“I would like you to do us a favor.”
That phrase is at the heart of the shakedown phone call in which President Trump urged Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for releasing defensive military aid that he was withholding. Under intense pressure, Trump has now made the call transcript public.
What’s most shocking, as Trump made clear in a mind-numbing news conference on Wednesday, is that he still thinks his conversation with Zelensky was “beautiful” - and any claims to the contrary are a “phony witch hunt.” He still doesn’t grasp that it’s abnormal to extort a foreign leader to help his own campaign efforts.
So I spoke by phone with Brian Bonner, chief editor of the Kyiv Post, to get an idea of how this scandal looks from Ukraine.
Firstly, Bonner made clear that Americans are not going to get any public complaints from Zelensky. The Ukrainian leader, he said, “is walking a minefield” and doesn’t want to alienate either U.S. political party or Trump himself. ”It would be very detrimental for Ukraine to alienate someone who’s going to be president for one or five more years." Any further information on what went on between the two men “will have to come from the U.S. side," Bonner said.
But it was well understood in Ukraine that the suspension of $400 million in military aid to Kiev shortly before Trump called Zelensky was done with a purpose. In his phone call, Trump stressed how good America had been to Ukraine and that this goodness had not been reciprocated. Then he pressed the Ukrainian to investigate Trump conspiracy theories connected with the 2016 election, and to investigate his claims of Biden corruption.
“Those charges are completely false,” says Bonner, whose newspaper staff exhaustively investigated them all.
For example, Trump claims Biden “shut down” the work of a “very, very, good prosecutor” who was investigating an energy company, Burisma, on whose board son Hunter sat. Just the opposite was true.
“Joe Biden didn’t have anything to do with sabotaging the case against Burisma," says Bonner. "Prosecutor Shokin had to go because he was not doing much on corruption. He was unwilling to prosecute Burisma,” says Bonner. No surprise, Trump turned the truth on its head.
The European Union, international lending agencies, and anti-corruption groups in Ukraine had all urged the firing of Trump’s “very, very good prosecutor.” Biden did likewise. Shokin’s successor confirmed there was no sign of Biden wrongdoing. Hunter Biden’s cash-in on his father’s name might look questionable, but how does that differ from the way Ivanka and her brothers have profited off their father’s name?
Which brings us to the mysterious suspension of military aid to Ukraine, restored only after intense bipartisan pressure from Congress. Lawmakers from both parties — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — say they were given no explanation for the cutoff.
“The military aid suspension was a big mystery,” said Bonner. “We didn’t know why."
Bonner scoffs at Trump’s explanation that he wanted to make certain the aid wasn’t fueling corruption. “He gives military aid to corrupt countries such as Egypt, so no one believes this explanation.”
Moreover, Bonner says, "Trump is regarded here with wary suspicion as someone who looks for a way to sabotage Ukraine because he wants to please Vladimir Putin.” (Trump has blamed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea on President Obama, not the Kremlin.)
And then there is the bizarre role played by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, which Ukrainians find confusing and unpleasant. “Giuliani has a long track record of trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden through Hunter,” says Bonner. The president’s lawyer sidestepped U.S. officials in Washington and Kiev with knowledge of Ukraine. Instead, he relied on compromised Ukrainian officials who opposed Ukrainian anti-corruption reformers. Happy to ingratiate themselves with the White House, these officials fed Guiliani false stories on the Bidens and the case of Paul Manafort, which he promoted with gusto. As did his boss.
So there you have it, a president who arm twists a foreign leader, again, to help him win the 2020 election — and to coordinate this illegal act with the top U.S. legal official, Attorney General William Barr.
What is most shocking is not just Trump’s willingness to subvert his office but his sheer obliviousness to his own actions. At his news conference, he kept equating Biden’s pressure on corrupt Ukrainian officials, shared by Ukrainian reformers and European allies, with his efforts to squeeze Zelensky to help his reelection.
Clearly, Ukrainians have Trump’s number, even if Zelensky won’t say so in public. Ukraine-gate is about corruption, Trump’s corruption.