Wednesday’s release of the transcript of the July telephone conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky included no “quid pro quo” that would justify the growing Democrat effort to impeach President Trump. The hunt is on to find an implied bribe or threat because Trump did not offer one explicitly.
The much-discussed phone call did not include an exchange where Trump said he would only release temporarily frozen military aid to Ukraine if Zelensky agreed to investigate the unusual and highly lucrative relationship between a Ukrainian firm and Hunter Biden, son of former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Media attention therefore shifted to the timing of President Trump’s order to freeze some $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine. The idea was to demonstrate an implicit threat and assert Trump only put a hold on the funds to pressure Zelensky into investigating the Bidens.
Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have said there were concerns about corruption in Ukraine and the administration wanted reassurances that Zelensky – the new 41-year-old Ukrainian leader, a political neophyte and professional comedian who was scarcely taken seriously as a candidate at the outset but was handed a commanding victory by a scandal-fatigued electorate – was up to the challenge of implementing reforms.
President Trump said at the United Nations on Tuesday that he also withheld the funds because he wanted to pressure the Europeans to contribute more:
As far as withholding funds, those funds were paid. They were fully paid. But my complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again, and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine. Because they’re not doing it. Just the United States. We’re putting up the bulk of the money. And I’m asking, why is that?
This prompted a flurry of “fact-checking” pieces alleging Trump was lying about the relative contributions of the United States and Europe to Ukraine, in an effort to create a post hoc rationalization for withholding the funds before Democrats can impeach him for using the $391 million to blackmail Zelensky into sabotaging Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
One big problem with this analysis is Trump did not invent the “withhold to make the Europeans pay more” on Tuesday. He complained about inadequate European contributions to Zelensky during their July 25 conversation, and Zelensky agreed with him.
“We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time, much more than the European countries are doing, and they should be helping you more than they are,” Trump told Zelensky.
“Germany does almost nothing for you,” he continued. “All they do is talk, and I think it’s something that you should really ask them about. When I was speaking to Angela Merkel she talks Ukraine, but she doesn’t do anything. A lot of the European countries are the same way, so I think it’s something you want to look at, but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
“Yes, you are absolutely right,” Zelensky replied. “Not only one hundred percent, but actually one thousand percent, and I can tell you the following: I did talk with Angela Merkel and I did meet with her.”
“I also met and talked with Macron and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions. They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine,” he added, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron.
“It turns out that even though logically the European Union should be our biggest partner, but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union, and I’m very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine – much more than the European Union, especially when we are talking about sanctions against the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said.
“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense,” he told Trump. “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
The fact-checkers excoriating Trump (and, by extension, Zelensky) for underselling European support for Ukraine are missing the fact that they were clearly talking about military support, along with sanctions against Russia. They are also leaving out some very important context for why Trump and Zelensky think Europe isn’t doing enough for Ukraine, including the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, a major threat to Ukraine’s economic independence.
As the New York Times pointed out on Monday, the aid for Ukraine blocked by Trump was military in nature – a major reason Trump’s hold on the funds caused such consternation at the time, because Ukraine gets far more military support from the U.S. than Europe. The aid in question consisted of $250 million from the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative at the Defense Department plus $141 million from the State Department’s program for foreign military aid.
A Politico report from late August – when Trump’s critics were insinuating he froze Ukrainian military aid to curry favor with Moscow and wheedle Russia back into the G7 – quoted a senior administration official saying Trump wanted to “ensure U.S. interests are being prioritized when it comes to foreign assistance.”
This official said the president also sought assurances that other countries were “paying their fair share” – the same thing Trump said on Monday, and the same thing he told Zelensky during their phone conversation in July.
The Politico report also mentioned the long-running internal administration debate over foreign aid in general. President Trump’s complaints about the United States shouldering too much of the international foreign aid burden began long before his phone call with Zelensky.
The Obama administration refused to send any lethal aid to Ukraine at all, but Trump authorized the Javelin anti-tank missiles referred to by Zelensky during his first year in office. The aid package Trump temporarily blocked was seen as a major escalation of U.S. military aid in response to provocative actions by the Russians.
Shortly before Trump froze the aid, a U.S. News report mentioned Trump’s dissatisfaction with European contributions to Ukrainian defense, his desire to reduce U.S. contributions to a “European Reassurance Initiative” established by the Obama administration, and his criticism of Germany in particular for not contributing enough to defense projects.
As Zelensky indicated during his conversation with Trump, the Ukrainians have frequently criticized Europe, and especially Germany, for not maintaining enough pressure against Russia.
Germany’s Deutsche Welle pointed out last November that Germany has indeed refused to offer military support to Ukraine. Chancellor Angela Merkel ignored former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s plea for warships to provide security in the Sea of Azov after Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels.
There is also the aching sore of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a Russian project that will bypass Ukraine to pump gas into Germany. Both President Trump and the Ukrainians have strongly criticized the pipeline, along with most of Eastern Europe.
“One of the important areas of our common interaction at the European level is the issue of energy security, preservation of the strategic role of the Ukrainian gas transit system and counteraction of Nord Stream 2,” Zelensky said during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in early June.
The U.S. government has considered offering extensive support for Ukraine to deal with Russia knocking it out of the gas supply chain to Europe, a cost that should reasonably be added to any discussion of how much the U.S. is contributing to Ukraine’s defense against Russia.
Trump and Zelensky’s take on the contributions of Europe and especially Germany could be judged as harsh. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel is often credited with exercising great diplomatic skill with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf. Then again, with Ukrainians still dying in Donbas, the new chief executive in Kyiv could be forgiven for wondering just how much Merkel’s diplomacy is worth. There is ample evidence that such thoughts were passing through both Trump and Zelensky’s minds in June when they had their fateful phone conversation.