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Ukraine Phone Call Is the Russian Trump Tower Meeting on Steroids

Tim Dickinson

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If the emerging details are accurate, Donald Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election are not just a repeat of his overtures toward Russia in 2016 — they’re worse.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that, on a late-July call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump pressured the Eastern European leader “about eight times” to support Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to dig up dirt that could damage the presidential campaign of Joe Biden.

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(A bit of context is helpful here: Biden’s son Hunter was involved in an energy deal in Ukraine. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, has made unsubstantiated claims that Joe Biden pressured the Ukrainian government, during his term as Vice President, to benefit his son. “Not one single credible outlet has given credibility to these assertions,” candidate Biden told reporters Friday. Ukrainian officials have previously said they have no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.)

At the time of the phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader, $250 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been authorized by Congress, but not yet delivered by the Trump administration. The aid was vitally needed: Ukraine is menaced by Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. According to the Wall Street Journal report, the status of this funding was not directly mentioned by Trump on the phone call. But it was, inescapably, hanging in the balance.

Trump’s demand of the Ukrainian president resembles the infamous Trump Tower meeting — on steroids. The Trump Tower affair, of Mueller Report fame, took place in June 2016 after Russian interests promised incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. They secured a meeting with Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, son Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The reunion, while fishy as hell, was not enough for Mueller to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, in part, because it was carried out by surrogates. Mueller could not establish that Trump had prior knowledge of, or approved, the meeting — which ultimately delivered little of political value.

If the Wall Street Journal‘s reporting holds up, the Trump phone call with the Ukrainian president is quite different. First, Trump himself is at the center of the action. Second, Trump is using his official powers as president to solicit foreign election interference for his direct political benefit. Third, hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid were, implicitly, in jeopardy if the Ukrainians didn’t play ball — adding a layer of corruption and coercion to this equation.

Its as if, instead of merely pleading, as he did on live TV during the campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump had actually phoned Vladimir Putin and directly asked him to work with Michael Cohen on unearthing Clinton’s emails, while dangling a lucrative reward to encourage the Kremlin’s participation.

The alleged abuse of power is staggering. This incident appears to have prompted a whistle-blower complaint from a member of the intelligence community that the Trump executive branch is now, unaccountably, refusing to release to Congress.

Given that this Ukraine phone call took place immediately following Mueller’s testimony to Congress, Trump seems to have taken the Special Counsel’s refusal to recommend prosecution for the 2016 campaign’s dirty dancing with Russia — and Congress’ refusal to pursue impeachment over evidence of obstruction of justice — as carte blanche to seek foreign-government interference in the 2020 campaign.

For his part, Biden released a statement on Friday calling out Trump’s “abhorrent” behavior. “If these reports are true, then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country,” Biden said. “Such clear cut corruption damages and diminishes our institutions of government by making them tools of a personal political vendetta.”

Other 2020 contenders have also placed accountability with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, who have let Trump skate on the criminal behavior outlined in the Mueller report instead seeking to remove him from office. Elizabeth Warren went so far to call Congress “complicit.”


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