Dispatch, Explainers, Reports September 22, 2019

The Geopolitics of a Political Scandal

For months, a scandal of immense proportion has been bubbling below the surface, involving Rudy Giuliani and President Donald Trump trying to pressure Ukraine into opening investigations involving American citizens. In the era when there are new scandals on a weekly basis, this fairly intricate and convoluted plan had largely stayed below the surface of most political conversations in Washington. However, with the recent revelation that this plot may be at the center of the whistleblower complaint that the Trump administration is withholding from Congress, the scandal has boiled over.

This series of events is incredibly worrisome in the context of the health of U.S. democracy. But there are also serious geopolitical implications: This scandal is terrible for both the United States and Ukraine’s interest.

For several months, there have been reports about Rudy Giuliani—the president’s personal lawyer and former mayor of New York City—urging prosecutors in Ukraine to open two sham investigations. The first is into whether Ukrainian officials took steps in 2016 to work against Trump’s presidential campaign. The second is into Hunter Biden and whether or not he used family connections in the Obama administration to leverage diplomatic efforts toward Ukraine to benefit a Ukrainian gas company on whose board he sat. Both of these conspiracy theories are completely specious but appear to be part of an effort to improve Trump’s political standing.

Recently, however, we’ve learned that President Trump repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Biden, urging him eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani in one phone call on July 25, 2019, according to The Wall Street Journal. It is looking more and more likely that President Trump sought to use U.S. security assistance as leverage in order to coerce Zelensky into complying. Prior to that call, Trump’s White House made a decision in July to block $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine. This may be at the heart of the whistleblower scandal that has rocked Washington over the past week.