If you had told me in 2016 that Donald Trump would be the subject of an impeachment inquiry before the end of his first term, I would not have been shocked. If you had told me that it would involve providing military hardware to Ukraine, I’d be pretty surprised. While of critical importance in Ukraine, in the U.S. the issue has been mostly of interest to national security wonks and a few key voices on Capitol Hill. That all changed last week when a whistleblower’s complaint put U.S.-Ukraine relations at the center of the country’s biggest political scandal.
The question of arms sales to Ukraine’s government has popped up again and again since the beginning of Trump’s first presidential campaign. It’s mostly been a subplot of the larger controversy around Russian interference in the election. But now, with evidence that Trump may have tried to leverage U.S. lethal aid to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden, Ukraine itself is front and center: a case where the Trump administration’s internal debate over foreign policy and the use of force coincides with its penchant for corruption and abuse of power. So, how did we get here?
The debate over lethal weapons to Ukraine has been a litmus test—a way for politicians to demonstrate toughness, or lack thereof, toward Russia—since before Trump took office. It used to be the Democrats who failed that test, according to Russia hawks. In the fall of 2014, with fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists worsening in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration refused to include weaponry in a $53 million aid package. U.S. aid included body armor, night vision goggles and vehicles, but fell short of what the Ukrainians said they needed to repel what was, in effect, a Russian invasion. “One cannot win a war with blankets!” President Petro Poroshenko said in an address to the U.S. Congress.
Obama worried that sending more weapons into the conflict would escalate the violence, but in 2015 pressure began to grow, with several key administration officials and a significant portion of Congress supporting sending “defensive weapons,” such as antitank missiles, to Ukrainian forces. There was bipartisan support for selling these weapons to the Ukrainians, but the charge was led by Republican Russia-hawks, and in particular the late John McCain. However, the significance of Russia in Republican politics was about to change drastically.
In July 2016, the Washington Post reported that, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the Trump campaign had worked to remove a passage from the party platform that called for providing Ukraine with the weapons it had been asking for. The news came amid increasing media scrutiny of then–campaign manager Paul Manafort’s lobbying work on behalf of pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report would later reveal that the platform change was orchestrated by J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman who was then a national security adviser to the Trump campaign and had some dodgy Russia links of his own. Mueller found no evidence that Trump ordered, or was even aware of, the change. But at the time, it seemed to Trump critics like one of the stronger data points in the case for collusion: Party platforms aren’t binding documents. There was little reason for the Trump campaign to pick a fight over this unless it was trying to send a conspicuous signal to Moscow.
Gordon might have been acting without orders, but his actions did more or less correspond with Trump’s views. Trump has repeatedly declined to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and has vacillated between justifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea and blaming Obama for it.
While Trump jumps at any opportunity—Iran, Israel, Cuba, climate change—to reverse Obama-era policies, Ukraine has been an exception. According to the Washington Post, officials including then–CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and Defense Secretary James Mattis led a lobbying effort to convince Trump to sell lethal weapons—antitank weapons in particular—to Ukraine. Trump was hesitant, asking ‘Why is this our problem? Why not let the Europeans deal with Ukraine?” according to one official’s account. Aides made little headway with the argument that the weapons would deter Russian aggression— “I just want peace,” Trump reportedly would reply—but eventually brought him around with the much more Trumpian argument that Ukraine, if it were stabilized, could one day become a major customer for U.S. military hardware. Trump eventually agreed to the arms transfer “on the condition that the move be kept quiet and made without a formal news release,” according to the Post, though there wasn’t any way to keep the news from getting out.
In December 2017, Trump approved the sale of 210 Javelin antitank missiles and 35 launchers to Ukraine, earning praise from Russia hawks on Capitol Hill and ire from the Kremlin. The Pentagon announced final approval of the sale in March 2018. Just a few weeks after that, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor halted an investigation into Manafort’s off-the-books financial ties to associates of the country’s ousted former president. “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” an ally of Poroshenko told the New York Times.
Apparently, this wasn’t enough to assuage Trump, though. In August, Politico reported that Trump had asked his security team to review a package of security aid to Ukraine that had been allocated by Congress, essentially slow-walking the program. And on Monday, the Washington Post reported that a week before his now-infamous phone call Volodymyr Zelensky—the president who replaced Poroshenko in May—Trump told his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to hold back $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. Trump has acknowledged delaying the aid but says there was “never any quid pro quo.” His explanation for the delay has shifted from concern about corruption to his desire to see the Europeans pay their fair share for Ukraine’s defense.
According to the recreated transcript of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Zelensky, Trump noted that in contrast to European countries—particularly Angela Merkel’s Germany—“the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine” before asking the Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor” by investigating a conspiracy theory involving the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, and also cooperate with his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr in investigating Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
In many ways, this exchange is classic Trump, from his obsession with skinflint U.S. allies not paying their share and ripping the U.S. off to the belief that foreign aid and military protection should only be given to countries that return the favor. This is also hardly the first time that Trump has conflated the country’s national security interests with his own political interests.
Aid to Ukraine might seem like an unlikely issue to provoke such a major scandal for the Trump White House, but in many ways, it’s fitting.