As he cursed out an NPR reporter on Jan. 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo uttered seven words that sum up the sham impeachment trial of President Donald Trump:
“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
That’s the question Pompeo used to berate Mary Louise Kelly, who had the temerity to question him on his role in the Ukraine scandal. (“You did a good job on her,” Trump congratulated Pompeo.)
The White House clearly assumes public interest in Ukraine is so low that the president’s blackmail of its leader will quickly be forgotten, once his trial ends with acquittal.
Yet, no matter the verdict, Ukraine has become the symbol of Trump’s worst authoritarian impulses both at home and in foreign policy. So Americans can’t afford to forget about Ukraine, as we approach 2020 elections. Here are three urgent reasons why.
• Trump’s defense of his actions on Ukraine openly signals his conviction that the presidency gives him unlimited personal power.
GOP senators can no longer deny, thanks to John Bolton’s book, that Trump blackmailed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, withholding desperately needed defensive weapons until Ukraine agreed to investigate his 2020 political opponent, Joe Biden. And until Zelenskiy pursued a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the 2016 election.
Yet confronted with this undeniable truth, the GOP-led Senate has latched onto a shocking White House defense that a president can do anything necessary to aid his reelection if he considers that reelection to be in the public interest, because this means the motive can’t be corrupt. A 10-year-old could deduce that this claim, made by lawyer Alan Dershowitz (who also defended Jeffrey Epstein on underage sex charges), could be used to justify all manner of corrupt White House behaviors.
An acquittal is a green light for Trump to seek more foreign interference in the 2020 election — or do worse. Remember Ukraine as the symbol of Trump power unchecked.
• Trump’s withholding of defensive aid from Ukraine for personal gain highlights his indifference to Russian aggression, and to overall U.S. geopolitical strategy.
Ukrainian soldiers are still dying in eastern Ukraine, where a Russia-backed invasion killed thousands and where those defensive weapons are desperately needed. Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea was the first time since World War II that a European army invaded another European country and seized territory.
“Putin has a revisionist agenda,” says the Atlantic Council’s John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “He wants to overturn the post-Cold War architecture. If we don’t stop him in Ukraine, he’ll do something dangerous in a country where we have a (NATO) treaty obligation, like in the Baltics.”
But Trump has waffled on whether Russia had a right to seize Crimea. He has also made clear his disdain for Ukraine as a country, because he buys Russian propaganda that Kyiv tried to help Hillary Clinton win in 2016.
In a visit dripping with hypocrisy, Pompeo made a “we care” trip to Kyiv on Thursday, reassuring Zelenskiy of U.S. friendship and help in its war against Russia. But the post of U.S. ambassador to Kyiv remains vacant, after Pompeo failed to stand up against Trump’s shameful sacking of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. And Russia’s aggression against Ukraine won’t end unless Kyiv gets strong (and absent) support from Trump. On the contrary, Trump’s acquittal will cheer Putin.
The good news is that Ukraine has many supporters in Congress, including GOP members, who understand the Russian threat, and support defensive arms for that country. “Trump’s personal inclinations have given Russians reasons to be hopeful,” says Herbst, “and winning on impeachment will encourage him. But he will face the same institutional impediments to appeasement.”
Even GOP senators need to remember Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian expansionism.
• Instead of fighting corruption in Ukraine, Trump brought new corruption to that country.
The U.S. president arm-twisted Zelenskiy to do exactly what U.S. officials — including Yovanovitch — have been urging Kyiv not to do: use investigative arms of government for political smear jobs.
“The United States is supposed to be the shining city on the hill, lecturing Ukraine about cleaning up corruption, but the president who lectures against it, engages in it,” says Brian Bonner, chief editor of the Kyiv Post in Ukraine.
And by the way, it was bizarre to hear GOP senators during the trial repeating the old lies that Joe Biden was trying to get an honest Ukrainian prosecutor fired. The truth, for those who still cling to White House fiction: Biden echoed Ukrainian officials and NGOs, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. State Department, who were all trying to depose corrupt prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who refused, repeat refused, to prosecute Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. Even Republican Sens. Ron Johnson, Rob Portman and Mark Kirk wrote a letter urging Shokin’s ouster.
Remember Ukraine whenever you hear Trump talk about combating corruption.
And remember that Ukraine deserves U.S. support against Russian aggression, irrespective of a president who tied the country up in his personal political games.