Dispatch October 8, 2019

Trump’s Extortion Isn’t Up for Debate—He Already Did the Deed

President Donald Trump’s accomplices know they can’t defend his public calls for Ukraine and China to investigate his political opponents. Instead, they’re claiming that he wasn’t serious and that his comments were just a joke or a way of “trolling” his detractors and the media.

But Trump’s extortion of Ukraine went far beyond rhetoric. He didn’t just threaten repercussions if Ukraine didn’t do what he wanted; he actually delivered, diverting U.S. foreign policy to advance his personal political goals. The quid pro quo already happened.

Trump actually denied Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in-person meetings.

  • Text messages between three of Trump’s top diplomatic envoys show an explicit understanding that Trump was holding out on meeting with Zelensky until Zelensky drummed up an investigation.
  • Just before Trump’s July 25 phone call, Kurt Volker, then the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, texted one of Zelensky’s advisers:
    • “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.” That’s about as clear a quid pro quo as it gets.
  • The Trump administration followed through on snubbing Zelensky twice.
    • In May, Trump ordered Vice President Mike Pence not to attend Zelensky’s inauguration at the last minute and sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead.
    • In September, Trump had Pence take his place for a meeting with Zelensky in Poland. 

Trump actually withheld military aid.

  • On his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Trump went to great lengths to talk up Ukraine’s reliance on U.S. military aid, all but explicitly tying it to the “favor” of investigating Trump’s political opponents.
  • Yet, one week before that call, Trump had already instructed his administration officials to begin withholding the very necessary aid to Ukraine, apparently to create a bargaining chip for his negotiations with Zelensky. At that point, Ukraine had no reason to expect that the aid, which had already been appropriated by Congress, was in jeopardy.
  • The overtures in July were crystalized in August when two of Trump’s envoys to Ukraine discussed “put[ting] something out there” to hurry Zelensky into announcing Trump’s desired investigation.
  • A week later, a “senior administration official” told Politico about the hold on the aid, prompting a panicked reaction from the Ukrainians.

Trump actually recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine because she wasn’t helping his corrupt cause.

  • In May, the State Department unexpectedly recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch—a career foreign service officer with a sterling track record known for her anti-corruption push in Ukraine.
  • Now, it’s clear why: Trump’s allies told him Yovanovitch was undermining his efforts to extort Ukraine and pushed conspiracy theories against her that they’d apparently picked up from corrupt Ukrainian officials.
  • There was a financial angle as well: Two of those Trump allies, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were reportedly eager to push Yovanovitch out so that they could more easily parlay their Trump access into lucrative energy deals. (Through their lawyer John Dowd, Parnas and Fruman have denied wrongdoing, describing their effort as “an attempt to do legitimate business that didn’t work out.”)

Trump didn’t just talk about extorting Ukraine; he actually went through with it, abusing his power to advance his personal political interests.

Is he secretly doing the same with China? Is Trump using tariffs or, as reporting from CNN suggests, his troubling silence on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as a bargaining chip for creating new investigations into his opponents? What other offers has he made behind closed doors—and where?