Donald Trump didn’t just threaten the president of Ukraine in order to get him to go after Joe Biden. Trump put the squeeze on Volodymyr Zelensky at least a week before he called, just to be sure that the newly elected leader would know Trump was serious about stranding an ally. And he did it at a time when Ukraine desperately needed what Trump was holding back.
As The Washington Post reports and CNN has confirmed, Trump told acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to clamp down on $400 million in military aid at least a week before he got on the phone with Zelensky to mention—eight times—that he wanted an investigation opened into Joe Biden and his son. It’s “at least a week” because sources have reported that Mulvaney relayed Trump’s order to place an unjustified hold on the already-approved funds at a mid-July conference. But Trump may have already decided to make this move sooner—because Rudy Giuliani had proven to be ineffective at bullying people in Ukraine into playing ball with Trump.
Early in May, Giuliani announced that he had a Ukrainian former prosecutor who was willing to testify that Biden had acted inappropriately. This result, coming after several failures, excited Giuliani to the point where he had Trump place a personal call to the prosecutor to express his gratitude and tell him how important it was that he give Giuliani what he wanted. But by the middle of that month, the prosecutor admitted that it was all a lie—that he was simply currying favor with Trump and Giuliani.
By the end of May, it was clear that Giuliani had burned his bridges in Ukraine. No one there wanted to talk to him, he had no real connections to the incoming government, and his quest to create a Biden scandal—a quest greatly aided by The New York Times’ willingness to give him a place to spout his claims—had come up dry. If Trump was going to get the dirt he wanted, he was going to need to change gears.
So Donald Trump turned to the kind of tactic he had used in his business dealings. If Ukrainian officials wouldn’t give him what he wanted when he asked “nicely,” Trump would just turn up the heat by holding back aid that had already been approved by Congress, reviewed by the military, and approved to go. Meanwhile, at about the same time that Trump told Mulvaney to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, Russian forces opened a fresh offensive. And Ukrainian soldiers were dying on their own soil.
The word that funds were blocked reached Ukraine, where officials were “blindsided” by the move. With Russia already sitting in Crimea and Russian soldiers masquerading as rebels launching dozens of attacks in the Donbass region, the decision to hold up aid affected Ukrainian morale and plans. Early in September, Ukraine actually pulled back from many positions, ceding ground to the Russian forces. Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo A. Klimkin, who was in the position in August, commented concerning Trump’s decision, “At the end of the day, the only ones who will be happy about that are the people sitting in the Kremlin.”
That seems to be true of a lot of things related to Trump.