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Trump and Ukraine and America

John Bolton (left), who at the time was President Trump’s national-security adviser, and William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, lay wreaths at the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv, August 27, 2019. The wall commemorates soldiers who have died in the war against Russia in eastern Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)

This picture, above, I have published on this blog before. As the caption tells you, it shows John Bolton — who was in what turned out to be his final days as President Trump’s national-security adviser — laying a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv. Doing the same is William Taylor, who was acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as he is today, for a couple more weeks. The Wall of Remembrance commemorates Ukrainian servicemen who have died in the war against Russia in eastern Ukraine. (More than 4,000 names and faces are on that wall.)

Bolton and Taylor laid their wreaths in late August of this year. Over in France, Trump was attending the G7 summit. There, he repeatedly called for the readmission of Putin to the group. The Russian leader was suspended from the group in 2014 after he annexed Crimea and launched the war. The facts on the ground remain as they were.

The contrast between Bolton and Taylor in Kyiv, and their president in France, was striking.

I thought of the picture at the Wall of Remembrance when reading a report in the Wall Street Journal this week.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor was instructed by a top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hand over responsibilities for his post just days before Mr. Pompeo plans to visit the Ukrainian capital, according to a person familiar with the situation.

That timing countered earlier suggestions that Mr. Taylor’s precise departure date was predetermined, and will allow Mr. Pompeo to avoid meeting or being photographed with an ambassador who has drawn President Trump’s ire for his testimony in the congressional impeachment inquiry, according to this person and to Ukrainian officials.

Taylor is a strange person to be judged toxic. You would not have thought he had cooties. According to Wikipedia,

Taylor is a former captain and company commander in the United States Army; he served in the Vietnam War and earned a Bronze Star and an Air Medal with a V device for valor. He proceeded to work in the United States Department of Energy and then the Department of Defense. From 1992 to 2002, Taylor carried out diplomatic work for the United States with firstly Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, secondly Afghanistan, thirdly Iraq, and fourthly the Quartet on the Middle East. From 2006 to 2009, Taylor served as the United States ambassador to Ukraine under the George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration. He continued diplomatic work in the Middle East from 2011 to 2013.

Have a little more, from Wikipedia:

In 1965, Taylor graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Mount Vernon, Virginia after serving as president of his junior and senior class. Like his father, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, attaining the rank of cadet battalion commander and graduating in the top 1% of his class in 1969. The 1969 Howitzer yearbook notes his modesty about his many academic and athletic accomplishments, describing him as “a man who is held in the highest esteem and admiration by all of us.”

At a fundraiser this month, President Trump called two soldiers to be onstage with him. One had been convicted of war crimes and the other had been awaiting trial for the same. Trump pardoned them.

The president features such people at a fundraiser yet his secretary of state is squeamish about being photographed with Bill Taylor? That is a little weird.

Ukraine used to be a cause of Republicans and conservatives. I used to spy a linkage between three countries: Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine. They were countries whose very right to exist was questioned, and threatened. Republicans and conservatives felt particularly supportive of them.

In the new issue of National Review, I have a piece called “Ukraine and Us: A report from an anxious capital.” As I note in this piece, President George W. Bush went to Ukraine in April 2008, for the purpose of bolstering Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. He made clear that Putin should not have veto power over our alliance and its membership.

During the Maidan revolution of 2013–14, John McCain went to Kyiv to stand with democratic protesters who were putting their necks on the line. (In the end, approximately 100 of them would die.) “We are here to support your just cause,” McCain said, “the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently.” Last April, the Kyiv city council named a street after the late senator.

The GOP is different now, of course, led by Donald Trump. His hostility to Ukraine is palpable. It has affected Ukraine and it has affected him. The impeachment drama of recent days has featured Ukraine (much to the sorrow and distress of Ukrainians).

In my NR piece, I cite two Washington Post reports, and, yesterday, a third appeared — which I will get to in due course.

On October 21, the Post published a report headed “Putin and Hungary’s Orban helped sour Trump on Ukraine.” The report relied on U.S. officials both current and former. It said that the president’s conversations with Putin, Viktor Orban, and others “reinforced his perception of Ukraine as a hopelessly corrupt country — one that Trump now also appears to believe sought to undermine him in the 2016 U.S. election.”

Last May, Trump met with Orban in the Oval Office. After the meeting, Trump said, “It’s like we’re twins.” This remark was reported by the U.S. ambassador to Budapest, Trump’s longtime friend David Cornstein.

On November 2, the Washington Post published a report headed “A presidential loathing for Ukraine is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.” It said that “Trump’s animosity to Ukraine ran so deep and was so resistant to the typical foreign policy entreaties about the need to stand by allies that senior officials involved in Ukraine policy concluded that the only way to overcome it was to set up an Oval Office meeting with Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.”

Such a meeting has not taken place. On December 10, however, Trump did meet Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. Lavrov is the Russian foreign minister. This meeting pained and bewildered many Ukrainians: Lavrov is not even a head of state or government. It is very rare for an American president to grant a one-on-one meeting with a foreign minister in the Oval Office. And Lavrov, of course, represents the country that has invaded and is warring against Ukraine.

On December 11, the day after the meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on what had taken place. “This is an important moment,” he said. “The very fact that the Russian minister was received by the U.S. president is an important point, of course.”

Oh, yes. If you were Ukrainian, what would you think? What would you conclude?

In that November report, the Washington Post further said that Trump “peppered Volker” – Kurt Volker, who was U.S. special representative for Ukraine — “with his negative views of Ukraine, suggesting that it wasn’t a ‘real country,’ that it had always been a part of Russia, and that it was ‘totally corrupt.’”

Let me quote now from my NR piece:

Here in Kyiv, one prominent lady tells me that Westerners are hopelessly, dismayingly naïve about Putin and the Kremlin. They are especially naïve about the money that Russia spreads around. It buys a lot. Another prominent lady, on a separate occasion, makes an impassioned statement to me — a furious statement, full of righteous indignation: “People in America buy the Putin narrative and repeat it. ‘Ukraine is just a sh**hole country, a corrupt country, not a real country.’ They say we basically speak Russian and really belong to Russia. It’s all a pack of lies, coming straight from the Kremlin, and you guys believe it. Disgusting.” (In 2018, word got out that Trump had spoken of “sh**hole countries” in the context of immigration to America. Many around the world are aware of the phrase.)

Some more from my piece:

Mention CrowdStrike to people, and, if they have heard of it, they don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Many times, Trump has said that CrowdStrike is “a Ukrainian company,” owned by an oligarch. The theory holds that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity company, ingeniously pinned the hacking on Russia. “The server” is hidden somewhere in Ukraine right now. Etc.

As Tom Bossert, the president’s first homeland-security adviser, said on television last September, this theory has been “completely debunked.” CrowdStrike is, in fact, an American company, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. It was founded in 2011 by three Americans: George Kurtz, Dmitri Alperovitch, and Gregg Marston. The second of those, true, was born in Russia — the Soviet Union, actually (Moscow, 1980). With his family, he emigrated to America when he was a teenager. They lived in Chattanooga. Dmitri went to Georgia Tech.

CrowdStrike, incidentally, is retained by the National Republican Congressional Committee. It seems to be a cybersecurity company of choice.

Some more:

On November 20, Vladimir Putin sounded a triumphant, satisfied note. Speaking to a forum in Moscow, he said, “Thank God, no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.” The next day, Fiona Hill testified before Congress. She is a Russianist, formerly on President Trump’s National Security Council staff. “Based on questions and statements I have heard,” she said, “some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

Now to the new Washington Post report, published yesterday. It is headed “Former White House officials say they feared Putin influenced the president’s views on Ukraine and 2016 campaign.” The report is based on interviews with 15 former administration and government officials.

An excerpt:

After meeting privately in July 2017 with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Trump grew more insistent that Ukraine worked to defeat him, according to multiple former officials familiar with his assertions.

The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

One former senior White House official said Trump even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”

Two other former officials said the senior White House official described Trump’s comment to them.

Some more:

John Kelly, who served as Trump’s chief of staff from mid-2017 until the end of 2018, marveled to other aides that Trump expressed far less skepticism of Putin, whom Trump sometimes called “my friend,” than other leaders, said a former senior White House official.

Some more:

In the wake of Hamburg, top leaders were dispatched to try to convince him that Russia interfered in the campaign. On different occasions, Kelly asked Bossert, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and his principal deputy, Sue Gordon, to brief the president on the intelligence community’s Russia assessment, said former officials with knowledge of the briefings.

They did not convince him.

A year after Trump met Putin in Hamburg, they reconvened at a summit in Helsinki. After his one-on-one with the Russian president, Trump expressed doubt that the Kremlin interfered in the campaign.

“My people came to me, Daniel Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said at a joint news conference, standing beside the Russian leader. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server.”

Intelligence officials were stunned that Trump would publicly side with Putin over his own advisers.

Stunned is the word. I myself am stunned. How anyone can be un-stunned is hard for me to comprehend.

Two days ago, the British ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, tweeted, “After 4 months in #Ukraine what have I learned? That the sheer resilience and determination of Ukrainians to own their future and build a strong and inclusive country deserves all our support.” That is traditional Western diplomacy, well expressed by our cousins. But it is not enough. America is the ballgame, for better or worse.