NEW YORK — Americans who think Donald Trump ushered in a new era of nastiness in the public sphere really don’t know dirty politics. But they are about to find out.
No one chanted “lock her up” when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych wanted to go after his nemesis, Yulia Tymoshenko. He just put her in jail.
Yushchenko didn’t complain of a witch hunt, or about the deep state, or cry that anything was “so unfair.”
“The aim, naturally,” he said at the time, “was to kill me.”
By pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Trump has not just given Congressional Democrats a basis for their impeachment inquiry. The U.S. president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have stepped into the political cesspit of Kyiv, which can make Washington, even on its worst days, look like a koi pond.
Yuriy Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general accused by Trump of refusing to scrutinize Hunter Biden’s business dealings, experienced these brutal politics firsthand. Yanukovych’s government jailed him for more than two years, beginning in December 2010, on charges of abuse of office during a stint as interior minister — charges Lutsenko called “political persecution.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian voters have witnessed these cycles of political blood feuds, vendettas and vengeance, intertwined with deep-rooted, seemingly intractable corruption. Zelenskiy had been hoping to lead his country out of this morass — building on an array of aggressive institutional reforms in recent years. Instead, he now finds himself embroiled in a political feud that isn’t even Ukraine’s.
“My election proves that our citizens are tired of the experienced, pompous system politicians who over the past 28 years, have created a country of opportunities — the opportunities to bribe, steal and loot,” Zelenskiy said during his inaugural address in May.
“We will build the country of other opportunities — the one where all are equal before the law and where all the rules are honest and transparent, the same for everyone,” Zelenskiy said. “And for that, we need people in power who will serve the people. This is why I really do not want my pictures in your offices, for the president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
In his speech, Zelenskiy even quoted Ronald Reagan: “The government does not solve our problems. The government is our problem.”
At the moment, however, it’s another American president — Trump — who is causing Zelenskiy serious problems, leaving him awkwardly trapped between the demands that he and his government intercede in partisan, U.S. electoral politics and Ukraine’s own, acute and desperate need for continuing financial and military assistance from Washington.
Not so similar
Zelenskiy, like Trump, came to politics after a career in television. But there is a key difference: unlike Trump, who is uncontrollable and unpredictable, Zelenskiy is a good actor, who knows how to stick to a script. And already it’s clear that he is using that skill to walk a fine line that perhaps might help him escape from being stuck in Washington’s quagmire.
Scrutinize the White House notes of the July phone call that is now the basis of a Congressional impeachment inquiry, and it is clear that Zelenskiy, despite being a rookie politician, had clear objectives and stuck to them. He repeatedly told Trump what he wanted to hear, and worked to shore up the bilateral relationship, while also making no firm commitments about any investigation into the Bidens and at times professing to agree with Trump when evidence suggests that in a Trumpian turn of the tables, he was really just gaslighting.
When Trump congratulated Zelenskiy on his victory, the Ukrainian replied: “You are absolutely right Mr. President.” When Trump told Zelenskiy that Germany was not doing enough for Ukraine and he should speak to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Zelenskiy replied: “Yes, you are absolutely right not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent.”
But then, in a bit of a rhetorical magic trick, Zelenskiy made clear he was talking not about financial or military support but specifically about enforcement of sanctions — thereby narrowing any criticism of Berlin.
At an even more remarkable point, Zelenskiy professed to agree with Trump’s criticism of the former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Marie L. Yovanovitch, a highly respected career diplomat.
“It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100 percent,” Zelenskiy said. “Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous president and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new president well enough.”
In fact, Yovanovitch had delivered a speech last March, just weeks before election day, sharply criticizing the government of President Petro Poroshenko for falling short in its anti-corruption efforts. While Yovanovitch as a professional diplomat would never express a preference for a candidate, the address was widely viewed as helping Zelenskiy.
For Zelenskiy, there was hardly any cost in criticizing an ambassador already yanked from her post by the Trump administration. But of course, there is some irony in Trump demanding help against Biden from a president complaining about a U.S. diplomat favoring his rival. Indeed, much of Zelenskiy’s solicitousness in the July call seems aimed at addressing Trump’s long-held belief that Ukrainian officials had intervened in the 2016 U.S. election in order to help his opponent Hillary Clinton.
The impeachment fight now brewing in Washington is likely to teach the American public more than it ever wanted or needed to know about Ukrainian politics. But as the truth emerges, Trump is likely to discover that much of the historical record directly contradicts assertions that Giuliani has made during his apparent freelancing in foreign policy.
First, there is Giuliani’s attack on Serhiy Leshchenko, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated investigative journalists who later ran and won a seat in parliament after the Maidan revolution of 2014-15.
Giuliani has asserted that Leshchenko was trying to help Clinton by revealing evidence of financial crimes by former President Yanukovych, which later helped lead to the conviction of Yanukovych’s American campaign consultant, Paul Manafort, who afterward served as Trump’s campaign manager.
In fact, Leshchenko has been exposing corruption in Ukraine for decades. His reporting helped lead to the conviction in May 2004 of a former Ukrainian prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, who was found guilty in a U.S. federal court in California on charges of money laundering, wire fraud and extortion, and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Leshchenko has forcefully rejected Giuliani’s allegations and also offered to testify in Congress. Reached in Ukraine on Wednesday, Leshchenko said he had not yet been contacted by any Congressional investigators but that he was ready and willing to come to Washington. If he does, Trump will likely regret it.
Then, there is the assertion of misconduct on the part of Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general, regarding the Biden business dealings. Lutsenko, too, would almost certainly prove a compelling witness in Congress. After being pardoned and released from prison, Lutsenko went back into politics and in the lead-up to the Maidan revolution in 2013, he issued a remarkable apology to Ukrainians that a previous uprising, the Orange revolution of 2004, which he helped lead, had not ultimately succeeded in reforming the government.
And then there is Lutsenko’s predecessor as prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who Trump incorrectly insists was unfairly ousted from his post at Biden’s request. In fact, Shokin was widely perceived as corrupt and ineffective, and his dismissal was approved in an overwhelming vote by the Ukrainian parliament.
Of course, Washington has its own swampy ways. And Republicans may now be betting that they can only benefit from Democrats barreling into a long impeachment fight they may never win. Trump’s base will have reason to stay fired up. And by the end of it all, some voters may remember little other than that Biden’s son was involved in some unsavory business in a faraway place.
Indeed, Hunter Biden’s brief foray into the notoriously corrupt Russian gas business was widely scrutinized in Ukraine, where it was ultimately seen as financially opportunistic and politically idiotic but hardly criminal. Some news accounts speculated that Biden was hoping to capitalize on plans by Poroshenko’s government to privatize Ukraine’s state-owned gas behemoth, Naftogaz. But the privatization effort, like many reforms, stalled. Whatever profit was made, the political cost was steep.
One Kyiv-based analyst, who asked not to be identified, put it simply: “What the hell are you going to do for a Ukrainian gas business, other than give your name?”
For Zelenskiy, the challenge now seems to be if he can parlay all this into greater U.S. support for Ukraine, in ending the military aggression it faces from Russia and perhaps even to regain control of its occupied territories, parts of the eastern Donbas region, and Crimea, which Russia has annexed.
While Trump’s objective at a meeting with Zelenskiy in New York on Wednesday was to prove he had not pressured the Ukrainian for help against Biden, Zelenskiy was already trying to leverage the situation to Ukraine’s benefit.
“Thank you for your support, especially now when — you know, when we have two — really, two wars in Ukraine,” he told Trump. “The first one is with corruption, you know. But we’ll fight — no, we’ll be winner in this fight, I’m sure. And the priority — my priority — is to stop the war on Donbas and to get back our territories: Crimea, Donbas, Luhansk.”
Trump, as he has done many times, tried to pin the loss of Crimea on former President Barack Obama. “If you remember, you lost Crimea during a different administration, not during the Trump administration,” Trump said. But Zelenskiy would not let it go. “Yeah,” he said. “So you have chance to help us.”
Leshchenko, the Ukrainian journalist and former politician who has offered to testify, said he hoped Zelenskiy would keep Ukraine “distanced and neutral” as the impeachment fight heats up.
“And to be fair,” he said. “Americans respect fairness.”