When President Donald Trump decided to stop sending millions of dollars in much-needed military assistance to Ukraine — money that Congress had appropriated for exactly that purpose — he was just acting like a businessman, not wanting to write a check until he got what he wanted.
That was the rationalization Bill Taylor, the Trump administration’s top diplomat in Ukraine, heard more than once about Trump’s clear quid pro quo: U.S. security assistance to Ukraine would only start flowing again unless and until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly committed to launching investigations into Trump’s political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Zelensky needed to “pay up.”
U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland rationalized Trump’s extortion plan this way on a September 8 phone call with Taylor.
“When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, [Sondland] said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check,” according to Taylor’s opening statement.
Taylor noted that former U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker had used the same language days later, raising the question: Where were Volker and Sondland getting this talking point?
Each time he heard this cockamamie explanation, Taylor tried to explain that it made no sense.
“The Ukrainians did not ‘owe’ President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was ‘crazy,’” Taylor testified.
While the businessman-signing-a-check analogy does not begin to exonerate Trump, which seems to be its original intention, it does provide the clearest distillation of Trump’s worldview, and, evidently, his approach to Ukraine: Everything is transactional. Everything. And problems can be solved with money — either giving it or taking it away (or promising but never giving it).
Trump has been dangling and withholding money to get what he wants throughout his business career and it remains his go-to tactic in the White House. In private life, he appeared to see no difference in transactions involving his personal interests and the interests of the Trump Organization or his charity. Now that he’s in the White House, he approaches the world in the same way: his personal interests come first, always.
Trump wrote checks to reimburse his lawyer Michael Cohen, who had written checks to Stormy Daniels so that she would keep quiet during the campaign about the extramarital affair she had with Trump.
The Trump administration threatened to withhold highway funding from California because it didn’t like the more aggressive clean air rules it was trying to implement. Trump froze security aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador earlier this year to pressure them to sign agreements that would allow the U.S. to send migrants to those countries.
For Trump, the Ukraine situation is no different. He wants the Ukrainian government to do something, so he’s just going to threaten them with money until they acquiesce.
The difference is that unlike the women he’s paid off or the subcontractors he’s threatened throughout his career, U.S. security assistance is not Trump’s personal money to give and withhold. It’s taxpayers’ money that only Congress has the authority to appropriate.
And, although Trump’s overreliance on monetary threats to get what he wants from countries and states in terms of policy — whether it’s immigration or deregulation — feels extortionist, it falls within his authority as president. He is able to make these types of threats to get the policy outcomes he wants.
But the Ukraine story is not that. Investigating Biden, or his son’s role at the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, has nothing to do with U.S. policy or foreign policy objectives. Its sole purpose is to hurt his political rival and benefit Trump personally. And withholding U.S. security assistance, which Ukraine desperately needs while it’s at war with Russia, goes against U.S. interests. That’s why no one on Trump’s Cabinet supported the move, and as Taylor testified, were frantically trying to get Trump to change his mind.
But for Trump, this is just doing business, which shows just how completely unable he is to separate himself and his personal interests from his role as the head of the U.S. government. They are one and the same. Congressionally appropriated taxpayer dollars are his to do with as he pleases. Asking a foreign government to investigate his political rival is good for the United States because it’s good for Trump. “L’état, c’est moi.”
What Sondland and Volker overlooked when they tried to rationalize to Taylor that this Ukraine situation was just Trump operating as a businessman, was that Trump is notorious for never paying his bills.
And Taylor was clearly worried that Trump might not make good on his promise even if Ukraine agreed to publicly commit to investigating Burisma and the Bidens. In a text sent to Sondland and Volker just days before the whistleblower complaint was sent to Congress, he said, “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”