President Trump is facing impeachment primarily for abusing his power for political gain, extorting a foreign country to discredit his political rivals. The secondary aspect of the plot is that the target of his extortion is hardly random. Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression, and Russia’s continuing incursions into Ukrainian territory is the muscle that gave Trump’s threats leverage. Trump’s domestic interests are one intended beneficiary of his scheme. The other is Vladimir Putin.
Trump and his allies insist he has actually pursued a hawkish line in Ukraine. “Mr. Trump didn’t withhold military aid to Ukraine, and even if he had he would have merely been returning to Barack Obama’s policy of denying lethal aid,” argues a Wall Street Journal editorial. “No one has done more to limit Russia’s ability to engage in mischief than President Trump,” insists Representative Matt Gaetz in a Fox News segment retweeted by the president.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors charged yesterday evening that Lev Parnas, an associate of President Trump who represented him in Ukraine, was wired $1 million from a Russian bank account weeks before his arrest. Which is to say, Trump’s Ukraine plot appears to have been financed by Russia. Prosecutors revealed this week that the source of the funds was Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who has close ties to Vladimir Putin.
Parnas met repeatedly with Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Parnas claims Trump pulled him aside at last year’s White House Hanukkah party and personally directed his activities in Ukraine. That allegation remains unproven. What is proven, though, is that Parnas met with Trump numerous times (there are photographs), was Giuliani’s official business partner, and represented himself to Ukrainians as an agent of both Trump and Giuliani.
Rudy has worked as Trump’s lawyer for “free,” but Parnas paid him half a million dollars for his work. If Parnas himself was being paid by Russian sources, this means the Russians were essentially subsidizing Trump, paying for the work themselves so he didn’t have to lay out a dime of his own money.
What did Russia get in return? Quite a bit. Trump attempted to hold up military aid that had been passed by Congress by margins Trump couldn’t block. He has continued to withhold a desperately sought meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, which the Ukrainian president believed would serve as a signal of American support, and give Ukraine leverage against Russia. Instead, Trump met this week in the White House with Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov, sending the opposite of the signal Ukraine wanted. Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, tells the New York Times, “The Russians surely arranged the Lavrov visit to capitalize on all of this and to send a message to the Ukrainians that they’re basically on their own now and need to cut the best deal they can since the U.S. backstop is largely inoperative.”
That’s not all. A large part of Russia’s agenda in Ukraine is to influence that country’s internal politics. Ukraine is ground zero of Russia’s overseas political operations. Moscow has financed a series of corrupt officials who pursue pro-Russian policies. (Russia then turns around and uses Ukraine’s corruption as a reason for other countries to shun it.) Before he managed Trump’s 2016 campaign, Paul Manafort was paid by Russian oligarchs to represent the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
The revolution that deposed Manafort’s candidate and the recent election of reformist president Zelensky have threatened Russia’s internal influence in Ukraine. Giuliani’s work there has essentially picked up where Manafort left off. He has tried to vindicate Manafort by digging up evidence that Ukrainians framed him as a criminal through the “black ledger” listing his illegal payments. On his trip to Ukraine, Giuliani huddled with a number of notoriously corrupt pro-Russian officials, including veterans of the Party of Regions. (Philip Bump has a good rundown of the rogues’ gallery of Giuliani partners.) He is openly working to promote the cast of characters Russia wants to run Ukraine.
Trump, incredibly, continues to tout Giuliani as his Ukraine agent. “He’s going to make a report, I think to the attorney general and to Congress,” Trump told reporters Saturday. “I hear he has found plenty.”
With his typical Orwellian brazenness, Trump insists that this agenda should be described as a hawkish anti-Russian policy. Meanwhile he turned over American foreign policy to agents literally being paid by Russia. Firtash is not in the Russian government, but he works closely in tandem with it. His role as funder is an explosive development – it shows the President of the United States put his diplomacy in a vital region in the hands of men being secretly paid by close allies of Vladimir Putin.
This post has been updated thoughout to reflect news updates.