November 26, 2019

The wrap up of today should start with tonight, with Trump’s 1:26 minute “rally” in Broward, Florida. It was his usual rant against the media, impeachment, socialism, and so on, but there was an interesting new interlude when the president talked about health issues. He said he had always thought Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was heavy, but when he saw the governor without his shirt on (which almost certainly never happened), he saw that DeSantis was actually strong.

Then he launched into some “Sir” stories—“Sir” is his tell that he is about to tell a whopper—about how after his surprise visit to Walter Reed hospital on November 18 one White House guard after another asked him “Sir, are you all right?” because they had heard he had a massive heart attack, an idea he ridiculed. Since Trump is a master at spewing whatever is uppermost in his mind, it seems likely that his hospital visit was due to something that made him think he was having a heart attack, and that the doctors told him at least that he was overweight. (Since then, by the way, it has been notable how empty his schedule has been.) For a rally in which he boasted of his health, Trump was in bad shape tonight, slurring his words so badly that “stock market” came out “slock rocket.”

The president is under tremendous pressure, with more details of the Ukraine scandal emerging daily. Today Trump denied that he had directed Giuliani to try to find dirt on Biden by working with Ukrainians, despite much evidence to the contrary, including Trump’s own comment to Ukraine president Zelensky on the infamous call of July 25 that he should talk to Giuliani about investigating the Bidens. An association with Giuliiani has become a liability, and Trump does not like liabilities, especially now that the scandal is becoming clearer.

Today we also learned that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld aid money from Ukraine on July 25, the day of the infamous phone call between Trump and the new Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelensky a fact which sure suggests that military assistance hinged on Trump getting the public statement he wanted of Ukraine‘s investigation of Hunter Biden and that the connection was crystal clear to Zelensky. We also learned that two members of the OMB resigned in protest of the withholding of aid, and we also got more confirmation that Trump knew of the whistleblower complaint when he released the money.

Altogether, the stories seemed to solidify the narrative that Trump withheld money Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine fight off attacks from Russia, intending to pressure newly elected Ukraine President Zelensky into making a public announcement that his government was opening an investigation into the company on whose board Joe Biden’s son sat. Such an announcement would’ve tanked Biden’s candidacy, much as the constant stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails tanked hers in 2016.

We really already knew all this. The lines are just getting filled in.

But why should we care about the story at all? Yesterday, Fox media personality and strong Trump supporter Tucker Carlson said on his show: “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? I'm serious. Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which by the way I am.”

Carlson’s declaration was extraordinary. Aside from anything else, Americans care about Ukraine because what is happening there is a proxy war between oligarchy and democracy.

Ukraine was part of the USSR until it fell apart in 1991. After that, Ukraine remained under the sway of the Russian oligarchs who rose to replace the region’s communist leaders monopolizing formerly publicly held industries as those industries were privatized. American journalist Paul Klebnikov, the chief editor of Forbes in Russia, was murdered in 2004 trying to call attention to what the oligarchs were doing.

In that same year, a Russian-backed politician, Viktor Yanukovych, appeared to be elected president of Ukraine. But Yanukovych was rumored to have ties to organized crime, and the election was so full of fraud—including the poisoning of a key rival who wanted to break ties with Russia and align Ukraine with Europe—the government voided the election and called for a do-over. Yanukovych needed a makeover fast, and for that he called on a political consultant with a reputation for making unsavory characters palatable to the media: Paul Manafort.

Yeah, that Paul Manafort, the man the Trump campaign called in to resurrect Trump’s floundering campaign in June 2016.

For ten years, from 2004-2014, Manafort worked for Yanukovych and his party, trying to make what the US State Department called a party of “mobsters and oligarchs” look legitimate. He made a fortune thanks to his new friends. In 2010, Yanukovych finally won the presidency on a platform of rejecting NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization through which Europe joined together to oppose first the USSR, and then the rising threat of Russia. Immediately, Yanukovych turned Ukraine toward Russia. In 2014, after months of popular protests, Ukrainians ousted Yanukovych from power in what is known as the Revolution of Dignity. He fled to Russia.

Shortly after Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea and annexed it, prompting the United States and the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia itself and also on specific Russian businesses and oligarchs, prohibiting them from doing business in United States territories. These sanctions have crippled Russia and frozen the assets of key Russian oligarchs, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Now without his main source of income, Manafort owed about $17 million to allies of Yanukovych and Putin. His longtime friend and business partner Roger Stone was advising the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, and Manafort was happy to step in to help. He did not take a salary. He began as an advisor in March 2016, and became the campaign chairman in late June, after the June 9 meeting between Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort with a number of people, including a Russian lawyer associated with Putin’s intelligence services (that is, a spy). Remember that Trump tried to explain away that meeting as being about “adoptions,” because the Russian response to sanctions was to shut down American adoptions of Russian children.

Manafort had to step back in August 2016, after a Ukrainian member of parliament and journalist revealed a secret ledger from Yanukovych’s headquarters detailing illegal secret payments to members of his inner circle, including Manafort (who was later convicted of tax evasion on some of that money). Manafort officially left the campaign, although documents have since shown that he continued to advise the campaign unofficially. This is the origin of the “black ledger” story, and Trump’s insistence that Ukrainians had it in for his campaign. As David Holmes testified before the House Intelligence Committee last week, this ledger is indeed believed to be legitimate.

Desperate to get the sanctions lifted, Putin helped get Trump elected, and since then American policy has swung his way. Trump has attacked NATO and the European Union, weakened our ties to our traditional European allies, ceded Syria to Putin, worked to get rid of Russian sanctions, and threatened to withdraw our support for Ukraine. It sure looks like American democracy is a great deal weaker than it was before Trump took office.

Putin’s corrupt oligarchy, in which a few rich men carve up their country and any other countries they can grab to pocket huge amounts of money, is fighting Ukraine because its people want a democracy based in the rule of law.

Until Trump became president, America was firmly on the side of democracy in Ukraine. Now, not so much.

And that is why the Ukraine scandal is so very important, and why the public announcement of a major Republican media figure that he sides with Russia was chilling.