For a while, Donald Trump’s allies tried to defend the president’s Ukraine scheme by insisting that Ukraine didn’t know about the White House withholding military aid. It was, the Republican argued, a key element: in order to prove extortion, the target would need to know it was being extorted.
This argument collapsed weeks ago, though it soon after morphed into a related talking point: Ukraine didn’t feel “pressure” from the Trump administration about the White House’s political scheme. Indeed, the president tweeted just yesterday that Ukrainian leaders “said that there was no pressure placed on them whatsoever.”
As we’ve discussed, the public pronouncements from Ukrainian leaders should be taken with a grain of salt. We’re talking about a vulnerable ally, heavily dependent on the United States, struggling against Russian aggression. At least publicly, Ukraine has every reason to go out of its way to stay in the White House’s good graces, and officials in Kyiv know that crossing Trump in the midst of this scandal carry enormous risks – especially with a Republican-led Senate unlikely to remove the American president from office.
But privately, it’s a different story. The Associated Press had this report this morning:
Despite his denials, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was feeling pressure from the Trump Administration to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden before his July phone call with President Donald Trump that has led to impeachment hearings.
In early May, staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, including then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, were briefed on a meeting Zelenskiy held in which he sought advice on how to navigate the difficult position he was in, according to two people with knowledge of the briefings.
He was concerned that Trump and associates were pressing him to take action that could affect the 2020 U.S. presidential race, the people said.
To a certain degree, this may seem like common sense. In fact, the Associated Press reported weeks ago that Zelensky huddled with aides in May – before even taking office – expressing concern about Trump World political pressure about a Biden investigation.
But what I found especially notable about the AP’s newest report is that Trump administration officials knew about the Ukrainian president’s concerns.
Zelensky realized he was in a jam. He needed U.S. support; he couldn’t alienate the White House; and he wasn’t sure how best to deal with Team Trump’s corrupt requests. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv were briefed on all of this.
If the takeaway from this is, “Zelensky didn’t tell the truth when he said he didn’t feel pressure,” that wildly misses the point. The Ukrainian president wasn’t – and still isn’t – in a position to speak candidly about the White House’s scheme.
Rather, what matters here is that everyone involved had their eyes wide open: Zelensky knew about the pressure, and the Trump administration was aware of Zelensky’s concerns, creating an opportunity for the extortion scheme to work as intended.
And with that, another pillar of the White House’s defense appears to be collapsing.