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Trump's 2019 meeting with Zelensky was disgraceful at the time and seems even worse now
Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine hasn't shaken his position that the onus is on Zelensky to capitulate.
Living through the Trump administration was a disorienting blizzard of misinformation and scandal, so it can be hard to remember anything but the lowest of lowlights. But a statement Trump released on Monday helped in that respect.
First, some context: Trump, you might recall, initially praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy.” He denounced the violence in generic terms when it became clear that the war was going poorly for Russia and the media began verifying images of atrocities against civilians, but he’s repeatedly gone out of his way to avoid condemning Putin, including last Friday on Hannity.
Trump’s Monday statement used the passive voice to reframe Putin’s war as some sort of natural disaster that humans are powerless to prevent. And instead of expressing support for Ukraine — something Trump’s not quite been able to bring himself to do — he urges Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate.
“It doesn’t make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren’t sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement,” he said. “If they don’t do so soon, there will be nothing but death, destruction, and carnage. This is a war that never should have happened, but it did.”
This effort to absolve Putin of responsibility and to put the onus on Ukraine to resolve Russia’s war of choice reminded me of comments Trump made when he met Zelensky at the United Nations in 2019. Reviewing footage I hadn’t thought about for years, it struck me how little a brutal invasion — including war crimes — changed Trump’s position on Ukraine. At best, he’s still covering for Putin, and at worse he’s rooting for him.
Revisiting the Trump-Zelensky meeting
Trump and Zelensky met at the UN on September 25, 2019 — the same day the White House released a partial transcript of a July 2019 call between the two leaders that would ultimately be central to Trump’s impeachment for using military aid to try to extort the Ukrainian government for political dirt on the Bidens. The transcript showed that after Zelensky brought up aid he hoped to use “to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” Trump responded by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” He then went to ask Zelensky to open politically motivated investigations into the Bidens and a cybersecurity firm he wrongly suspected was involved in framing Russia for hacking the DNC in 2016.
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During the on-camera portion of the meeting, Trump made clear he had no shame about the scandal. After some very on-brand preliminaries — “I know a lot of people from Ukraine. They're great people. I owned something called the Miss Universe pageants years ago ... we had a winner from Ukraine” — Trump blamed former President Obama, not Putin, for Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Ukraine (“you lost Crimea during a different administration,” he said, using the passive voice), then urged Zelensky to “stop corruption in Ukraine,” which was the coded, Orwellian phrase he used to talk about his desire to obtain dirt that could help him in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Remarkably, with cameras rolling, Trump then shamelessly urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. It didn’t even seem to occur to him that a president asking another head of state to dig up dirt on his political opponents (especially in a public setting!) was an abnormal thing to do.
It somehow got worse from there.
Recall that Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexing part of its territory and encouraging Russian separatist movements in others. Ukraine had already been victimized by Russian aggression for more than five years by the time of the Trump-Zelensky meeting. But in comments reminiscent of the statement he released earlier this week, Trump told Zelensky, “I really hope that you and President Putin can get together and solve your problem,” while Zelensky stared into the middle distance wearing a disgusted expression on his face.
Zelensky, for his part, prodded Trump to invite him to White House for a meeting that would’ve signaled US support for his government (but didn’t end up happening) and saw fit to explain why he was unwilling to basically do opposition research for him.
“We have [an] independent country and independent general security. I can’t push anyone,” Zelensky said in English.
But the irony of a newly elected head of state from a supposedly “corrupt” country chiding the US president for trying to bully him into abusing his powers was, of course, lost on Trump.
Republicans supported the Trump extortion attempt but now pose as Ukraine supporters
Trump’s attempt to extort Zelensky was, of course, shameful, but Republicans stood behind him. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went so far as to claim in January 2020 that Trump did the “rightful thing” because “people believed there was corruption with a new administration.” (Nevermind that there wasn’t.)
Now, Republicans are trying to rewrite history by posing as staunch supporters of Ukraine — at least when they’re not voting against resolutions expressing support for NATO. McCarthy, for instance, suggested during a recent Fox News appearance that Biden could’ve prevented Russia’s attack, had he provided more military aid to Ukraine. (Ukraine has in fact received over $1 billion in security assistance from the US over the past year.)
“It’s the actions that we could’ve done before from this administration that would make sure today wasn’t happening,” McCarthy said. “We could’ve supplied the weapons to Ukraine.”
Biden, meanwhile is walking a knife’s edge, trying to keep the NATO countries and their allies united behind Ukraine, but at enough distance that the US neither starts a hot war with Russia nor abandons Ukraine to invasion, subjugation, and atrocity. So far, he’s navigated it successfully. But Trump’s Monday is a statement is a reminder that the nature of American’s involvement in the war could be very different.
We could easily have a president who stands with Putin when he can and runs interference for Russian autocracy when he can’t. Biden sees what’s happening in Ukraine and who is to blame for it with moral clarity, but, as a recent New York Magazine piece put it, Trump sees very fine people on both sides.