GOP shrugs off Trump impeachment echoes in Russia-Ukraine war

Republicans clamoring to accuse President Joe Biden of slow-walking support for Ukraine don't see a shred of comparison with Donald Trump’s impeachment for withholding aid from the very same nation.

Then-President Trump ordered his No. 2 to skip Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s 2019 inauguration, put a secret hold on a package of military aid for months and deprived the incoming Ukrainian leader of a White House meeting meant to show solidarity with the West. Simultaneously, Trump and his allies repeatedly asked Zelenskyy to open politically motivated investigations into Democrats, including then-candidate Joe Biden.

But Republicans, only one of whom supported Trump’s first impeachment, are brushing off any suggestion that their frustration with Biden's pace of Ukraine aid is at odds with their earlier defense of Trump’s posture toward Kyiv. They’re also blaming Democrats for harming Ukraine, now at war with Russia, by launching the impeachment inquiry in the first place.

“That was the biggest nothing-burger in the world that resulted in an impeachment by the House,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “In many respects, it further validates Donald Trump’s position.”

The GOP's refusal to acknowledge the Ukraine-related substance of the Trump impeachment as Russia bombards Zelenskyy's nation is a case study in the hopeless partisanship of the modern Congress, and the difficulties ahead as leaders weigh more support for Ukraine. Democrats are adamant that the former president deserves significant blame for worsening Ukraine's long-term position, while Republicans dig in and say the impeachment itself — rather than Trump’s conduct — turned a backroom drama among world leaders into a front-page scandal that threw Zelenskyy in the middle of a political cage match.

“That was all getting worked out. It would have been worked out quietly. They would have gotten [the aid],” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose efforts to convince Trump to release the aid to Ukraine were documented as part of the impeachment trial. “It was the Democrats, the whistleblowers … who did that, and they dramatically harmed Ukraine as a result. That’s the real lesson here.”

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), who left the Democratic Party in protest of Trump’s first impeachment, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin's current onslaught against Ukraine is "very different" than the geopolitical landscape the former president faced.

"This is a madman who is literally trying to take over another country, is killing women, children, pregnant women, is not obeying the rules of civilized warfare,” Van Drew said of Putin. “And that is not because of anything that Trump did.”

The Democrats who led Trump’s first impeachment counter that Republicans’ revisionism ignores how Trump’s treatment of Ukraine may have emboldened Putin and led him to believe the West would fracture if he launched a full-scale invasion.

The GOP response to impeachment “told Putin that the United States didn’t care about Ukraine, that it was willing to use Ukraine as some political plaything,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who led the prosecution against Trump in the Senate’s 2020 trial.

House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) echoed Schiff’s assessment, saying Trump’s handling of Ukraine, combined with his attacks on NATO, gave the impression that the alliance was splintering.

Schiff put the finest possible point on Democrats' position: GOP lawmakers criticizing Biden on Ukraine after absolving Trump were showing “utter hypocrisy,” he said, and “they have no standing to speak.”

Republicans, however, contend that there’s no direct link between the scandal of 2019 and the crisis of 2022. Their current criticisms largely center on tactics and timing of Biden’s decisions to send various forms of aid to Kyiv.

“There’s a lot of things that you could involve President Trump in, but our failure to help the Ukrainians prepare for what could happen after 100,000 troops moved to their border and sat there for weeks, would not be one of them,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes neither of the last three presidential administrations delivered enough aid to Ukraine. He was one of the few Republicans who criticized Trump for the July 25, 2019, phone call during which the then-president pressed Zelenskyy to open the politically motivated investigations.

Turner said Biden erred by not providing more surface-to-air missiles and air defenses last year, when Putin first began amassing troops on the Ukrainian border.

“It would have changed the outcome of this, because most of the lethal attacks are coming from planes and from the sky,” he said.

Just one Republican lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — has expressed regret for his vote against impeaching or convicting Trump in his first trial since Russia's war on Ukraine began; he took to Twitter to lament his decision.

But Sen. Johnson, who has embraced Trump in recent years, acknowledged that Trump could have avoided the episode altogether if he had simply allowed the aid to flow to Ukraine and invited Zelenskyy to the White House.

“I personally think if Trump had met with Zelenskyy, never would have made the phone call, I think those two would have hit it off beautifully. And none of this would have ever happened,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of interesting — how would history have changed based on that one decision not to meet with President Zelenskyy?”

Republicans have often pointed out that Trump eventually did give Ukraine the $400 million of aid he had withheld — just as Democrats began gathering evidence about the hold. They also note that he sent lethal aid in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles prior to Zelenskyy’s election. Meanwhile, they argue, Biden has delayed on urgently needed assistance.

“Last November, I requested the administration put the lethal aid into Ukraine, and they kept stalling and then they finally lifted it like right before the invasion,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Trump never did give Zelenskyy his long-sought White House meeting. Zelenskyy’s first trip to the White House came in September on an invitation from Biden. And Trump’s allies repeatedly leaned on aides close to Zelenskyy to convince the Ukrainian government to announce investigations of Biden.

On Thursday, one of those aides, Andriy Yermak — Zelenskyy’s chief of staff — suggested in a tweet that the Ukrainian government had opinions of its own on which U.S. president offered greater support.

“Grateful to [the United States], our reliable partner,” Yermak tweeted. “The @POTUS does more for [Ukraine] than any of his predecessors.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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