Republicans have concocted a new excuse for President Donald Trump’s extortion of Ukraine. They’re claiming that when Trump suspended military aid to that country in July, he and his aides were trying to ascertain whether Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was “the real deal,” a genuine reformer. This story is false, but it exposes the truth: The aid suspension turned out to be an inadvertent test not of Zelensky’s sincerity, but of Trump’s. When the American president claimed to care about corruption, he was lying.
The real-deal theory surfaced last week after Republicans appointed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a fierce partisan, to the House Intelligence Committee. On Wednesday, in the committee’s first open impeachment hearing, Jordan declared that when Trump blocked the aid in mid-July, the president told his aides to “check out” Zelensky and “see if he’s legit.” Jordan claimed that this inspection lasted 55 days and consisted of five conversations between Zelensky and U.S. officials: a July 25 phone call with Trump; a July 26 meeting with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, a special envoy to Ukraine; an Aug. 27 meeting with then–national security adviser John Bolton; a Sept. 1 meeting with Vice President Mike Pence; and a Sept. 5 meeting with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Through these conversations, Jordan asserted, all these men “became convinced that Zelensky was in fact worth the risk, he was in fact legit and the real deal and a real change. And guess what? They told the president, ‘He’s a reformer. Release the money.’ And that’s exactly what President Trump did.”
Jordan repeated this story on Friday, at the committee’s second impeachment hearing, and again on Sunday in an interview on Face the Nation. Other Republicans have adopted the same defense. “Zelensky got elected on a platform of rooting out corruption,” said Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, on Fox News Sunday. “But nobody really knew if that was what he was going to follow through on.” Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, Jordan’s colleague on the Intelligence Committee, told a similar story on ABC’s This Week. “We heard as early as April and May that they [the administration] may withhold this foreign aid,” said Stewart. “Why? Because we had a new president in Ukraine. We knew nothing about him. He came out of nowhere. We didn’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy.”
Notice the gap between Stewart’s timeline and Jordan’s. Jordan says the inspection began when Trump suspended the aid in July; Stewart says it began in April. That’s your first clue that the real-deal account has problems. It doesn’t fit the sequence of events.
Let’s review the activities of Trump’s putative inspectors. Zelensky was elected in April and took office in May. Johnson visited Ukraine in May and gave Trump a progress report. He told Trump in an Oval Office meeting on May 23 that Zelensky was fighting corruption. According to Johnson, his report failed to move Trump, and two months later, Trump suspended the aid anyway. Bolton supported the aid all along and wasn’t told why it was blocked. Pence admitted that by the time he met with Zelensky on Sept. 1, Ukrainian lawmakers had filed more than 250 anti-corruption bills. As to Volker and Sondland, we have their text messages from July to September. Neither of them questioned whether Zelensky was committed to cleaning up Ukraine.
Next, look at the July 25 call in which Trump, according to Jordan, checked out whether Zelensky was a reformer. Stewart says Trump spoke of “investigating corruption broadly,” and Scalise says Trump “talked about the steps that Ukraine is taking to root out corruption.” But the official White House call memo—essentially, an incomplete transcript—shows Trump never mentioned corruption or reform. He asked Zelensky not for any systemic improvements in Ukraine’s laws or institutions, but for “a favor”: investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden, who was Trump’s leading opponent in the 2020 election, and of conspiracy theories about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.
The real-deal theory also doesn’t square with a certification issued by the Department of Defense. Scalise says Trump blocked the aid because Congress “required that the administration make sure that Ukraine’s rooting out corruption” before delivering the money. Stewart gives the same excuse. But Congress specifically authorized the Department of Defense to issue this certification, and the Pentagon did so in a May 23 letter. Trump ignored the certification when he blocked the aid in July.
In the days since Republicans first floated the real-deal theory, more evidence has surfaced to discredit it. In April, after Zelensky was elected, the White House issued a formal summary of Trump’s congratulatory call to the new Ukrainian president. The summary, known as a readout, claimed that during the call, Trump pledged to work with Zelensky to promote “reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.” But on Friday, the White House released another call memo that shows Trump again never mentioned corruption or reform. A White House official told CNN that Trump ignored briefing materials and a National Security Council recommendation that urged him to discuss corruption during the call.
After the call memo was released, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified before the Intelligence Committee. She explained that the pressure campaign to investigate Biden, far from testing Zelensky’s sincerity as a reformer, was itself a conspiracy between corrupt Ukrainians and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Then David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, testified that Trump had asked Sondland, in a July 26 phone call, whether Zelensky was “gonna do the investigation.” After that phone call—in which Holmes directly heard Trump’s voice—Sondland, according to Holmes, explained that Trump didn’t “give a s–t about Ukraine” and just wanted Zelensky to help him by investigating Biden.
Given the obvious falsity of Jordan’s theory, the puzzle is how he came up with it. And the likely answer is that in a twisted way, he was trying to make sense of the actual sequence of events. It’s true that Trump blocked the aid in mid-July. It’s true that he called Ukraine corrupt. It’s true that the people Jordan depicts as Trump’s inspectors—Volker, Sondland, Johnson, and Bolton—urged Trump to release the money. But it isn’t true, as Jordan alleges, that during the 55 days in which the aid was suspended, these men “became convinced Zelensky [was] the real deal.” They already believed he was the real deal. The person who wasn’t convinced was Trump.
The text messages between Volker and Sondland show exactly what was going on. They were negotiating between Zelensky’s explicit commitments to reform, on the one hand, and Trump’s corrupt demands for a Biden investigation. Johnson, in a Sunday interview on Meet the Press, blurted out the same confession: “Most people wanted to support Ukraine. We were trying to convince President Trump.” Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, has acknowledged that the president eventually released the aid for reasons unrelated to corruption. The pleas about Zelensky being a reformer fell on Trump’s deaf ears.
The aid suspension wasn’t a test of Zelensky’s interest in reform. It was a test of his willingness to be corrupted by Trump. Over time, it also became an accidental test of Trump’s motives. For 55 days, American officials tried to persuade Trump that Zelensky was serious about reform. Trump didn’t care, and that proved his professed concern about Ukrainian corruption was fake. Zelensky was the real deal. Trump wasn’t.