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Column: A Republican line no one believes: Trump hates corruption, especially in Ukraine. Yeah, no

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies in impeachment hearings Nov. 20, 2019.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, waits to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during the fourth day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Why was President Trump so hot to get the Ukrainian president to star in an American attack ad about one board member at Burisma Holdings in Kyiv?

Was it perhaps because that board member’s last name was Biden?

Oh, come on. That’s outlandish. It couldn’t be. That would mean the president of the United States was using his office to coerce an ally into smearing the family of a political rival. That would be corrupt. That would be impeachable.

And yet here we are. With each witness who testifies in the House impeachment inquiry, it becomes clearer: The president was trying to orchestrate a filthy, self-interested operation that his former national security advisor John Bolton memorably derided as a “drug deal.”

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So it’s fallen to Republicans in the House to make more and more panicky excuses for their leader. And one especially farcical excuse for Trump has been consistent. Here’s how it goes:

Trump was not engaging in corruption when he tried to strong-arm Volodymyr Zelensky into campaigning against former Vice President Joe Biden. No, no, no, no, no. Trump tried to bribe Zelensky because he despises corruption! Especially in Ukraine!

In fact, according to the Trumpites, it pains Trump to see Ukraine so troubled with systemic self-dealing, theft and graft. He absolutely hates to see a nation’s judiciary in the pocket of power. Or to give aid and comfort to Russia, a foreign power hostile to both Ukraine and the United States.

On Wednesday, while the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony from Gordon Sondland, a prominent Trump donor and the president’s appointed ambassador to the European Union, Republicans again rolled out their portrait of Trump as a noble crusader against Ukrainian corruption. Republican staff counsel even claimed that Trump harbors nothing less than ”deep-rooted concerns about corruption in Ukraine.”

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Yeah, no.

Just like all the other times Republicans have tried to make this case, it went over like a lead balloon. Clearly, if Trump cared for a second about actual corruption in Ukraine, he wouldn’t have droned on and on about one board member (Hunter Biden) at one company (Burisma).

Instead, he would have supported Ukraine’s true reformist priorities: Building up the anti-corruption courts. Cracking down on embezzlement. And, for heaven’s sake, recovering the money reportedly stolen from Ukraine by Kremlin ally and former President Viktor Yanukovich, former client of the convicted felon Paul Manafort, who also served as Trump’s campaign chairman. By some estimates, Yanukovich reportedly lifted $40 billion or even $100 billion. (Ukraine’s GDP is about $112 billion.)

Anyone who cared about corruption in Ukraine would know that job No. 1 is breaking the country’s sistema — the informal power networks that force ordinary Ukrainians to pay bribes or go without healthcare, schooling, driver’s licenses, police protection, justice in the courts and almost anything else that requires a government stamp.

As the impeachment inquiry continues, American patriots must take the time to refute the bonkers idea that Trump harbors deep-rooted concerns about Ukraine — or, really, about anything but himself.

They might draw from the testimony of Sondland who said explicitly on Wednesday that, far from caring about Ukraine, Trump was openly “down on” the country. And, of course, it was personal. Sondland told the committee that when he and others expressed optimism about Zelensky’s commitment to reforming the sistema, all Trump could muster was a whiny complaint “that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election.”

Or they could draw from the earlier testimony of diplomat David Holmes, who said Sondland once framed Trump’s hostility to Ukraine even more strongly, saying the president “didn’t give a fig about Ukraine,” using slightly more colorful language.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) , the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, has repeatedly stressed in the hearings that the president’s vindictiveness toward Ukraine is understandable. After all, at least one Ukrainian official purportedly said mean things about him.

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Nunes hasn’t gotten far in his bids for compassion for Trump. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to find sympathy for a hotheaded president who holds a highly consequential grudge against an ally while pretending to have an elaborate “deep-rooted” concern about its well-being.

Whatever Trump and his apologists have said about his anti-corruption crusade in Ukraine, his actions speak louder and clearer.

Trump suspended aid to Ukraine, tried to get the country to take the fall for Russian election interference and held an invitation to the White House hostage. Whether or not Trump gave a fig, his actions suggested he intended to throw Ukraine to the dogs — or, rather, to the Russians, who annexed Crimea in 2014, invaded eastern Ukraine and have explicit designs on the rest of it.

This is terrible for Ukraine and the United States. As Sondland — remember, he’s a Trump donor and appointee — put it Wednesday, “Our efforts to counterbalance an aggressive Russia depend in substantial part on a strong Ukraine.”

Hmm. It might be noted that Trump has long expressed respect and even enthusiasm for an aggressive Russia. And of course, at least since its interference in the 2016 election, Russia has expressed respect and even enthusiasm for an aggressive Trump.

With another election coming up, why would Trump want to counterbalance that sweet Russian aggression now?

Twitter: @page88


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