Dispatch October 23, 2019

Trump Officials Confirm: All Roads Lead to Putin

President Donald Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine was influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin. This assessment comes from the people closest to the president—people in his own administration working on Russia and Ukraine. According to The Washington Post, Trump sought guidance from Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (a Putin confidant) on how to approach the new reformist president of Ukraine, creating fear within the Trump administration that Trump would fall under their “malign influence.” Their fears were warranted: It appears that, fter those interactions, Trump was turned.

Putin and Orban were pushing Trump to adopt hardline stances against Ukraine.

  • In a May phone call with Trump, Trump asked Putin “for guidance on the new leader” and Putin “did what he always does,” according to a former US officials: He sought to undermine the US relationship with Ukraine, called Ukraine “just a den of corruption,” and “derided” Zelensky as a comedian.
  • One U.S. official reportedly said that, while American policy has for years been “built around containing malign influence,” Trump’s willingness to parrot Putin’s talking points is “an example of the president himself under malign influence—being steered by it.”

Administration officials reportedly tried to stop Trump from meeting with Orban because they knew Trump would listen to him over his own cabinet.

  • According to one former White House official, “basically, everyone agreed—no Orban meeting … because [we] knew there was a good chance that Trump and Orban would bond and get along.”
  • Then, Trump had an hour-long meeting with Orban, with no notetakers. According to another official, it was “clear that the meeting with Orban had solidified” Trump’s antipathy toward Ukraine and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In the battle for influence over foreign policy, Giuliani, Putin, and Orban won. As a former White House official described “the struggle to contest the influence of Giuliani, Putin, and Orban:” “Over time you just see a wearing down of the defenses.”

The timeline shows how many opportunities Putin and Orban had to turn Trump against Zelensky. The White House has refused to turn over the readouts and transcripts of these meetings.

  • April 21: Trump speaks to Zelensky on the day of his election. Officials are reportedly “encouraged” by the call, hoping “the president would see the new leader as a potential partner in long-standing U.S. efforts to help Ukraine fend off Russian aggression and battle internal corruption.”
  • May 4: Trump has a phone call with Putin.
  • May 13: Trump meets with Orban in the White House.
  • May 20: Zelensky is inaugurated. Trump reportedly instructs Vice President Mike Pence not to attend to maintain pressure on Zelensky.
  • June 28: Trump meets with Putin at the G20 Summit in Japan.
  • July 25: Trump has the now-famous call in which he pressures Zelensky to open investigations for his personal political benefit in exchange for military aid.
  • July 31: Trump has another phone call with Putin.

As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put it, with Trump, “all roads lead to Putin.” Trump took a much harder line with Ukraine’s new leader, who ran on a reformist, anti-corruption platform, than he did with the previous Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko—or, for that matter, Putin or Orban. Zelensky’s landslide election served as a distinct challenge to Putin, and the Kremlin responded with renewed efforts to undermine Ukraine by wielding corruption as a lever of influence and control.