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Opinion

Opinion: President Trump’s missed opportunity with Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS
The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine was one of the things that never arose during President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
(Volodymyr Shuvayev/AFP/Getty Images)

The House of Representatives is moving inexorably toward impeaching President Trump for what he has said and done in his dealings with Ukraine. But what the president hasn’t done or said is almost as appalling, revealing a president who cares only about his personal interests, not America’s interests.

Ukraine is a country at war. Russia seized part of its territory in 2014, and Russian-backed separatists have remained in control of eastern Ukraine. Thousands have been killed in the ongoing fighting. President Trump’s administration and its predecessors have pursued a wide range of important U.S. national interests in Ukraine. The Defense Department is working to help Ukraine defend itself, including providing training and weapons. The State Department is working to help settle the conflict between Ukraine and Russia — which threatens a range of other U.S. interests — and to help Ukrainian democracy establish a firmer and less corrupt footing. The Energy Department is working with Ukraine on natural gas projects that could help Ukraine gain independence from Russian natural gas (which Russia has cut off to pressure Ukraine in the past). The officials the Trump administration itself appointed to represent American interests in Ukraine have testified as to how critical these interests are.

A normal president would have discussed all of these topics during the now-infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But President Trump did not bring up a single one of them. Trump did not discuss what next steps the United States and Ukraine could take together to settle the conflict with Russia. He did not mention how the United States could best help Ukraine defend itself. Even when the Ukrainian president specifically raised the topic of missiles for Ukraine’s defense, Trump’s response was: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

Because of both the war and the mismanagement of previous governments, Ukraine is a country with a faltering economy. In 2018, it overtook Moldova to become the poorest country in Europe (though it has managed a small amount of economic growth recently). But Trump did not ask what steps the United States and Ukraine could take together to strengthen trade, help Ukraine’s economy, or alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

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Ukraine is coping with deep and far-reaching corruption. But while Trump pushed for an investigation of his malignant fantasies of wrongdoing by Democrats, something with the potential to help him in his 2020 campaign, he did not talk about steps the United States could take to help Zelensky, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, deal with the real corruption scourge. (Of course, Trump is not too fond of many of the U.S. institutions that could serve as a model for Ukraine — such as a truly independent judiciary, legislative bodies with the power and resources to investigate, whistleblower protection laws, and independent inspector-generals at key agencies.)

President Trump ignored whatever talking points on American interests in Ukraine his staff prepared for him. His message was loud and clear. The president of the United States could not care less about Ukraine and its problems. He is interested only in what Ukraine can do for him.

This message abandons any pretense of U.S. leadership in the world, any idea that the United States stands for something beyond the power-lust of its president. It is not America First, it is America Alone, America the boorish, amoral and uncaring.

America is none of those things — as made clear by the sober, careful and caring testimony of career State Department officials in recent days. They have described the long-standing, bipartisan U.S. approach to Ukraine, and how President Trump and a small coterie of aides such as Rudolph W. Giuliani subverted it, including with the hold-up of military aid, which almost certainly led to more Ukrainian deaths on the battlefield. They have offered a detailed picture of President Trump turning the foreign policy power of the U.S. government, including serving ambassadors, officials overseeing military transfers, and members of the White House staff, into a tool to further his personal political gain.

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Trump’s use of government power in service of his own political and financial ends goes far beyond Ukraine. Just in the last two weeks, we have his public demand that China also investigate the Bidens, his trade negotiator’s point-blank refusal to answer whether he had raised that demand in trade negotiations, the quickly reversed decision to host a global summit meeting at his own resort, and his description of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, put in precisely to avoid presidential bribery by foreign powers, as “phony.”

Whatever Trump’s lawyers may claim, the U.S. president is not an elected king. The Constitution was designed by the framers to prevent any president from using unchecked power to further his own financial or political interests. Let us hope that members of Congress can work together to use their constitutional powers to preserve American democracy.

Matthew Bunn is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-principal investigator of the Belfer Center’s Managing the Atom Project.


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