Ukraine Reality Check: What Was Donald Trump’s Role?

Alan Zendell, March 15, 2022,

Note: for this article I have relied heavily on a couple of published reports: a July 21, 2021 piece in Business Insider; a July 15, 2021 article in Just Security.

It’s too late to save Ukraine and its citizens from destruction, but people are waking up to the role Donald Trump may have played in encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade. Trump’s dealings with Russia go back to the 1980s. In his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump bragged about working in partnership with the Soviet government in 1987 to build a luxury hotel across from the Kremlin. The project failed, but Trump returned to Moscow in 1996 and invested $250 million in Russian real estate.

In 2006-2007, Donald Trump Jr. visited Russia six times, sometimes accompanied by his sister Ivanka, to solidify business ties. While the New York Times reported today that it found no evidence that Trump currently is in debt to Russians, in 2008, Trump Jr. said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” He was bragging, trying to impress his audience. It’s not clear what he was referring to, but Business Insider cited a Reuters report that almost $100 million was invested in Trump’s Florida properties by Russians, and the actual amount is almost certainly much higher, but difficult to trace because of LLC privacy rules.

In 2013, Trump thought he’d scored a major coup when Putin approved holding his Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. Trump famously referred to Putin as “his new best friend.” Apparently actually believing that, Trump said, “I have plans for the establishment of business in Russia. Now, I am in talks with several Russian companies to establish this skyscraper.” But in June, 2015, when Trump did his escalator descent into politics, the deal still lay dormant.

Enter the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump’s attorney/fixer, Michael Cohen, as late as June 2016 was visiting Moscow trying to close it. Imagine the lust for wealth and power Trump felt to believe anything emerging from the mouth of Putin, one of the few people who has even less respect for truth than Trump himself. Putin and his moneyed oligarchs knew Trump desperately wanted his Moscow monument. How naïve does any American have to be to think Trump wasn’t driven by personal greed and ambition every time he dealt with Putin as president?

Matters were complicated when then Vice President Biden’s son, Hunter, was appointed to the Board of Burisma, a Ukrainian oil company that was thought to be corrupt. When the UK initiated an investigation of Burisma, and the local prosecutor took no action to make Burisma comply with requests for information, VP Biden was in a tough spot. He ultimately castigated Burisma, demanding that then Ukrainian President Boroshenko fire the corrupt prosecutor. There was never any evidence that Hunter Biden had done anything illegal, but that didn’t stop Trump from lying about it during his re-election campaign.

Add to that the obvious adoration Trump held for Putin that was on display in Helsinki and every other time the two leaders met. When every American security organization offered proof that Putin directed Russian hackers to interfere in the 2016 election in favor of Trump, the world heard Trump respond, “I asked President Putin if Russia was responsible and he said No. I believe him.” He claimed, out of the blue, thaat it was Ukraine that had hacked the election. “Ukraine hated me. They were after me in the election. They wanted Hillary Clinton to win,” Trump told Fox News and Friends, in November 2019. That was two years after he was impeached for illegally withholding military aid funding for Ukraine in an attempt to blackmail newly elected President Volodomyr Zelensky to smear Hunter Biden.

Even with the invasion of Ukraine looming as Putin sent 200,000 troops to enclose Ukraine, Trump was telling his rallies how brilliant Putin’s strategy was. The entire world knew what was ahead for Ukraine; we’d seen the Russian playbook in action in Syria, Chechniya, and Georgia. It was brutal and violated every international law of warfare (admittedly an oxymoron) by targeting civilians and using chemical and biological weapons. Yet, as recently as a few weeks ago, Trump was still praising Putin.

I believe that among Putin’s gross miscalculations was overestimating Trump’s ability to disrupt the Biden administration’s effort to reunify NATO and the EU as allies speaking with one voice. Putin was certain his blitzkrieg approach to the invasion would succeed before a disorganized western alliance could get itself together to respond. Whether or not Donald Trump specifically intended to help Putin destroy Ukraine, he played an important role in helping Putin conclude he would be successful.

I saw a poll today suggesting that 62% of Americans think Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if Trump were still president. Of course not, he wouldn’t have had to. Trump would have simply ceded it to him and prevented NATO from responding.

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