Why did President Donald Trump—against the wishes of his State Department, his Defense Department, and his congressional allies—withhold military aid and a White House meeting from Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine? For weeks, Republicans said the reason was corruption. Trump cared deeply about fighting corruption, they explained, and he blocked the aid until he was sure that Zelensky would clean up Ukraine.
Unfortunately, that explanation doesn’t fit any of the facts. So Republicans have developed an alternative theory: Trump blocked the meeting and the aid because he thought Ukraine was out to get him. He did it for revenge.
The revenge theory starts with a May 23 meeting at the White House. A delegation of Trump appointees and a Republican senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, had just returned from Ukraine. They told Trump that Zelensky, who had just been inaugurated, was launching an unprecedented campaign against corruption. If Trump had cared about corruption, the delegation’s report would have moved him. It didn’t. He fixated instead on the idea that Ukraine was out to get him.
Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, described the meeting in an Oct. 17 deposition before the House Intelligence Committee. “We were quite excited about the new president, the new administration, the new team, and we were excited to share our findings” with Trump, said Sondland. “He didn’t want to hear about it.” Instead, according to Sondland, Trump kept repeating, “They tried to take me down.” Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, testified that during the meeting, he explained “that President Zelensky is the real deal, he is going to try to fix things.” But Trump “waved it off,” according to Volker, and continued to repeat, “They tried to take me down.” Johnson, in a Nov. 18 letter, gave a similar account of the meeting.
Faced with this testimony about the May 23 meeting, Republican members of the intelligence committee could have argued that Trump was skeptical of Ukraine for other reasons. They could have cited some other offense by Ukraine—an incident of corruption that had nothing to do with Trump personally—that had prompted some comment from him. That might have shown that he genuinely cared about corruption, not just about payback. But in all his words, they could find no such comment. So they embraced his animus as a legitimate reason to withhold the meeting and the aid.
“The president had a belief that Ukrainian government officials … supported his opponent in 2016,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio declared in a Nov. 20 hearing. Based on that belief, Jordan asked a witness, “Do you see … why he might be a little concerned about sending the hard-earned tax dollars of the American people to Ukraine?” Rep. Devin Nunes of California defended Trump’s grudge as a reasonable basis for suspending the aid and for Trump’s pressure on Zelensky to investigate Trump’s domestic opponents. “Once you understand that Ukrainian officials were cooperating directly with President Trump’s political opponents to undermine his candidacy,” said Nunes, “it’s easy to understand why the president would want to learn the full truth about these operations and why he would be skeptical of Ukraine.”
If Ukraine had attacked Trump’s candidacy the way Russia attacked Hillary Clinton’s—through hacking and mass disinformation—Trump would have had grounds for an investigation. An honest president would have sought such an investigation from the U.S. government, not from Ukraine, and it would have been based on a valid U.S. interest in protecting our elections. But Republican congressmen who have been peddling the revenge theory—Nunes, Jordan, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Lee Zeldin of New York, Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, and others—offer no evidence of such a sophisticated plot. Instead, they blame Ukrainian officials for telling the truth, defending Ukrainian sovereignty, and cooperating with American law enforcement.
The Republicans have denounced a 2016 op-ed by Ukraine’s then–ambassador to the United States, Valeriy Chaly. The op-ed pointed out that Trump—who at that time was running for president and defending Russia’s invasion of Crimea—was rationalizing “the violation of a sovereign country’s territorial integrity.” In last month’s Ukraine hearings, Jordan called the op-ed an “attack on the president.” The congressman also cited a 2016 Financial Times article in which Serhiy Leshchenko, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, said most Ukrainian politicians were “on Hillary Clinton’s side.” These and other true statements by Ukrainians, according to Jordan, showed that in withholding the aid, “President Trump’s concern was justified.”
Nunes accused Ukraine of laying the groundwork for special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. That dastardly deed, the congressman surmised, was “what the president was referring to when he said, ‘They tried to take me down.’ ” Nunes also condemned Leshchenko for releasing the infamous “black ledger” that led to the downfall of Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman. The ledger showed Ukrainian payments to Manafort—at least one of which was corroborated by the FBI—and Manafort was eventually convicted and sentenced for multiple related crimes.
To Republicans, all of this truth-telling counts as election interference. “There were Ukrainians who interfered in the 2016 election,” Zeldin insisted in a CNN interview after the hearings. “It’s Ambassador Chaly and his op-ed. It’s the black ledger that helped bring down the campaign chairman for President Trump.” Zeldin accused Democratic senators of having encouraged Ukraine to “help dig up dirt against President Trump, working with special counsel Mueller”—in other words, to cooperate with the U.S. Justice Department.
Mueller plays a central role in the revenge theory. According to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, the special counsel’s investigation—and Ukraine’s peripheral role in it—is what provoked Trump. Two weeks ago, in a CBS interview, Conway pointed out that Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, in which Trump mentioned U.S. support for Ukraine and requested investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats, took place one day after Mueller testified to Congress about the Russia inquiry. In the call, Conway explained, “The president clearly lays out what’s on his mind. It’s the day after Mueller testifies. And then the president looks at it: It’s his turn. He wants to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016.”
“His turn” was the core idea. “Get to the bottom” was the cover story. There was nothing to get to the bottom of: Biden did nothing wrong, Chaly defended Ukraine’s sovereignty because that was his job, and Trump’s nutty fantasy that Ukraine has been hiding a Democratic National Committee server—which would somehow exonerate Russia of election interference—has been completely debunked. But according to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, the server fantasy influenced Trump’s decision to suspend aid to Ukraine. In a press briefing on Oct. 17, Mulvaney acknowledged that Trump’s insistence on taking a “look back to what happened in 2016,” and specifically on investigating “the DNC server,” was part of “why we held up the money.”
Trump confirmed the revenge theory in a Nov. 22 interview on Fox and Friends. “Ukraine hated me. They were after me in the election. They wanted Hillary Clinton to win,” said the president. “I still want to see that server,” he added. “That’s what I asked, actually, in my [July 25] phone call.” The Fox News hosts tried to tell Trump what everyone else had told him—that the server story was bunk—but he plowed on. When they asked him about Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who had worked resolutely against corruption in that country, Trump insisted he was right to get rid of her. “She wouldn’t hang my picture in the embassy,” he said.
With Trump, everything is about revenge. That’s slightly different from seeking investigations for political advantage. It’s more visceral and less calculating. But it has nothing to do with the interests of the United States. If Republicans are right that Trump, based on personal resentment, blocked military aid to a desperate U.S. ally—aid that was mandated by law—that’s an egregious abuse of power. It’s an article of impeachment they’ve written themselves.