In the annals of presidential telephone communications, President Trump’s call to his Ukrainian counterpart is one that is fast making its way into the history books. It lays bare the fact that under President Trump, personal fixations and pet conspiracy theories have reduced the country’s diplomacy to just another political battlefield, one that probably will complicate the work of U.S. diplomats for years to come.
The call likely will cause an already complex, bilateral relationship to become even more so. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have sought to keep Ukraine out of American politics, to ensure that unity, independence and democracy are preserved. That will be harder in the future.
Ukraine is of great importance to the United States. Given its size and location, the largest of the former Soviet Union’s 15 republics with the exception of Russia itself, it can be argued that the “breadbasket of Europe,” as Ukraine has been known throughout its history for it grain production, represents a major U.S. interest — among our most important bilateral relationships in the world.
I served in Poland as ambassador in the early 2000s and it was hard to imagine a discussion with foreign policy peers in which the outlook for Ukraine’s troubled democracy did not come up. As a Polish foreign minister summed it up for me: “Without Ukraine, Russia is just Russia. With Ukraine, it is once again the Soviet Union.”
The United States and European countries have sent some of their best diplomats and poured assistance into Ukraine with the hope of strengthening its institutions and assuring its viability as a newly independent state. In recent years, even though President Trump has expressed great skepticism and pessimism about Ukraine, his administration has gone further in helping Ukraine by doing what previous administrations were reluctant to do — provide lethal military assistance to assist Ukraine in resisting Russian aggression. A decision of that kind needs broad support and constant nourishment within the United States. It needs bipartisanship if it is to succeed in its purpose.
President Trump, for whom all politics and diplomacy seem to be a personal mission, has enjoyed great popularity, especially from his base, for being the “disruptor in chief” and for doing things “outside the box.” But sometimes the box is there for a reason.
On any given day, the State Department routinely tracks over 180 bilateral relationships the U.S. has around the world. Most of these are handled within appropriate geographic bureaus — usually in close coordination with other agencies, National Security Council staff and U.S. embassies, the country’s eyes and ears — led by the ambassadors in the field.
When a president makes a call to a foreign leader, it triggers a bureaucratic process whose purpose is to make sure the president is well prepared on the issues. Often these calls are highly scripted with talking points cleared by several agencies. If the subject is military assistance, the State Department and the Department of Defense, at a minimum, typically will clear what the president is to say. He is, after all, a chief executive, not a dictator.
None of these time-honored procedures seems to have been followed when President Trump talked with President Volodymyr Zelensky in July. It is equally clear that the Ukraine call had little to do with Ukraine policy. Depending on what emerges from the investigations, President Trump appears to have purposely withheld millions of tax dollars of military aid beforehand, in an effort to demand from Ukraine’s new president the “favor” of looking up dirt against his putative opponent in the 2020 presidential election, former vice president Joe Biden.
President Trump insists he did nothing wrong, though his own White House readout of the call suggests otherwise. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined in the politics, with a distasteful attack on the Obama administration, suggesting while the Trump administration sent Ukraine weapons with which to defend themselves, the Obama administration sent only blankets, a gross and misleading understatement of President Obama’s efforts to shore up Ukraine and an injection of partisan politics beneath the dignity of the secretary’s office.
The inappropriateness of President Trump’s requested favor was not the only part of the call to go awry. Apparently, Presidents Zelensky and Trump thought it a good opportunity to take a few swipes at the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, a widely respected career diplomat. President Zelensky suggested to President Trump that the ambassador supported his opponent in the campaign; Trump indulged the view that she, and presumably other members of the career Foreign Service, was an “Obama holdover,” a favorite epithet of his.
As for President Zelensky, a political novice, it is not the first time that an incoming head of state — in this case, a former professional comedian — might have felt that a U.S. ambassador had not done enough to demonstrate impartiality. But what makes the call so unusual is not the complete lack of evidence to back President Zelensky’s accusation but the fact that, rather than backing his own person in the field, President Trump indicated he agreed with his counterpart, calling Ambassador Yovanovitch “bad news.”
Whether the president is impeached, and ultimately convicted for abuse of power, or whatever else may come of this, America needs to do a better job of standing up for its institutions and the people who work in them. This political crisis is not just about President Trump; it really is more about the rest of us. Our democracy did not grow out of the soil. It comes from our institutions and laws. Among these institutions is a cadre of professional diplomats who are some of the best in the world. President Trump should try to acquaint himself with that fact, rather than tear them down in front of foreign leaders.
The world is closely watching, to be sure, but one senses that we have emboldened our enemies and thoroughly discouraged our friends.