Republicans don’t want to talk about their past actions on Ukraine. They should have to

Oh, hey, Republicans don’t think anyone should be talking about how they had Donald Trump’s back when he withheld military aid from Ukraine to extort personal political favors, and Politico is ready to report on just how unimportant Republicans think that was, drawing on quotes from six Republicans and, to rebut, one single Democrat.

Republicans “don’t see a shred of comparison” between Trump’s extortion effort and President Joe Biden not giving exactly the aid Republicans now claim to want the U.S. to send Ukraine, Politico reports. Republicans “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.” 

It took three Politico reporters to come up with this, an article that alternates between the reporters’ paraphrasing of Republican dismissals, Republican quotes (sample: “That was the biggest nothing-burger in the world that resulted in an impeachment by the House,” according to Sen. Kevin Cramer), and a few carefully chosen facts about what exactly it is that Republicans are dismissing.

RELATED: Two years ago, they voted against impeachment. Now suddenly they're deeply concerned for Ukraine

But lots of facts didn’t make it into Politico or are mentioned only in passing. The Washington Post reports, for instance, on the dozens of Senate Republicans who are attacking Biden for not sending more aid to Ukraine after they voted against the government funding bill including $13.6 billion in Ukraine aid. That vote and the funding at issue do not make a single appearance in the Politico article about how Republicans don’t think their past defense of Trump withholding support from Ukraine has any relevance to the current situation.

On that one, Republicans are deploying the “I voted against the thing I say I support because there were also things I opposed in the bill” argument, but as Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said in response, “Inside every piece of legislation are elements that many of us disagree with. Inside that budget that you voted against are all sorts of things that I disagree with. But in the end, in order to govern the country, you have to be able to find a path to compromise.”

Or, as Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz put it, “It’s very simple: If you don’t vote for the thing, you’re not for the thing,” Schatz said. “That is literally our job, to decide whether we are for or against things as a binary question.”

Republicans decided they were against impeaching Donald Trump for withholding military aid to Ukraine to extort personal political favors from Zelenskyy. Quite a few of them decided they were against aid for Ukraine if it involved also funding the rest of the U.S. government. And they’re getting plenty of space in Politico to explain why the first was merited without being challenged on their reasoning or asked about the second.


Trump's Ukraine extortion campaign didn't begin or end with 'I would like you to do us a favor'

Republicans suddenly claim to be the biggest allies of the nation they once denounced as corrupt

Two years ago, they voted against impeachment. Now suddenly they’re deeply concerned for Ukraine

Following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s emotional appeal to Congress and President Joe Biden to help his country defend itself against Russia, top Republican leaders did the only thing they could think to do: use their cheering of Zelenskyy as cover to attack Biden.

Despite dressing their attacks on Biden in the language of support for Zelenskyy and Ukraine, Republicans didn’t exactly hide the real point. “The longer President Biden waits, trying to figure out excuses to not offend Putin, it's costing lives in Ukraine,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the day after Russia announced sanctions on Biden and a slate of other Democrats, but no Republicans, and just over two years after he and every other Republican, with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney, voted against impeaching Donald Trump for withholding military aid from Ukraine to extort political favors.

RELATED: Trump's Ukraine extortion campaign didn't begin or end with 'I would like you to do us a favor'

When you're going straight to “excuses not to offend Putin,” you’re making it clear where your interests lie, and it’s not sincerely with the Ukrainian people. 

Scalise’s fellow House Republican leader Elise Stefanik led her statement on Zelenskyy’s address with an attack on Biden’s “weakness and delay.” This is a return to form for Stefanik, who started the month with a message to Ukraine that managed not to blame Biden for Putin’s invasion, after her initial response had been aimed at Biden. Stefanik didn’t just vote against impeaching Trump: She was a key part of his impeachment defense, rising in the ranks of Republicans on the basis of that performance. For Stefanik, the inquiry into Trump having withheld military aid as part of an effort to get Ukraine to tarnish his domestic political opponent was a prime opportunity to try to tarnish Trump’s domestic political opponent—Joe Biden, the same person she is now holding responsible for Vladimir Putin’s actions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also went straight to Biden. McConnell had on Tuesday said Biden was guilty of “hesitancy and weakness,” and on Wednesday said, “the message to President Biden is that he needs to step up his game.” McConnell voted to acquit Trump of withholding military aid to extort Ukraine.

Republican attacks on Biden implied that the distance between their preferred policies and his were bigger than they really are. Most Republicans agree that a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone would be a bad idea. “It remains my view that putting — if that means putting U.S. troops or pilots in Ukraine, I think the answer is no,” McConnell said. He, like many other Republicans, is drawing the line for attacking Biden between the drones and other equipment Biden is sending and the airplanes McConnell claims to support. (McConnell would still find a way to attack Biden if Biden sent dozens of planes tomorrow.)

Biden is out here trying to walk the line between aiding Ukraine and avoiding World War III, and Republicans are simply looking for any excuse they can manufacture to attack him.


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Trump’s Ukraine extortion campaign didn’t begin or end with ‘I would like you to do us a favor’

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine didn’t come from nowhere: Russia had invaded and annexed part of Ukraine in 2014 and there has been an ongoing war ever since, with thousands of people killed on both sides. Donald Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine came in the midst of that war, and have to be understood in that context. Trump had very real leverage over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because Zelenskyy was desperate for U.S. support during a war and Trump used that leverage to apply pressure over a period of months.

Trump’s pressure campaign wasn’t just that of a larger country against a smaller one. It was against a smaller country at war with a larger one, where the aggressor in that war—Russia—was watching and reading the tea leaves about the United States’ level of support for Ukraine. Again and again, Trump left Ukraine hanging and let Vladimir Putin know that U.S. support for Ukraine was conditional at best.

The House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry report from 2019 lays it out in detail, as Asha Rangappa noted. From the moment Zelenskyy won his election in April 2019, Trump was dangling the possibility of public shows of support and then yanking them back. In their initial phone call after Zelenskyy’s win, Trump invited him to the White House—an invitation Ukrainian officials then sought to pin down and make real, without success. Trump initially said he would send Mike Pence to Zelenskyy’s inauguration with the U.S. vice president’s presence standing as visible evidence of support, only to keep Pence home and send Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead. This was as Rudy Giuliani was ramping up his efforts to get Zelenskyy to announce investigations into supposed corruption involving the Biden family and supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Trump explicitly connected his reluctance for a White House visit for the Ukrainian president to Ukraine having supposedly “tried to take me down” in 2016. This was false. As Russia expert Dr. Fiona Hill said in her impeachment inquiry testimony about claims that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. elections, “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”

Next, Trump personally froze nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine—aid appropriated by Congress and supported by officials throughout the federal agencies responsible for sending it, except those who were first and foremost Trump loyalists. And a quid pro quo was repeatedly communicated to Ukraine: Make a public announcement of investigations into the Biden family and interference in the elections if you want the White House visit and the military aid. No actual investigations are needed. Just the public announcement of them.

“On July 2, in Toronto, Canada, Ambassador Volker conveyed the message directly to President Zelensky, specifically referencing the ‘Giuliani factor’ in President Zelensky’s engagement with the United States,” according to the impeachment inquiry report. “For his part, Mr. Giuliani made clear to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker, who were directly communicating with the Ukrainians, that a White House meeting would not occur until Ukraine announced its pursuit of the two political investigations. After observing Mr. Giuliani’s role in the ouster of a U.S. Ambassador and learning of his influence with the President, Ukrainian officials soon understood that ‘the key for many things is Rudi [sic].’”

This pressure ratcheted up with Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskyy, the one in which he responded to Zelenskyy’s request to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” And it became still stronger as the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid continued to be frozen. 

On Aug. 28, 2019, Politico reported on the hold-up of the aid. The following day, Ambassador William Taylor sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a first-person cable in which “He explained the ‘folly’ of withholding security assistance to Ukraine as it fought a hot war against Russia on its borders. He wrote that he ‘could not and would not defend such a policy.’” But on the same day, with the aid freeze now public, Trump cancelled a trip to Warsaw for a World War II commemoration event, a trip on which he was scheduled to meet with Zelenskyy. Instead, he sent Pence.

At the meeting, President Zelensky expressed concern that even an appearance of wavering support from the United States for Ukraine could embolden Russia. Vice President Pence reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine, but could not promise that the hold would be lifted. Vice President Pence said he would relay his support for lifting the hold to President Trump so a decision could be made on security assistance as soon as possible. Vice President Pence spoke with President Trump that evening, but the hold was not lifted. 

Zelenskyy—the guy who has stayed in Kyiv at the risk of his own life during Russia’s invasion—buckled under the pressure. He booked an interview on CNN to announce the investigations Trump was demanding. Instead, as more of the story of the extortion campaign trickled out and the House announced investigations, Trump unfroze the aid. 

Trump’s pressure on Ukraine—on Zelenskyy—wasn’t just about one phone call. And the pressure wasn't just about the specific military equipment Ukraine wanted. It was about sending a message to Putin that U.S. support for Ukraine was wobbly. 

Republicans suddenly claim to be the biggest allies of the nation they once denounced as corrupt

It’s taken Republicans a little while to figure out their approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but—for now at least—they’ve settled on pretending to be the best friends Ukraine ever had. It falls apart immediately if you look at the Republican record over the past few years, but it’s what they’re going with.

Most notoriously, of course, there are these 10 words: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” That’s what Donald Trump said as he withheld military aid in an attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into manufacturing dirt on now-President Joe Biden for Trump’s personal political gain. And every single Republican other than Sen. Mitt Romney thought this was just fine. Great, really. Many actively defended Trump’s actions, which often meant trashing Ukraine. But that’s not all.

In the midst of trying to defend Trump, Rep. Jim Jordan called Ukraine “one of the three most corrupt countries on the planet.” He also condemned efforts to fight corruption in Ukraine as themselves corrupt because Biden was involved.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise has pointed to the same ouster of a corrupt prosecutor in Ukraine as problematic because it involved then-Vice President Biden threatening to withhold aid if the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, wasn’t fired. “If you go back to when Joe Biden was vice president, he bragged about how he withheld a billion dollars in aid to Ukraine, when Joe Biden was vice president, because he said he wanted a prosecutor to get fired, who ultimately from reports we saw was fired,” Scalise said Tuesday. The difference here is that Biden was, as a public matter of administration policy, talking about aid that would be withheld as part of an international anti-corruption effort, with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund also calling for Shokin’s firing. It’s kind of different from a secret phone call and an ask seeking personal benefit.

According to Scalise, “President Zelenskyy had called President Trump to thank him for the leadership that he provided.” In reality, it was part of Zelenskyy’s desperate efforts to get some kind of public show of support from the United States that might help ease the threat Ukraine faced from Russia, and the call came as Trump’s informal emissaries, led by Rudy Giuliani, were pressuring him to announce the very same corrupt investigation that Trump then asked for as “a favor” when Zelenskyy asked to buy Javelin missiles.

In their effort to rewrite how Trump’s first impeachment speaks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Republican view of Ukraine more generally, Republicans like Scalise are returning to an old talking point. “When President Zelenskyy was asking for things like Javelin missiles that the Biden and Obama administration said no to, President Trump said yes and actually helped Ukraine get those tank-busting missiles that they needed and frankly, they’ve been using,” Scalise said. In that, he echoed Trump's February statement claiming, “it was me that got Ukraine the very effective anti-tank busters (Javelins) when the previous Administration was sending blankets.” 

The Obama administration didn’t send lethal aid like Javelins in part because officials were concerned that the Ukrainian army didn’t have the capability to use them. But that changed over time—as we’re seeing, the Ukrainian military has dramatically improved since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. What the Obama administration did send was not blankets but UAVs, armored Humvees, counter-mortar radars, night vision devices, and more. And when Trump did send Javelins, it was only after his advisers convinced him that it would be good for U.S. defense contractors.

Now that Republicans have figured out that supporting Ukraine is their best bet, politically speaking, they are all in—to the point where you have to worry they’re going to do their best to provoke a nuclear war. Immediately after the invasion, Republicans were blaming Biden for not having stopped it. They’ve since moved on to blaming him for not doing enough to end it. “If Joe Biden won’t make him pay, the Republican Party must,” Sen. Tom Cotton said in a speech on Monday. But what does that look like when a no-fly zone would mean a world war? That’s the kind of question that needs to take precedence above making a president from the opposite party look bad. But putting anything above partisan concerns is not how Republicans operate.