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Everything Bad About the Trump-Zelensky Call That Had Nothing to Do with Biden

A short memo that is long on head-scratching moments.
September 26, 2019
Everything Bad About the Trump-Zelensky Call That Had Nothing to Do with Biden
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Trump-Zelensky phone call memorandum shows during his call with the recently elected president of a country that is struggling with a civil war stemming from an illegal invasion and military annexation by Russia, Donald Trump bashed an American ambassador, overrode normal diplomatic procedures, created a diplomatic backchannel, attacked our allies, and allowed himself to treated like a child by his counterpart, all in hopes of digging up dirt on a political opponent.

There is a saying that, in Washington, nobody ever looks second best in their own memoranda. Donald Trump just broke this longstanding tradition. In the declassified memo of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he looks terrible on all accounts, including how he was treated by Zelensky.

Zelensky shamelessly kissed up to Trump, agreeing with everything the U.S. president said and more. Trump bashed the former prosecutor, and Zelensky doubles down. Trump bashes the Europeans, and Zelensky agrees. In a particularly cringeworthy moment, Zelensky mentions that he was staying at the Trump Tower when he was staying in New York City. Of course, this kissing up works like a charm.

The charge that the Europeans don’t do anything for Ukraine is also a lie. The European Union has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in aid since 2014. Germany, separately, has provided Ukraine with hundreds of millions of dollars during the same timeline. 

One of the worst scenes of the conversation is Trump’s bashing of Marie Yovanovitch (misspelled Ivanovich in the memo), who left her post as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine the same day Zelensky was inaugurated. Yovanovitch is a foreign service officer at the State Department who was an ambassador during the Bush, the Obama, and the Trump administrations. She defined her mission in Ukraine by pressuring the Ukrainian government to fight corruption. Zelensky mentioned that Ambassador Yovanovitch had a bad attitude toward him and admired the previous president of Ukraine. This is another moment of appeasement. Her last major act before leaving her mission was providing an uncharacteristically sharp and public criticism for then-President Poroshenko over his failure to fight corruption.

What does all of this tell you? Foreign leaders treat the president of the United States as a child, and Donald Trump responds positively to it.

After Zelensky mentions that Yovanovitch had a bad attitude towards him, as written in the memo, Trump says, “Well, she’s going to go through some things.” Donald Trump is promising a foreign leader that he will make sure that an American career foreign service officer will be penalized for being mean to a foreign leader!

Then, Trump continues, “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.” Again, weird! Giuliani is a private citizen and Trump’s personal lawyer. Bill Barr is the attorney general of the United States and not a diplomat. Why exactly are these two particular men going to engage in backchannel diplomacy with the Ukrainian president, instead of Yovanovitch’s successor or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo?

In a surreal scene, Zelensky makes a desperate attempt to engage in a substantive discussion. He brings up cooperation on energy policy—energy policy was one of the disputed issues that triggered the Ukraine revolution in 2014, which led to the present crisis. It flies over Trump’s head, and he returns to “I’ll have Rudy and Barr call you.”

Trump’s comment that Ukraine is not reciprocal in its relationship with the United States is also baloney.  America is not providing assistance to Ukraine out of pure altruism. We are doing it because it is in our interest to keep Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence limited.

Everybody should cut Zelensky some slack. He is in a tough position. He is in desperate need of American help in the face of an existential crisis. What is Donald Trump’s excuse?

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.