It was the summer of 2019. A soon-to-be whistleblower was stunned to learn about a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A White House lawyer, after learning about the president’s remarks, took a step that was at odds with White House policy: He buried the transcript of the call in an encrypted computer system used for national security information, where it was unlikely to come to light.
The first impeachment is pivotal to understanding the current war in Ukraine.
Today, the Ukrainian president is being lauded as a hero by his people and pundits. He is in close contact with President Joe Biden, and will be speaking with Congress on Wednesday, where he is sure to receive a bipartisan ovation. But many Americans have seemingly forgotten the role Zelenskyy played in the events of Trump’s first impeachment, and how those events foreshadowed today.
If we forget this history, we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes. The first impeachment is pivotal to understanding the current war in Ukraine, and how narrowly we escaped an American presidency that could have readily aligned itself with Russia over our NATO allies.
On July 25, 2019, Trump called Zelenskyy to congratulate him on his recent parliamentary victory. But the call went off script. Trump told Zelenskyy that European allies weren’t doing enough to support Ukraine. Zelenskyy agreed, thanked Trump for past support and said Ukraine was almost ready to acquire more Javelins, a defensive weapon Ukrainians could use against invading tanks. Trump’s response was entirely unexpected.
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According to notes from the call, Trump told Zelenskyy, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Trump wanted Zelenskyy to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, for corruption stemming from Hunter’s work on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian company. Trump hinted that the former vice president could be complicit in the corruption, falsely claiming Biden had bragged about stopping an investigation into his son. Trump told Zelenskyy he’d arrange calls for him with both Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.
Giuliani had already been pressuring Zelenskyy to open an investigation into the baseless theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election. Giuliani also pushed the Biden corruption allegations. Never mind that the timeline didn’t work in Trump’s favor. As retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman writes in his book, Burisma was investigated during the Obama administration but the alleged misconduct transpired before Hunter Biden joined the board. There was no indication he or his father were involved. And yet, Trump later called it “a perfect phone call.”
Zelenskyy was unaware that there was a problem with the approximately $400 million in aid Congress had appropriated for Ukraine. In fact, before the call, Trump had asked his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold back the aid. Members of Congress who inquired about the delay were told that it was part of an “interagency process” and members of the administration were instructed not to provide any additional information.
If none of this had come to light, it’s possible Ukraine may have given in. But the call did come to light. The inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson (subsequently fired by Trump, in April 2020) advised the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the director of national intelligence was sitting on a credible whistleblower complaint. The committee had to subpoena the director's office, but it finally received the complaint. Trump then released a five-page summary of the call. His own version was so damaging that he was still impeached.
Barr seems to have known the whistleblower complaint was bad news from the time he got wind of it. Once the intelligence community inspector general deemed the allegations in the complaint both urgent and credible, Congress would normally have been alerted. But it wasn’t, because the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion that overruled the inspector general and forced the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to withhold the complaint. Barr’s DOJ not only tried to keep the whistleblower complain out of sight, it declined to conduct a criminal investigation, concluding there was no crime because Trump hadn’t “sought a thing of value.”
It wasn’t until after the White House learned about the whistleblower complaint that Ukraine finally received the aid Congress had approved months earlier. Ukraine’s national security, which is tied to American’s national security, took a backseat to Trump’s re-election ambitions.
If none of this had come to light, it’s possible Ukraine may have given in. But the call did come to light.
Trump now takes credit for the aid Ukraine received and suggests that if he were president, Ukraine would be better off. Indeed, 62 percent of Americans believe Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if Trump were president. But believing Trump means putting aside reality. Trump is the president who demanded the translator’s notes after a 2017 conversation with Putin. He is the president who kept concealed, even in classified records, details of five face-to-face interactions with the Russian president from 2017 to 2019. Trump, over the course of his presidency, was increasingly hostile to NATO. At the same time, he was smitten with men like Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and Putin.
Trump is not the champion of besieged democracies. His initial instinct was to call Putin’s actions “genius” and characterize his description of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border as peacekeepers as “very savvy.”
We are fortunate Congress got wind of the whistleblower complaint and made it public. We are equally fortunate to have heard the testimony of people like Vindman and former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovich. But, while the House impeached Trump, the Senate acquitted him. Among Republicans, only Mitt Romney of Utah acknowledged the facts. The Republican Party gave Trump a pass.
And Trump was clearly emboldened by his acquittal, going on to concoct an election fraud fantasy — well before the election took place and it would have been possible to know fraud was occurring. His anger when he lost erupted into a tantrum that propelled a crowd toward the Capitol and violence on Jan. 6. Had he won, Trump could have fully denuded NATO and entered into once discussed joint cyber agreements with Moscow. We could have had a president who wouldn’t protest Putin’s Ukraine ambitions; after all, as Trump said originally, they were “smart.”
We could still have a return of that president, with Trump hinting once again over the weekend that he will be a candidate in 2024. The same Trump, with a desperate desire to retake the White House and a willingness to sacrifice national interests to get there. Americans’ memories have seemingly gotten shorter and shorter. But if we are to avoid future disaster, we cannot forget the events — the facts — of July 2019.