- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban helped fuel President Donald Trump’s perception that Ukraine is “poisoned” by corruption in the weeks leading up to a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a report from The Washington Post.
- Trump during the call urged Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, which is why the conversation is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
- Trump’s willingness to listen to dictators like Putin and Orban is part of a broader trend, and in this case it’s apparently helped spark a scandal threatening to upend his presidency.
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President Donald Trump’s tendency to listen to some of the world’s most repressive leaders has helped spark a scandal that poses an existential threat to his presidency.
Trump’s perception of Ukraine as a country “poisoned” by rampant corruption and his related efforts to use it as a conduit for digging up dirt on a political opponent were influenced by conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, current and former US officials told The Washington Post.
Putin and Orban — a far right, xenophobic leader with close ties to the Kremlin — reportedly sought to erode US-Ukraine ties in the weeks that led up to a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that’s now at the center of an impeachment inquiry into the US president.
During the phone call, Trump urged Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The call sparked a whistleblower complaint from a US intelligence official that accuses Trump of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.” The complaint, in turn, catalyzed the House impeachment inquiry in late September.
Putin and Orban helped ‘sour’ Trump on Zelensky
Putin and Orban did not explicitly push Trump to ask Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden, The Post reported, nor did they endorse a wild conspiracy theory to discredit the Russia probe that was also mentioned on the call. Trump was influenced heavily by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in this regard.
But George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said in testimony before House impeachment investigators last week that Trump’s conversations with Putin and Orban helped “sour” Trump on Zelensky by the time they spoke in late July, The Post reported.
Trump has defended his urging of Ukraine to investigate Biden by citing corruption issues in the country. As part of the Ukraine scandal, Trump has faced accusations of a quid pro quo for holding up military aid to Kiev just several days before the phone call. In an inconsistent series of defenses over this, the Trump administration has also pointed to concerns over corruption.
Last week, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney ignited a political firestorm after confirming the holding up of roughly $400 million in military aid was part of a quid pro quo to influence Zelensky to investigate Democrats over the conspiracy theory Trump mentioned during the July 25 phone call. Mulvaney has since sought to walk back those comments.
Zelensky, a former comedian and TV star, was elected in a landslide in April and Trump congratulated him in a phone call shortly thereafter — prior to the call that’s led to the impeachment inquiry.
In the time between the April 21 election and Zelensky’s May 20 inauguration, Trump spoke with Putin on the phone and hosted Orban at the White House. During that period, Trump recalled the US ambassador to Ukraine, a move that’s drawn significant attention in the impeachment inquiry, and prevented Vice President Mike Pence from going to Ukraine to attend Zelensky’s inauguration.
In the May phone call with Putin, the Russian leader “did what he always does” and told Trump that Ukraine is a “den of corruption,” a former US official familiar with the conversation told The Post.
As Trump turned to Putin for “guidance” on Zelensky, the former KGB officer reportedly portrayed the newly-elected Ukrainian leader as an inept former comedian who’s linked to an oligarch on bad terms with Moscow. It’s conceivable Putin was referencing Ihor Kolomoisky — a Ukrainian oligarch who owned the TV station that aired the show that made Zelensky famous. Zelensky ran on an anti-corruption platform, and has faced criticism over his ties to Kolomoisky.
When Trump met with Orban in mid-May, he referred to the nationalistic, anti-immigration leader as “highly respected all over Europe.” Orban has been widely derided as an enemy to civil liberties. His visit to DC began with an hour-long meeting with Trump in which no note-takers were present, according to what officials told The Post, and it “solidified” the US president’s negative view of Zelensky.
Both Putin and Orban have political reasons to denigrate Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are engaged in an ongoing, violent conflict with the Ukrainian government, which is why the US has provided military aid.
Meanwhile, Orban’s disdain for Ukraine is linked to a long-running geopolitical dispute in the region and allegations of the mistreatment of a Hungarian ethnic minority in the country.
Trump has made a habit of trusting dictators
Trump’s attempt to exploit Ukraine for political purposes appears to have largely been a product of his own inclinations and influence from Giuliani, but his willingness to listen to dictators like Orban and Putin has also apparently played a role in this escalating scandal.
And this would not be the first time Trump has allowed dubious leaders to get into his head — including Putin.
Trump, for example, appeared to side with Putin over the US intelligence community on the subject of Russian election interference when the two leaders met in Helsinki, Finland, in July 2018.
Trump also took North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s word that he didn’t know about the circumstances leading to the disturbing death of a US student, Otto Warmbier, shortly after he was released from imprisonment in the rogue state. Warmbier’s parents issued a scathing response, stating, “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”
Trump has also accepted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assertion that he did not order the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi national who was killed by Saudi government agents in Istanbul last October. The CIA has reportedly concluded that the Saudi crown prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, ordered the killing. Khashoggi had been critical of the Saudi crown prince and the Saudi royal family in his writings prior to his death at the hands of members of his own government.
Of all the presidents of the modern era, there’s virtually no comparison to Trump when it comes to exhibiting trust for and lavishing praise on authoritarian leaders. In many instances, Trump has treated strongmen with abhorrent records on human rights with more respect than traditional US allies.
In the case of Ukraine, this has backfired in a massive way. Instead of listening to advisers who urged Trump to show support for Ukraine amid ongoing aggression from Russia, the president seemingly listened to dictators who sought to undermine the relationship to their own advantage. This is now part of the array of factors in a convoluted controversy that threatens to upend Trump’s presidency.