Could Trump have prevented Ukraine war? Some say he complicated things

Antonio Fins
Palm Beach Post

In emails, rallies and broadcast interviews, former President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted he would have prevented Russia's brutal invasion of neighboring Ukraine if he were still in the Oval Office.

The boasting, however, overlooks Trump's sordid Ukraine policy, which was mired in scandal and led to a constitutional crisis. Namely, an impeachment that drew a field of Floridians into the spotlight, from Rudy Giuliani to Boca Raton businessman Lev Parnas, to Congresswoman Val Demings to former Attorney General Pam Bondi. 

John Bolton (left), who served as former president Donald Trump's national security adviser, said don't expect Trump to go on a peace-negotiating trip to Moscow. "He's not capable of it," Bolton said. "This would require thinking through a policy and considering the pluses and minuses, the risks and costs involved. That's just not what he does."

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In interviews, officials and experts who closely watched what transpired in 2019 question whether Trump aggravated what was already a volatile international affairs challenge on the European continent by withholding military aid, roping Ukraine into domestic U.S. politics, guilt-by-association smearing of the country's new president and denigration of the NATO alliance.

"I think all contributed to a precarious status for Ukraine, which would have continued in a second term [for Trump]," said former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

In 1994, U.S., London, Moscow agreed to safeguard Ukraine's sovereignty

The U.S. showed support for Ukraine in 2014, support that continued for years until "the phone call."

The goal of the July 2019 phone call, in which Trump said he "perfectly" stated U.S. views, was a desire by Trump for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to probe corruption conspiracies about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his family.

Dissatisfied with Zelenskyy's non-compliance, Trump froze $250 million in security aid to Ukraine and did not invite Zelenskyy to the White House.

That military aid, however, was part of a long-term commitment. 

In 1994, Washington, along with London and Moscow, had agreed to safeguard Ukraine's sovereignty in the so-called Budapest Memorandum. In return, Kyiv agreed to give up its Soviet Union-era nuclear weapons.

Twenty years later, Vladimir Putin's regime trampled over the Budapest accord by illegally annexing Crimea and fostering a separatist uprising in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. 

In response, the United States imposed punitive measures as part of "a pretty ambitious program of support for Ukraine," including military assistance that included hardware and training, said Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

"That's kind of the starting gun," Kupchan said of the 2014 measures. "And that effort stood alongside the efforts of our European allies ... That's kind of what the picture looks like before Trump takes office."

The picture got really blurred after the phone call between the presidents.

"The loser in this sort of political swirl was Ukraine, in the sense that the country was being treated in a purely instrumental way to further the political interest of President Trump," said Kupchan, who teaches at Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government.

Furthermore, Kupchan said the episode was "demeaning" to Zelenskyy in having his nation treated as a "kind of political instrument" by the United States, which was "twisting his arm, effectively extorting" political dirt.

"It put the government in Kyiv in an awkward position," he said.

Trump insists he would have stopped "unnecessary" and "tragic" Ukraine invasion

From left, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, and President Donald Trump sit together during a meeting with Caribbean leaders at Mar-A Lago Friday in Palm Beach.

That's not the version of events Trump has been painting over the past two months via statements from his Save America PAC and in public appearances.

Trump has called the hostilities "a horribly tragic and unnecessary war." But many of his references to Ukraine have been couched in personal grievances. Others, such as again referring to Putin as "smart," appear out of step with U.S. public opinion.

On Feb. 18, for example, Trump stated: "Now, Russia is invading Ukraine, our economy is being destroyed, our Border is once again overrun" and "instead of focusing on America, the media just wants to talk about their plan to 'get' Trump."

A week later, Trump exclaimed: "If I were in Office, this deadly Ukraine situation would never have happened!" A few days later, at the CPAC gathering in Orlando, Trump complained that "this horrific disaster would never have happened if our election was not rigged and if I was the president.”

Earlier this month, he wrote that "RINOs, Warmongers, and Fake News" continue to "blatantly lie and misrepresent my remarks on Putin."

Trump has not issued specific policy statements explaining what he would have done differently to have avoided the conflict.

The closest he's gotten to actual diplomacy announcements was to chest-thump that he "got delinquent NATO members to start paying their dues, which amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars." He also claimed "it was me that got Ukraine the very effective anti-tank busters (Javelins)" — although that weaponry was approved by Congress.

John Bolton: Trump's "relationship with the truth is very tenuous"

Trump's vague statements and self-praising on Ukraine raise the question of whether he could have done more as a former president.

Fourteen years after he left the White House, former President Jimmy Carter led a delegation to strife-torn Haiti to end a violent political crisis and then to North Korea to diffuse tensions. Those efforts, and others, won Carter a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Bolton, who served as Trump's national security adviser in 2019, said such a statesmanship endeavor, such as a peace-negotiating trip to Moscow, is out of Trump's nature and character.

"He's not capable of it," Bolton said. "This would require thinking through a policy and considering the pluses and minuses, the risks and costs involved. That's just not what he does."

Bolton, who infamously derided Rudy Giuliani's dirt-digging efforts in Ukraine as "a drug deal," instead said Trump would have gifted Russia Ukraine had he been re-elected.

He said Trump's withholding of the $250 million in military aid put the assistance in far more jeopardy than was understood.

"The urgency of the particular $250 million was that it was appropriated money that under the federal government's bizarre budget procedures would have expired on Sept. 30, 2019," Bolton recalled.

As for pressing Zelensky for an investigation of the Bidens, Bolton said he could not tell if Trump believed wrongdoing had taken place or whether the effort was driven by political opportunism.

"You never can tell with Trump. His relationship with the truth is very tenuous and whether he believes it as a matter of fact, or whether he was using it for his own political purposes, I don't really know it was," Bolton said.

Bolton said he agreed with his former boss on the necessity of NATO allies to live up to their commitment, made in the Obama Administration, to amp up their defense budgets. But he said he believed Trump's objective was to "withdraw the U.S. from NATO or substantially limit" Washington's support for the alliance.

"He was very negative on the institution," Bolton said. "I don't think Trump was pressing [the defense spending increase] to strengthen NATO, which is what the rest of us who supported him wanted. I think it was because he didn't feel they would, and that would give him further excuse to withdraw."

A weakened NATO, the holding back of military aid, demands for probes of the Bidens, drawing Ukraine into the 2020 presidential election arena — Bolton said — testify to "the prism through which Trump viewed Ukraine" in the summer of 2019.

Val Demings: World now sees why holding Ukraine military aid was wrong

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) meets with House impeachment managers, from left: Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Val Demings (D-Fla.), ahead of the Senate vote on impeachment in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

Capitol Hill Floridians were outspoken, along party lines, as Trump joined Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton as the only presidents to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.

None, however, got as public a forum as Orlando U.S. Rep. Demings, a Democrat who was chosen by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an impeachment prosecutor in the U.S. Senate impeachment trial.

Demings said there were two overriding concerns in the scandal. 

"We made, basically, a promise to Ukraine that if they would give up their nuclear arms, we would help them fight," Demings said. "And, during the impeachment inquiry. Lt. Col [Alexander] Vindman made it quite clear that Ukraine was involved in a hot war."

U.S> Rep. Val Demings, who served on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said support for Ukraine had been "a bipartisan issue" until the summer of 2019. "That was up until the time that the former president had this infamous phone call and tried to make it a political issue," she said.

Demings, who served on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said support for Ukraine had been "a bipartisan issue" until the summer of 2019.

"That was up until the time that the former president had this infamous phone call and tried to make it a political issue," she said. "To hold military weapons for political purposes, this was clearly wrong. And, you know, they have used those weapons that they eventually received to fight for their lives, their families and their freedom."

Demings said the election of Zelenskyy as Ukraine's president three years ago was greeted with excitement. As appalled as she was about the withholding of military aid, she was also dismayed by the tarring of Zelenskyy with the country's past corruption mess.

"We were so excited to see this young, energetic President Zelenskyy elected who made various statements about combating corruption in the country," Demings recalled. "And Ukrainians, obviously, the overwhelming majority of them, joined him in that effort. And it was just a good time for the country and it was terrible for it to be stained in such a horrible way."

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, the then-ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee talks during the House Judiciary Committee hearing considering the investigative findings in the impeachment inquiry against former President Donald Trump.

Trump was acquitted of the impeachment charges by a largely partisan vote in the U.S. Senate. Florida's two GOP senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both voted not guilty. Both have strongly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and have called for greater U.S. and international military help to the Zelenskyy government.

Demings said she is glad to see a unified, bipartisan front in the face of Putin's devastating attack. But she believes the unwillingness of Republicans to have condemned the Trump policy was tantamount to a "dereliction of duty" on their part.

"One person can make a mistake, but when the majority of the members on the other side serve as enablers and then try to make Ukraine as something that they're not, for political gain, is also a dereliction of duty," she said.

Is Trump's America First neo-isolationism in "rear view mirror"?

Fox News host Tucker Carlson insists it's not wrong for him to "root" for Russia. U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., has called Zelenskyy a "thug." U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said it's an "easy" call to brand Zelenskyy as "corrupt."

But those views are sharply off to the fringe across America today.

On March 16, a Monmouth University Poll also found 81% support for economic sanctions against Russia. On Thursday, UMass Lowell's Center for Public Opinion released a survey in which almost half of those asked — 46% — favored a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine airspace despite the "risk of possible nuclear war."

Bolton said he believes the Ukraine conflict is a watershed making Trumpist, America First neo-isolationism a Star Wars-like "disturbance in the Force." The almost unanimous support for a strong Ronald Reagan-esque peace-through-strength posture is evidence that the former president is "in the rearview mirror" among many Republicans, he added.

"I think that this has moved Republicans, in particular, back toward their traditional post-1945 posture," Bolton said. "That's overwhelmingly the case and I think that's a good thing because I think the threat from Russia, the threat from China are very real in the coming years." 

Demings agrees there is a newfound appreciation of America's necessary role in the world. 

"What is happening today is a realization that what happens in the world does directly impact what happens here at home, and that our national security interests are directly tied to our NATO allies and tied to the region," she said.

She said she is happy to see bipartisanship return to foreign policy. She recalled feeling gratified to see GOP colleagues handing out Ukrainian flags right before President Biden's State of the Union speech, an address the president began by lauding Ukrainian resolve.

"Look, it was great. And the sentiment of the American people is that what is going on in Ukraine is wrong," she said. "But we cannot forget that not that long ago [Republicans] went along with holding military aid and tried to paint Ukraine as a corrupt country that really was not our ally."

Other experts say Cold War default internationalism is "gone for good"

Kupchan, the Georgetown teacher, said he welcomes the "rally around the flag" bipartisanship on Ukraine which he said is "a sign of improving health of the American political system." But Kupchan warned it is an overstatement to rule out the influence of neo-isolationists in foreign affairs, the media and the public.

"I may be in the minority here, but I do not take it as a sign that America First is down and out," he said.

Kupchan said public frustration with U.S. economics — from inflation to supply chain fissures — could easily erode the united front in America right now. Neither should anyone presume that the plethora of American domestic challenges the country was dealing with disappeared with the invasion.

"I don't think that this is a durable sea change," Kupchan said. "That kind of default internationalism in the United States that existed during the Cold War, that's gone for good."

In fact, on March 22, Jennifer Hillman, a specialist on trade and global political economy at the Council on Foreign Relations, gave a sobering appraisal of significant economic challenges ahead.

For example, Hillman noted that sanctions on purchases of Russian grain will have a significant impact on everything from food to fertilizer. In the United States, consumers can expect to possibly see sharp price increases in late summer and fall, when the grain harvest is usually brought to world markets. Consumers in Europe and other countries may see shortages of these products.

Whether that undermines global support for Ukraine's struggle will depend on how well Western democracies manage to blunt their impact, Hillman said

"Whether and how long it's sustainable I think will depend on both sort of how the war is going, and how much perception there is of hope for the Ukrainians, and how much there is this sense of we have to stand with Ukrainians, because look how far they are going to protect their own freedom and democracy," Hillman said.

Hillman added that an economic reckoning may be on the way and global governments and institutions need to be braced.

"A part of that I think is going to depend on whether we have more success in taking enough steps to ameliorate the inflation and the potential for shortages, and whether there is a perception that we've done everything we can to protect ourselves as much as possible from the negative effects on the United States," she said.