Since news of the whistleblower complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the framing of the Ukraine scandal has been straight-forward: Trump, in his official capacity as president, attempted to pressure a foreign leader into benefitting Trump’s political campaign. Indeed, the Key Findings section in House Intelligence Committee’s Report alone mentions Trump’s “personal political interests” seven times, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in calling on the House to draft articles of impeachment, stated, “The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit, at the expense of our national security.”
That framing, in one way, makes sense: bribery, which federal law defines as accepting a personal “thing of value” in exchange for an “official act,” is an express impeachable offense. But focusing solely on Trump’s personal benefit ignores an equally troubling aspect of the Ukraine scandal, one that could haunt U.S. foreign policy for years to come. In order to understand why, you have to explore the interests of another country: Russia.
The Ukraine and Russia scandals are often treated, even in Democratic circles, as two distinct acts of corruption. But in reality, one could not exist without the other — the effort to legitimize conspiracy theories in Ukraine grew out of the desire to cover-up Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and to obtain a license to do so again. Failing to understand those interests may imperil U.S. foreign policy long after President Trump is out of office.
One of the conspiracy theories pushed by President Trump in his call with the Ukrainian president — that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election — originated with individuals connected to Russian intelligence. According to the New York Times, American intelligence officials found that “Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election.” And according to Rick Gates’s testimony to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the theory was shared with the Trump Campaign when Wikileaks first began releasing Democratic National Committee emails over three years ago. The person who shared this theory, Konstantin Kilimnik, is an alleged Russian spy and central figure in the Mueller probe.
In June 2016, the Trump Campaign almost certainly had reason to believe it was Russia, not Ukraine, behind the hacking of the DNC. Two months earlier, George Papadopoulos infamously met with the Russian professor Joseph Mifsud, who told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The next day, Papadopoulos emailed Stephen Miller, noting that he had “interesting messages coming in from Moscow.” In May, he shared the news of “dirt” with an Australian diplomat, which sparked the FBI’s investigation into the Trump Campaign’s connections to Russia.
By the time President Trump spoke with President Zelensky about investigating the Ukraine-DNC theory, nearly every U.S. intelligence agency had concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. President Trump, however, kept pushing the theory, even using U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage. In one sense, this was undoubtedly a brazen attempt to obtain personal benefits in return for official acts—a hallmark impeachable offense. But in another, it was the culmination of a years-long operation by Russian intelligence, with President Trump leading the way.
As outlined above, President Trump’s corrupt effort to push the Ukraine-DNC theory in his call with President Zelensky pales in comparison to the concerted, three-year attempt by Russian intelligence to absolve itself of responsibility for meddling in a U.S. election. This was a Russia operation, not a Trump operation.
The consequences of that conclusion go far beyond the impeachment of one president. First, Russia’s attempts to frame Ukraine likely hinge on one of the original reasons for aiding President Trump’s 2016 campaign in the first place: sanctions. The Mueller Report clearly indicates that one of Russia’s chief motivations for interfering in the 2016 election was to remove U.S. sanctions. Members of the Trump Campaign discussed sanctions with Russians several times, including at the infamous Trump Tower meeting, during Carter Page’s trip to Russia in the summer of 2016, and following President Trump’s election, when Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador.
That motivation has not gone away — U.S. sanctions against Russia are still in place, and the incentive to have them removed has only grown. What the Ukraine scandal shows, then, is that the effort by Russia to influence U.S. foreign policy is very much an ongoing affair. By absolving itself of responsibility for meddling in the 2016 election, Russia seeks to achieve the same goal it sought through meddling in the first place: remove U.S. sanctions.
Secondly, by covering-up its actions in 2016 Russia paves the way to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. Russia did not invent the Ukraine-DNC theory for fun—it was to obstruct the truth about 2016 and, in turn, set the stage for 2020. In his testimony to Congress, Robert Mueller warned that Russians are planning to meddle in future U.S. elections “as we sit here,” and the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia may already be involved in “an active measures campaign targeted at the 2020 U.S. presidential election.”
Since 2016, the incentive for Russia to interfere in U.S. elections has only grown. New sanctions were put in place, and with evidence of Russia’s aggression now in clear-view, a Democratic president would have ample justification for taking a hard-line against Russian aggression in Syria, Ukraine and across the globe. Thus, at its heart, the Ukraine scandal is less about President Trump than about Russia: an ongoing act of political meddling to achieve the same goals Russia set out to achieve in 2016.
Finally, and most troubling, President Trump’s effort to push the Ukraine-DNC theory raises once again the question of whether President Trump is in some way compromised by Russia. Having learned of the Ukraine-DNC theory directly from Russian intelligence sources over three years ago, President Trump was knowingly pushing Russian propaganda, using American taxpayer dollars as leverage, in his call with President Zelensky. That inescapable reality, as a strictly counter-intelligence matter, cannot be ignored.
All of this brings back the unanswered questions about Mueller’s counter-intelligence report, and where it is. While the original Trump-Russia scandal may be closed as a criminal matter, it is in no way closed as a counter-intelligence matter. The Trump-Ukraine scandal serves as a stark reminder that Russian interests are still permeating their way into American politics, and that powerful Americans are actively aiding the effort.
The Ukraine-DNC theory was invented by Russian intelligence sources at least as early as June 2016, several months before President Trump was elected, and years before his reelection campaign would begin. The effort to use Ukraine as a cover-up for Russia’s foreign interference is about far more than Trump — it’s a yearlong effort to poison U.S. foreign policy on sanctions, Russian aggression towards Ukraine, and more, and to clear the way to interfere in the 2020 election.
Whether President Trump is impeached or not, one thing is certain: the effort by Russians to influence U.S. foreign policy is far from over, and very much ongoing. What began with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is now continuing with the effort to use Ukraine as a justification for further influencing U.S. policy at home and abroad. Ultimately, the Ukraine and Russia scandals will not occupy separate chapters in the history books – they will be part of the exact same story.