“Play Ball”: Why the Panic Over a Trump-Zelenskyy White House Meeting?

A stream of text messages released last night by three House committees shows U.S. diplomats and the new Ukrainian president’s aides scrambling to respond to President Donald Trump’s demand for investigations of Joe Biden and the 2016 election. It illustrates the weight they all placed on a single meeting: an Oval Office tete-a-tete between the two presidents. The prospect that President Trump was holding back $391 million of military aid to Ukraine until his counterpart committed to these investigations was devastating enough for a country struggling to fend off well-equipped Russian-backed forces on its eastern flank. But why the laser focus, in the runup to the July 25 Trump-Zelenskyy phone call and afterwards, on a meeting? And what hangs in the balance, now that U.S. aid has been maintained but no White House meeting has been scheduled?

The symbolism of a foreign leader meeting with the U.S. president in the White House sends an unmistakable signal worldwide — to the leader’s domestic constituencies and to friends and foes alike — that the country has the backing of the most powerful nation on earth.

Not only was that an important message for Volodymyr Zelenskyy to show his citizens as their new president. It was a critical signal to send to Russia – that the United States still has Ukraine’s back in its existential fight against Vladimir Putin’s efforts to control Ukraine. Trump’s stonewalling effectively threatened to overturn decades of U.S. policy of supporting Ukraine’s emergence after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now with the Brookings Institution, said he believes Zelenskyy wanted a meeting with Trump “because, as for previous Ukrainian presidents, a meeting with the American president is good for Zelenskyy’s domestic standing and also sends a useful message to Russia.”

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor and appointee, might have been hinting at the risk of an about-turn on U.S. policy toward Ukraine – and by extension, more favorable conditions for Russia – when he pressed on July 21 for the Ukrainians to mollify Trump to score the meeting with the U.S. president. In a text to Bill Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, serving again as the chargé d’affaires in Kyiv, Sondland wrote, “We need to get the conversation started and the relationship built irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”

These exchanges indicate the criticality of such meetings – an opportunity for a foreign leader not only to send useful signals externally, but also to work out deals for U.S. support and to build a personal rapport with their U.S. counterpart that can become helpful in crafting mutually beneficial policies down the road. Former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker’s prepared remarks to Congress are replete with references to the value he placed on Trump’s meeting with Zelenskyy in person.

What might the two leaders discuss specifically? U.S. support would be vital as Ukraine seeks billions more dollars in financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund, and on foreign policy issues such as the dispute over the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which the U.S. has helped Ukraine fight because it would allow Germany to double its gas imports from Russia and do so without transiting Ukraine, thus leaving Ukraine vulnerable to the Kremlin’s whims over gas supplies.

Contrary signs that U.S. support for Ukraine was waning in the face of continued Russian aggression also would fly in the face of the U.S. intelligence community’s repeated assessments in recent years that Russia is one of the top geostrategic threats facing the United States, and that Ukraine is an important player on the front line.

“Russia will continue its military, political, and economic destabilization campaign against Ukraine to try to stymie Kyiv’s efforts to integrate with the EU and strengthen ties to NATO,” the intelligence community determined in its January assessment.

“The United States has been the most important partner for Ukraine in helping it defend against continued Russian incursion,” Alina Polyakova, the founding director of the Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology at the Brookings Institution, told Just Security. “In addition, continued American diplomatic support, in terms of voicing the importance for Ukrainian sovereignty and working with allies in Europe to maintain sanctions on Russia, has been key for facilitating international consensus.”

Ben Hodges, a retired three-star general who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe, said to the Los Angeles Times recently: “Ukrainian soldiers are getting killed every week” to defend the sovereignty of a European country. With any breakdown of U.S.-Ukraine relations, “the Russians will exploit that immediately,” he said.

Pro-Ukraine members of the Trump administration such as Taylor and Volker accordingly saw the $391 million of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine as integrally connected to a potential White House meeting. Trump’s unwillingness to meet with Zelenskyy would be a sign of whether he ultimately might be willing to release the aid.

That was a dynamic at play most of the summer, before the July 25 phone call and afterwards. Zelenskyy once had every reason to think the United States would welcome his presidency. U.S. officials, after all, had soured on his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, whose administration for years had stalled or slow-walked critical reforms, even as it seemed to focus on the war with Russia in eastern Ukraine. But now, the United States, in the form of its president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, seemed to be setting an opposite condition – that Ukraine’s new leadership allow itself to be extorted by agreeing to an unwarranted investigation of the U.S. president’s political rival in exchange for aid and the White House’s diplomatic support.

The text messages released on Thursday show that, after the July 25 phone call, Volker, who testified to the House committees behind closed doors this week, and Sondland seemed to be working with an aide to Zelenskyy to draft a statement from the Ukrainian president agreeing to open a range of investigations. The objective was apparently to mollify Trump by suggesting that Ukraine would indeed investigate the company where Biden’s son, Hunter, had served on the board and to investigate matters involving the 2016 election. But the Ukrainian leader apparently backed away from any such agreement, for fear it would look like capitulation to a corrupt proposal and interference in a U.S. presidential election.

Trump had pressed vigorously for the Biden investigation in the July 25 call. At the same time, it had become clear to the State Department, the Defense Department and others in the administration that the White House had placed an inexplicable hold on the military assistance, most of which had been announced in June.

Taylor forced the point when he wrote to Sondland on Sept. 1, “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland clearly didn’t want to respond in writing. “Call me,” he replied.

And on Sept. 9, Taylor wrote to Sondland, “The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario.”

Taylor clearly believed by that point that a quid pro quo was in play. In the same set of messages, Taylor wrote to Sondland, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” The next morning, Sondland replies formally, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign[.] I suggest we stop the back and forth by text[.] If you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly,” he wrote referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his executive secretary. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that, days earlier, Sondland confided in Senator Ron Johnson (R. Wis.) that the aid was directly tied to the investigation to Ukraine’s investigation of the 2016 election.

Trump finally released the aid on Sept. 11, after a bipartisan uproar in Congress when news of the aid suspension became public on Aug. 28, and after three House committees on Sept. 9 launched an investigation of the Trump and Giuliani pressure campaign. Today, the new prosecutor general appointed by Zelenskyy announced that his office would conduct an audit of all investigations under his predecessor, including those involving the firm where Joe Biden’s son, Hunter served on the board, to determine where “illegal procedural decisions were taken.” The prosecutor noted that the audit did not constitute a reopening of investigations.

Zelenskyy finally got a meeting with Trump on Sept. 25, but on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly’s opening sessions in New York. He was still angling for the White House meeting. In a press conference with Trump after their New York meeting, Zelenskyy took the opportunity to drop a hint publicly. He thanked Trump for an invitation the U.S. president apparently had mentioned in their private meeting, and then added with a smile, “But I think you forgot to tell me the date.”

Trump paused, and the audience chuckled awkwardly. Trump, still noncommittal, then pointed to his staff and said, “They’ll tell you the date.” Another sprinkling of laughter.

No such meeting has been scheduled.

IMAGE: US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.  (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).