How Trump's Ukraine policy was shaped by conversations with Vladimir Putin

How Trump's Ukraine policy was shaped by conversations with Vladimir Putin
Putin Screengrab

Donald Trump knows all the best people. You can tell because 80% of his top advisers and an astounding 146 White House officials have either resigned or been fired. That includes every one of “his generals” that Trump proudly announced in 2017. With nine out of 10 top positions at Homeland Security sitting empty, and 245 executive positions without even a nominee … maybe it’s not surprising that Trump leans on a few trusted advisers to determine his foreign policy. People he can really trust. People like Vladimir Putin.


As The Washington Post reports, it was in conversations with Putin and Hungarian hard-right leader Viktor Orban that Trump was convinced to take a “hostile view” of Ukraine. Putin, the head of what is undoubtedly the world’s largest criminal syndicate, and Orban, an autocratic white nationalist whose 13 years in power have come with increasing assaults on democracy (and a strong dose of anti-Semitism), convinced Trump that Ukraine was so corrupt that it could not be trusted.

Their perceptions of Ukraine reinforced information Trump was getting spoon-fed through Rudy Giuliani, which in turn was coming to Giuliani through associates of convicted oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Even as U.S. officials on the ground, State Department experts, and White House advisers were urging Trump to strongly support the newly elected government of President Volodymyr Zelensky and provide support to a critical U.S. ally, Trump instead tried to exploit Ukraine for his personal political benefit. Because Trump’s worldview was that of Putin, Orban, and Firtash, he simply viewed the government in Kyiv as a tool he could manipulate.

On May 3, days after Zelensky’s election, Trump turned to Putin for guidance on how to deal with the new Ukrainian leader. When Putin fed back to Trump a stream of disdain, that colored exactly the path Trump took in his dealings with the Ukrainian government. It’s why Ambassador William Taylor warned in July, “President Zelensky is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington reelection politics.” Because that’s exactly how Trump was treating it.

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said when she stood up and confronted Trump over the Ukraine scandal, “With you, all roads lead to Putin.”

That May phone call to Putin came as Orban was about to meet with Trump in D.C. over the objections of both Congress and members of Trump’s own staff. Orban was viewed, correctly, as an enemy of NATO, disruptive to setting a common European policy on immigration, and increasingly clamping down on the press and democratic institutions. But all those things only made the Hungarian leader more attractive to Trump.

Just as when he met with Putin overseas, Trump insisted on no one else being present for his meeting with Orban. There are no transcripts of that meeting, not even any notes. Exactly what the Hungarian autocrat said to Trump isn’t clear, but, coming out of that meeting, Trump had soured toward Ukraine even further.

Following the Putin call and the Orban meeting, Trump increased the pressure to force Ukraine to manufacture political dirt on Joe Biden and fulfill political fantasies about the 2016 election and Hillary Clinton’s mythical missing server. It was at that point that Giuliani and his Firtash-sponsored crew ramped up their efforts to lean on officials, and Trump’s diplomatic team made getting an announcement about an investigation into Biden a clear requirement of any relationship with the United States.

Even if all roads don’t lead to Putin, he certainly helped to pave this one.

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