Before Volodymyr Zelensky faced down Vladimir Putin, he stood up to another megalomaniac.
The first impeachment of President Trump is just over two years old, but it remains lost on many Americans that it was all about Ukraine. And not just about Ukraine in a generic sense, but specifically about Trump using Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russia to pressure it to find dirt on the Bidens.
To force Ukraine’s hand to his advantage, Trump thwarted longstanding U.S. policy to support and arm its ally in the face of the Russian threat. Zelensky didn’t waver.
The saga of the first impeachment went down the memory hole quickly, overwhelmed by COVID-19, Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election, and Biden’s win. But now, in a sense, we’ve come full circle.
As Kyiv draws on stockpiles of American weaponry and bipartisan support today to defend against Vladimir Putin’s attack, it’s worth a brief refresher on how Trump threatened to and for a time did withhold that kind of support for his own personal political ends.
Where was Ukraine when Trump entered the picture?
Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election went a long way towards making the question of U.S. support for Ukraine not just a foreign policy issue, but a domestic political issue as well.
To counter the narrative that Russia was at least partly responsible for his victory, Trump argued that Ukraine had, in fact, intervened on the side of the Democrats while being in cahoots with Hillary Clinton.
There was zero evidence to support this. But it came as Ukraine struggled to strengthen itself. The country had undergone a revolution in 2014, after which Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war in the country’s east. At the top of Ukraine’s agenda was maintaining Western support for its government, military, and attempts to build the kinds of economic relations with the European Union that would allow it to drift away from Russia.
The U.S. had committed to giving Ukraine defense assistance, and its embassy in Kyiv – via Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch – had taken to openly pressuring government officials to take a tougher stance against graft.
After five years of war and disappointing progress in the fight against corruption, Ukrainians were exhausted with the government that was elected after the 2014 revolution. In March 2019, they elected a former comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, who ran in part on a campaign to try to cut a deal with Vladimir Putin to end the war.
For that, he needed U.S. support.
What did Trump do?
Trump congratulated Zelensky on his victory in a July 2019 phone call, which would become central to the first impeachment.
On the call, Trump mentioned something else: he needed a favor.
Zelensky told Trump that Ukraine was “almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
Javelins are the U.S.-made and exported anti-tank missile system that have been extremely effective in Ukraine’s defense against Russia.
Trump replied: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
Trump then launched into a discussion of various conspiracy theories about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election, suggesting to Zelensky that the country’s law enforcement needed to “get to the bottom of that” and “find out about” Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden who took a job on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Within weeks, nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid that had been scheduled to go to Ukraine had been frozen. Multiple Ukrainian and U.S. officials would later report that various Trump cronies had pressured the Ukrainian government in various ways to produce dirt on the Bidens to get the hold lifted.
How did that lead to his impeachment?
A whistleblower from the National Security Council came forward in August 2019 about the call. After a clumsy attempt by the Trump administration to suppress the tip, it came out: Trump had used the power of American foreign policy for his personal political benefit, trying to extort Ukraine into manufacturing dirt about his opponent in exchange for military aid that the country was already supposed to get.
The House of Representatives launched an impeachment inquiry in September. Public hearings and depositions with Trump administration officials throughout the fall revealed the scope of the scandal: multiple senior Trump administration officials had been involved in the effort, which stretched far beyond the July 2019 phone call.
The investigation revealed other instances of pressure. Trump had ordered Vice President Mike Pence, for example, to blow off attending Zelensky’s inauguration in May 2019.
Months afterward, after the July phone call, Trump had Pence tell the Ukrainians that military aid would not be forthcoming until the United States saw more action on corruption. By that point, multiple Trump administration officials had taken to use “corruption” as a byword for investigations into the Bidens.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, had gotten involved in U.S. foreign policy, trying to press Ukrainian officials into opening investigations into Hunter Biden and his father, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary at the time.
Giuliani, along with Ukraine-born associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had also sought to remove Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv.
The impeachment investigation, along with a federal criminal campaign finance case against Parnas and Fruman, alleged that that took place at the direction of a Ukrainian official. Texts released by Parnas suggested that this was Ukraine’s prosecutor general, who the ambassador had criticized, and who offered a deal: In exchange for Yovanovitch’s firing, he would announce investigations into Hunter and Joe Biden.
What were the consequences for Ukraine?
The hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid – some of it of the kind that has proved decisive in Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion – was eventually released.
Since then, Ukraine has continued to receive more military aid from the U.S. in the form of anti-tank weapons, small arms, and other items.
Some of those U.S. officials involved in pushing Trump’s “drug deal,” as John Bolton called it, are still involved in policy discussions. Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to the region, is out of government, but regularly opines on Ukraine-related issues, even after having been forced to substantially change his congressional testimony.
The long-lasting damage has been less tangible, but arguably more important: American unity to support Ukraine, and Zelensky’s political agenda.
On the latter, Zelensky ran on a campaign of negotiating with Putin to find a deal. Ukrainian officials needed political support from the United States and, instead, got demands to investigate Hunter Biden.
On the former, old-school establishment Republicans do still back U.S. support for Ukraine. But the MAGA right, along with acolytes like Tucker Carlson, do not, portraying the country as a needless waste of resources while making bizarre comparisons to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump himself this week showed willingness to do the same thing again.
“How is it that the mayor of Moscow, his wife gave the Biden family three and a half million dollars?” Trump told John Solomon. “I think Putin now would be willing to probably give that answer. I’m sure he knows.”