The New York Times reports that the government of Ukraine has put the brakes on its investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort allegedly received millions of dollars in cash through an “illegal off-the-books system” used by former President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party. Manafort’s Ukrainian activities were a major factor leading to his resignation from the campaign in 2016. Manafort is currently facing a wide array of federal criminal charges in both D.C. and Virginia.
Yanukovych fled Ukraine amid mass protests in 2014, and the new government has been investigating corruption in his administration, including the links to Manafort. The Ukrainian prosecutor investigating Manafort says he had reached out to special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in January with an offer to cooperate but that the offer is now moot, since his own investigation is on hold.
Ukraine’s decision to halt its Manafort investigation—the cases against Manafort are technically still open, but the government has ordered the prosecutor to refrain from issuing subpoenas or interviewing witnesses—came at a time when the U.S. was finalizing the sale of Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. The Ukrainians are surprisingly open about the connection between the decision and the importance of staying on Trump’s good side, with one legislative ally of President Petro Poroshenko telling the Times, “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials. We shouldn’t spoil relations with the administration.”
The question of whether to arm the Ukrainian government in its ongoing fight against Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east has been a significant subplot of the Trump-Russia drama. Barack Obama refused, despite pressure from both Congress and his own National Security Council, to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, fearing that it would just give Vladimir Putin pretext to escalate the conflict.
During the 2016 GOP convention, when Manafort was still running the Trump campaign, it was reported that the campaign had worked behind the scenes to remove language from the party platform calling for providing weapons to Ukraine—contradicting the near-unanimous stance of Republican foreign policy leaders.
Trump, not normally one to shy away from overturning a controversial Obama policy, remained reluctant to arm the Ukrainians. He eventually approved the sale of antitank missiles to Ukraine last December but delayed the decision for months and reportedly wasn’t happy about it. The Washington Post has reported that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and then–CIA Director Mike Pompeo lobbied for the sale, arguing that it would deter Russian aggression and that Ukraine could become a reliable customer for U.S. military hardware. Trump wanted the decision kept quiet and was reportedly furious when it leaked and was praised by Russia hawks like John McCain.
The Manafort story casts Trump’s reversal in a different light: The Ukrainian government is not just a potential weapons customer; it also eliminates a potentially damaging line of inquiry in the Russia investigation. There’s no evidence to confirm Ukraine’s helpful move directly caused Trump to change his mind on the weapons—this is, after all, something many leading national security figures wanted to do long before he became president. Similarly, it’s quite possible that Trump’s strong support for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar last year had nothing to do with the Kushner family business being rejected for financing by the Qataris. It could be that China’s decision to approve trademarks for Ivanka Trump’s companies on the same day her father was having “great chemistry” with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago was just a coincidence, and that the most powerful people in India are genuinely interested in Donald Trump Jr.’s geostrategic insights.
The problem is that with Trump and his family’s web of conflicts of interest and their legal vulnerabilities, it’s hard to take any of his foreign policy decisions—or foreign leaders’ actions toward him—at face value