President’s Ukraine shell game damages U.S national security

Distracted by political theater, we’re missing something significant, something more important than the admittedly historic dimensions of an ongoing impeachment inquiry into the actions of a sitting U.S. president.

We’re missing the elemental truth of why this matters.

I found some of that truth in, of all places, an ungainly piece of legislation: the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.

The 789-page bill is an encyclopedic catalog of thousands of activities being pursued worldwide by the U.S. Department of Defense (authorized by Congress and the president and funded by U.S. taxpayers), along with brief explanations of what it’s doing and why.

The authorization act passed the House of Representatives on July 26, 2018, by a vote of 359 to 54 with substantial majorities of Republicans and Democrats. It passed the Senate six days later with even more bipartisanship: 87 votes in favor, 10 opposed. President Donald Trump signed it into law on August 13, 2018.

The sections on U.S. military aid for Ukraine stretch across a few pages. Section 1248 opens on page 417 with a clear declaration of American policy in the region:

To protect the national security of the United States and fulfill the ironclad commitment of the United States to its obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty, it is the policy of the United States to pursue ... an integrated approach to strengthening the defense of allies and partners in Europe as part of a broader, long-term strategy backed by all elements of United States national power to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian aggression.

The section then summarizes the “Sense of Congress” on what the United States should do to achieve those policy goals in a broad assortment of countries in eastern and central Europe. In Ukraine, the legislation reads “... the [U.S.] Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State and in consultation with the commander of United States European Command, should ... support robust security sector assistance for Ukraine, including defensive lethal assistance, while promoting necessary reforms of the defense institutions of Ukraine.”

“Ukraine’s success is very much in our national interest,” said George P. Kent, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Asian affairs. In testimony last week to the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry, Kent pointed to the collective security provided to Western Europe by the creation of NATO 70 years ago. “... Europe’s security and prosperity contributed to our security and prosperity.”

Earlier this year in Ukraine, an activist young generation helped elect a 41-year-old reform-minded president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and a similarly activist parliament. “At the heart of that change mandate,” Kent said, “is a thirst for justice. Without a reformed judicial sector that delivers justice with integrity for all, Ukrainian society will be unsettled.”

An essential element of U.S. efforts to help Ukraine succeed as a democracy is what Kent called “the principled promotion of the rule of law and institutional integrity.” It’s an especially formidable challenge for countries once controlled by the blatantly corrupt former Soviet Union.

In this context of Ukraine’s work to reform judicial, law enforcement and defense institutions, honor the rule of law, reduce corruption and increase official accountability, Trump has been a decidedly negative force, to put it mildly.

According to a White House memorandum of a July 25 phone conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s newly elected Zelensky, the U.S. president was about as subtle as Tony Soprano when he brought up American defense funding for Ukraine (hint, hint) and then asked the Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor” (wink, wink).

Trump wanted Zelensky to direct Ukrainian prosecutors to launch an investigation into a thoroughly discredited false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. He also urged Zelensky to have Ukrainian prosecutors investigate former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son Hunter in connection with other thoroughly discredited false claims. At the time, the senior Biden was the leading Democratic candidate for president in next year’s election; that is, Trump’s likely opponent.

Also at the time, Trump had ordered a hold on the military assistance funds desperately needed by Ukraine that those bipartisan congressional majorities had approved and that Trump had signed.

Distilled down to its essence: When official U.S. policy was to improve America’s national security by helping Ukraine create vibrant anti-corruption institutions and elevate the rule of law, Trump was corruptly urging a foreign country to conduct unjustified investigations that could benefit his reelection campaign.

In exchange for this campaign contribution, Trump would withdraw the hold on hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated for Ukraine.

The arrangement, obviously, was unrelated to America’s national security needs. In fact, it damaged that security. In his sworn testimony last week, William B. Taylor, the highest ranking diplomat in America’s embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, said he told colleagues in early September that U.S. relations with Ukraine had been damaged. “With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us,” Taylor said.

The hold was lifted on Sept. 11, right after a whistleblower complaint about the scheme became public and congressional opposition mounted.

Last week, Trump allies insisted that Zelensky could not have felt pressured about a hold on assistance funds because the United States had not notified the Ukrainian government the hold existed. 

But Catherine Croft, a State Department specialist on Ukraine, told House investigators in a sworn deposition that she received calls in early July from Ukrainian officials about the hold — before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. So the president of Ukraine surely knew what the president of the United States really meant when he brought up how much America does for Ukraine.

Trump defenders quickly shifted to a different explanation: Trump actually ordered a hold on the funds in June because he was worried about corruption in Ukraine.

Except that on May 23, John C. Rood, a senior Defense Department official, had sent a highly detailed letter to House and Senate defense and foreign relations committees certifying that Ukraine had taken “substantial actions” to reform defense institutions, increase accountability and reduce corruption. The John S. McCain Defense Authorization legislation required such a review before Ukraine could receive any U.S. funds. 

I can’t help wondering what the next invented excuse might be.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at ericmink1@gmail.com.