Why Ukrainegate Is Nothing Like Russiagate
U.S. President Donald Trump has a far more damaging scandal on his hands.
In a matter of days, allegations that U.S. President Donald Trump leaned on the newly elected leader of Ukraine to investigate a political rival in exchange for American aid have done what two years of the Russia scandal could not: bring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to back an impeachment inquiry of the president.
Trump is attempting to tie the Ukraine scandal to the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election—to argue that just as special counsel Robert Mueller failed to deliver smoking gun evidence of wrongdoing, any inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine will flop as well. But the nascent Ukraine scandal is very different from the allegations surrounding the Russian campaign of interference in the election that helped vault Trump into the Oval Office.
The main reasons are these: The new allegations against Trump place him at the center of the story, involve his key lieutenants, focuses on abuse of power while in office, tie his apparently corrupt behavior to U.S. policy, and focuses on a set of actions that took place inside the United States.
Trump is now the protagonist
With the investigation of Russian meddling, authorities were examining how Trump interacted with a campaign authored by Kremlin operatives to hack and leak sensitive documents and use social media to spread divisive messages that benefited his campaign. While Trump himself welcomed that effort and at times explicitly encouraged it, he was not the protagonist of the scandal’s central storyline. (That changed somewhat with the investigation of Trump’s effort to obstruct the investigation of Russian meddling, but even then he remained a reactive character.)
But with the release on Wednesday of a detailed summary of a July 25 conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the American leader was placed front and center in this drama.
Immediately after Zelensky mentions his desire for additional U.S. aid and to purchase American anti-tank missiles, Trump appears to condition further U.S. support on Ukraine’s cooperation in investigating a right-wing conspiracy theory. “I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump said, according to notes taken by National Security Council staffers. “Our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened.”
Trump then goes on to mention the computer security firm Crowdstrike, which investigated the Russian breach of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems in 2016. The DNC turned over what are known as imaged copies of its computer systems—byte for byte reproductions of hard drives and other systems—to the FBI, which is standard practice in computer investigations.
But Trump has latched onto a right-wing theory that the FBI did not hand over the physical computers and that by doing so the bureau had missed key evidence that Russia was in fact not behind the breach. In his call with Zelensky, he appears to believe that Ukraine may be in possession of those computers, a claim for which there is no evidence, and wants Zelensky’s help in tracking them down.
“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump told Zelensky.
At other points in the conversation, Trump urged Zelensky to look into why Ukrainian officials had dropped an investigation of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company on whose board former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter served.
“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it,” Trump said. There is no evidence that Biden, who is now running to unseat Trump as president, has done so, nor is there any evidence that the investigation of Burisma was halted for political motives.
In his July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump also refers to July 24 testimony by Mueller, who did not explicitly recommend charges against him for colluding with the Russian campaign or obstructing the investigation of that allegation.
“As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller,” Trump told Zelensky. “… But they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
Trump administration allies immediately argued on Wednesday that the conversation with Zelensky does not contain an explicit quid pro quo in which the president conditions U.S. aid on delivering political dirt on Trump’s opponent.
But that fact alone illustrates the way in which Trump’s position in this drama has shifted. In the Russiagate scandal, the Kremlin was the author of the conspiracy that threatened to undo Trump’s presidency. Now, Trump’s own actions are front and center.
The nature of the offense
Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling focused on two principal offenses. The first was “collusion,” which doesn’t have any legal meaning, which led Mueller to instead investigate Trump and his lieutenants for conspiring with Kremlin operatives. The second was obstruction, focusing on whether Trump tried to undermine Mueller’s probe.
On the first, Mueller found ample evidence of a Russian operation to meddle but no evidence that Trump or his team conspired with that campaign.
On the second, while Mueller found ample evidence of obstruction, he declined to recommend charges, and the nature of the charge allowed Trump and his allies to dismiss it as a secondary concern. The act of obstruction was not connected with the actual acts of election meddling that Mueller was supposed to be investigating, which provided Trump a measure of political space in which to dismiss the special counsel’s findings.
But with the Ukraine scandal, Trump appears to have turned U.S. policy into an instrument for his own political gain. He is no longer accused of conspiring with someone else’s illegal scheme but carrying out a corrupt act on his own.
A lieutenant with a bold-face name
In seeking to tie Trump to the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election, investigators never really got further than an obscure foreign-policy aide, George Papadopoulos. It was Papadopoulos who first got wind from a Kremlin-connected academic in 2016 that Russia had obtained damaging emails about Trump’s presidential rival Hillary Clinton, but Papadopoulos was always a fringe player in the Trump campaign.
To be sure, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, ended up facing charges levied by Mueller’s team, but the charges they faced fell short of conspiring with Russian operatives.
This time around, the key lieutenant is none other than Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. In his July conversation with Zelensky, Trump said he’d have Giuliani follow up with the Ukrainian leader regarding the effort to dig up political dirt on Biden and investigate Trump’s pet conspiracy theories. Trump also said he’d like to involve Attorney General Bill Barr in the effort.
Trump’s involvement of Giuliani and Barr in his attempt to recruit Zelensky in his conspiracy places two of his most important advisors at the center of this controversy. It raises the stakes for two officials who have been key to Trump’s political success, who insulated him from the worst political consequences of the Mueller investigation, and who have publicly defended his conduct.
A key policy shift
If the goal of the Russian operation to elect Trump was to secure softer U.S. policy toward Moscow, it has arguably failed. Despite Trump’s flirtations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the administration has pursued a fairly hard line toward the Kremlin, including by levying aggressive sanctions targeting Russia.
Trump’s dismissive attitude toward traditional U.S. allies and his general disdain for democratic norms has obviously benefited the Kremlin, but that has come at the expense of a struggling Russian economy straining under the weight of sanctions, including many imposed by the Trump administration.
But in the run-up to his July call, Trump appears to have made a key policy change to use as leverage against Zelensky. According to the Washington Post, a week ahead of the call Trump ordered his acting chief of staff to delay a $400 million aid package for Ukraine. Administration officials subsequently struggled to explain the holdup, and it appears the delay could have been part of an effort to pressure Zelensky to supply political dirt. The aid money was eventually released on Sept. 11.