Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
Remember those days when we used to complain that Ukraine was not getting enough attention in the world’s media? Well that certainly changed last week when what CNN has dubbed the “Ukraine Scandal” hit the headlines, broadcasts and internet chatter.
It’s not often that Ukraine dominates the world’s news cycle. But that’s what happened this past week with the release of the White House’s notes of the July 25 telephone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the release of the whistle-blower’s report which led to the scandal in the first place and the start of an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump initiated by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
Whether this will lead to Trump’s removal from office is questionable. Once a president has been impeached by the House of Representatives, the process then goes to the Senate where a trial is held and a two-thirds majority is needed for impeachment. In the four times a president had been impeached not once did the Senate provide the two thirds necessary. In 1868, the attempt to remove Abraham Lincoln’s successor Andrew John failed by one vote. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned before it got to a vote. In 1999, the case against Bill Clinton failed to get a simple majority – let alone two thirds. With the Republicans controlling the Senate, and with most of them slavishly following Trump’s directives, removal is highly unlikely.
But that doesn’t alter the fact that what Trump did was morally disgraceful and most likely unconstitutional – he repeatedly pressured a foreign leader (Volodymyr Zelenskyy) to get the dirt on his leading Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, on pain of losing close to US$400 million in aid (of which $250 million was earmarked for military aid), which had been approved by Congress and was beyond his jurisdiction.
He took a neophyte leader of a very vulnerable country, fighting for its very existence against a rapacious enemy, and bullied, blackmailed, belittled and blindsided him – not in pursuit of U.S. policy objectives – but for his own personal political gain.
Trump’s pressure on Ukraine preceded Zelenskyy’s inauguration, initially working through his surrogates with former Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko, during the tenure of former President Petro Poroshenko. In particular, there were a number of interactions between Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and Lutsenko. Then, on May 9, the New York Times reported that Giuliani planned to travel to Ukraine to press the Ukrainian government to pursue investigations that would help the President in his 2020 re-election bid. The public furor this created prompted Giuliani to cancel his visit the next day. Four days later, according to the whistle-blower’s report, Trump instructed Vice President Michael Pence to cancel his visit to attend Zelenskyy’s May 20 inauguration. According to the officials who spoke with the whistle-blower, “it was also ‘made clear’ to them that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy ‘chose to act’ in office”. According to an unclassified letter, there was a broader understanding “that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelenskyy would depend on whether Zelenskyy showed a willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues that had been publicly aired by Mr. Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani.”
The report continues: “On 18 July, an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official informed Departments and Agencies that the President ‘earlier that month’ had issued instructions to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Neither OMB nor the NSC staff knew why this instruction had been issued. During interagency meetings on 23 July and 26 July, OMB officials again stated explicitly that the instruction to suspend this assistance had come directly from the President, but they still were unaware of a policy rationale. As of early August, I heard from U.S. officials that some Ukrainian officials were aware that U.S. aid might be in jeopardy, but I do not know how or when they learned of it.”
In other words, by the time Trump made his July 25 call to Zelenskyy, it had already been made clear to the Ukrainian President that the aid depended upon his willingness to “play ball.”
So, Zelenskyy was bullied and blackmailed before the call was even made. It is therefore no wonder that when Trump asked Zelenskyy for “a favour”, Zelenskyy had no choice but to comply. The question remains whether Zelenskyy had to suck up to Trump in as obsequious a manner as he did, particularly when it came to Trump’s line about Germany and other European countries doing “almost nothing for you” to which Zelenskyy replied “you are absolutely right. Not only 100%, but actually 1000%.” Of course, when Zelenskyy made those comments, he had no way of knowing they would be made public. He himself later stated he thought only Trump’s comments would be included in the notes of the phone conversation. Nevertheless, since his permission was required to release the notes, he could have insisted they be redacted out, especially as those comments are damaging to his relations with Germany and the European Union. So, if he was blindsided, it is partially his fault, but Zelenskyy had no way of knowing that during the September 25 press conference Trump would go on to urge him “to work things out with President Putin”. How badly he was blindsided with that one was clear by the expression on his face.
And yes, Zelenskyy was belittled. He was belittled because Trump treated him as some sort of lackey who is there to follow his orders. Would Trump do that with Putin or Kim Jong Un?
Whether Trump actually perpetrated an impeachable offense, we will leave up to the Congress of the United States. But one thing we can say for sure, his actions towards Ukraine were morally reprehensible. He took advantage of a vulnerable country under attack by a far more powerful adversary to push his own political agenda.