Note From Asha: I Want You To Do Me A Favor, Though

Note from Asha: I Want You to Do Me a Favor, Though

By Asha Rangappa

Dear Reader,

I have a theory about political scandals. I believe that the degree to which a scandal “sticks” is inversely proportional to its complexity. For instance, if someone were to ask you what the Whitewater scandal was about, could you tell them? You might vaguely know it had something to do with real estate, and there was some guy involved who committed suicide, but seriously – does anyone really know what Whitewater was about? By contrast, I’m willing to bet there are even some Gen Z folks who could explain the basic plot of the Monica Lewinsky scandal – sex in the oval office. That’s a story that makes sense to everyone.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that, like the rest of America and the world, I’m watching the tragic and horrific scenes of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine unfolding on the news. For many people, Americans especially, this is the first time they’ve really considered Ukraine’s vulnerability as a nation, vis a vis its autocratic neighbor. But what most people don’t realize is that one thread leading up to these events on the other side of the world happened right here at home. Given the current attention on the political situation in Ukraine, now might be a good time to revisit the conduct that led to Trump’s first impeachment, which has a direct through line to what we are witnessing today.

Impeachment 1.0 focused on the domestic aspect of Trump’s “quid pro quo” with Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky. On July 25, 2019, Trump spoke with Zelensky, uttering the famous words encapsulating his “perfect” phone call with the Ukrainian leader: “I’d like you to do me a favor, though.” The favor Trump was asking for was twofold: He wanted Zelensky to announce an investigation into his political rival, Joe Biden, for encouraging Ukraine, while Vice President, to fire a corrupt prosecutor Trump claimed was investigating Biden’s son, Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas firm called Burisma. Trump also wanted Zelensky to investigate a conspiracy theory originally promulgated by his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and later by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. Coverage of Trump’s call, and political debate in the U.S., largely focused on the veracity of these two claims and the larger issue of Trump actively soliciting foreign interference in a U.S. presidential election.

What wasn’t explored in as much depth is the “quid” which prompted Trump’s “quo.” Understanding that requires going back to April 21, 2019, when Zelensky was elected into office in a landslide. Trump had called Zelensky to congratulate him, inviting him to visit the White House. A state visit to the White House would have been hugely symbolic for Zelensky, because it would be an outward show of U.S. support for Ukraine, in itself a clear statement to Russia, with which Ukraine was already embroiled in a military conflict. But Zelensky also wanted practical assistance: military equipment. These twin interests motivated the “perfect phone call” from the Ukrainian side. In fact, it was Zelensky’s indication that Ukraine was ready to purchase additional Javelin anti-tank missiles – the same missiles that military experts say have been instrumental in fighting Russia these last three weeks – that prompted Trump’s conditional response.

It’s important to remember that Trump’s willingness to immediately seize on Ukraine’s vulnerability wasn’t just an off-the-cuff reaction. Trump had ordered a hold on $400 million of congressionally-appropriated aid several weeks before his phone call with Zelensky. Even before that, Trump had prevented Vice President Mike Pence from attending Zelensky’s inauguration in May, sending instead the so-called “three amigos” to put pressure on Zelensky to initiate investigations: Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Special Ukraine Representative Kurt Volker, and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. The failure to send the vice president to the inauguration was yet another public signal to Russia that Ukraine may not have support at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The truth, however, was that Trump and his cronies were outliers, even at the highest levels of government. His hold on congressionally-appropriated aid was not only illegal, but went against the collective judgment of senior officials at the Department of Defense, the State Department, and Trump’s own National Security Council, which all argued that it was in the national security interest of the United States to support Ukraine. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor called it “folly” to withhold security assistance to that country. As we watch the United States and NATO sit on the precipice of World War III due to Russia’s aggression and potential escalation into NATO-allied countries, it is much easier to understand why all of these people, who understood the geopolitical implications of emboldening Russia in any way, were so alarmed.

Those of us who closely followed the Mueller investigation may have found it easier to follow the thread of Ukrainegate, and weren’t completely surprised. After all, Trump’s actions in 2019 came well after the original 2016 RNC platform, which had supported giving “lethal defensive assistance,” was inexplicably gutted as soon as Trump got the nomination. And Paul Manafort had previously worked for Russian-backed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and cozied up to Russian oligarchs for a decade before coming to work on Trump’s campaign – for free. But without being in the weeds of either Trump’s historical animosity towards Ukraine or the events that led to his first impeachment, the average American might not have fully understood the gravity of the national security threat – both to Ukraine and the United States – that Trump created. It didn’t help that even a full-fledged post-mortem of the impeachment was eclipsed by COVID, which hit the United States just as the Senate trial concluded.

Now that the U.S. is focused again on Ukraine, and we collectively identify with its citizens on a visceral level, the House impeachment report is a must-read for every American. We need to remember that the same person who attempted to weaken Ukraine and who called Russian President Vladimir Putin “savvy” and a “genius” is poised to occupy the Oval Office again. The last time around, it was only the exposure of Trump’s abuse of power that forced Trump to release his hold on military aid to our allies and stopped his efforts to advantage Russia. Unless Americans become educated on this near miss, we may not be so lucky again.

Stay Informed,

Asha

Posted by Asha Rangappa

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