance to Ukraine, DOD was unable to spend approximately 14 percent of the funds appropriated by Congress for Fiscal Year 2019. Congress had to pass a new law to extend the funding in order to ensure the full amount could be used by Ukraine to defend itself.
Even after all this, Zelensky was reportedly still interested in the interview. Because even though the money was flowing, he still wanted that White House meeting for the symbolism it would provide. Then-Ambassador to Kyiv William Taylor—not one of the three amigos—told Zelensky an interview was not a good idea. Zelensky took his advice. Zelensky wrote in a May 2020 op-ed, “The impeachment story was not comfortable for me. It took American and international attention away from the issues that mattered most to Ukraine and turned our country into a story about President Trump.”
It’s important to remember today that Trump’s desire to manipulate Zelensky and the security of Ukraine for his personal ends was deemed entirely acceptable by Republican officeholders and elites.
Trump’s then-chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, aggressively confirmed and defended Trump’s actions in an October 17 White House briefing. He told reporters the conspiracy theory about the Ukrainian server was “Why we held up the money.” He said there was nothing wrong with Trump’s quid-pro-quo: “We do that all the time with foreign policy.” He said: “I have news for everybody: get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany belittled Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified to Trump’s behavior and was later fired in retaliation as a “former junior employee.” Other Trump aides gleefully joined in smearing the Ukrainian-born U.S. National Security Council expert.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense.”
Justin Amash, a libertarian who left the GOP in July 2019, was the only member on the right side of the aisle in the House of Representatives to vote to impeach Trump for squeezing Ukraine. Mitt Romney was the only Republican in the Senate who voted to convict Trump.
The list of Republicans who alibied Trump’s treatment of Ukraine is long and distinguished. They hope that their yellow and blue Twitter icons will make you forget that they excused it.