What Jim Jordan Claims Trump Really Wanted from Ukraine’s President
Here’s what happened, according to Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, in the fifty-five days this summer when a hold was placed on U.S. military aid to Ukraine. The country had a new President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who had taken office in May, and President Donald Trump had reason to be suspicious of him. “We’re talking Ukraine . . . one of the three most corrupt countries on the planet,” Jordan said. “Corruption is not just prevalent in Ukraine—it’s the system!” Jordan, who was addressing the witnesses on the first day of public impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee, shouted out those lines, as he often does; the Republican leadership added him to the committee just last week, to make full use of his volubility and his loyalty to Trump. “So our President said, ‘Time out! Time out! Let’s check out this new guy! Let’s see if Zelensky is the real deal,’ ” Jordan continued, waving his arms. (He is a former wrestling coach, and never wears a jacket.) “Let’s see if he’s legitimate.”
Why this crucible of legitimacy should have required Trump to try to extract a commitment from Zelensky to specifically investigate the business activities of former Vice-President Biden’s family and the President’s own theories about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election is—as the witnesses William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, indicated—a mystery. And yet Jordan presented the hold on aid as an example of the President’s greatness and even, somehow, of his discretion. Jordan swept aside all the testimony from the transcripts of the closed hearings that have been released so far, and also that which was presented on Wednesday regarding conversations and anxious WhatsApp messages among diplomats about Trump’s demands. Jordan claimed that in “not one” of the interactions between American and Ukrainian officials was military aid linked to an investigation of Burisma, the company that paid Hunter Biden, the Vice-President’s son, to sit on its board. (That assertion, in fact, is belied by the reconstructed transcript of a call between Trump and Zelensky on July 25th, in which Trump mentions the Bidens and a discredited theory involving the Democratic National Committee’s servers.) Instead, Jordan said, “Guess what did happen in those fifty-five days?”
No points for guessing. Jordan proceeded with his tale about how various officials, including Vice-President Pence and the then national-security-adviser John Bolton, scurried off to size up Zelensky, then returned to the White House with good news. “All became convinced that Zelensky was, in fact, worth the risk. He was, in fact, legit and the real deal and a real change. And guess what? They told the President, ‘He’s a reformer, release the money.’ And that’s exactly what President Trump did.”
Except that Bolton, one of the purported real-deal scrutinizers, was quoted by a witness that the committee deposed, Fiona Hill, as saying that he wanted no part of the “drug deal” in Ukraine that others in the Administration had cooked up. Bolton’s lawyers have said that he may be willing to testify, depending on how pending court cases address the White House’s attempts to assert that a range of officials are “absolutely immune” from congressional subpoenas. Wednesday’s testimony served, among other things, to underscore how significant Bolton’s testimony may be. Republicans on the committee tried to diminish Taylor and Kent by noting that they never met with Trump. Bolton did, regularly, until Trump fired him.
But it was not enough for Jordan that Trump should be heroic; he had to be better than President Obama. At one point, Jordan noted that Trump had already approved selling Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, something the Obama Administration had declined to do. (It concentrated, instead, on non-lethal aid.) “That’s right!” Jordan said, with a note of triumph. “President Trump, who doesn’t like foreign aid, who wanted European countries to do more, who knew how corrupt Ukraine was, did more than Obama!” Similarly, Congressman Devin Nunes, of California, the ranking Republican on the Committee, asked Taylor if the Ukrainians would have been upset by the “hot mic” remark that Obama made in 2012, saying that certain negotiations with Russia would be easier after the U.S. Presidential election that year. It fell to Representative Adam Schiff, of California, the committee chair, to note that Obama made that comment almost two years before Russia invaded Ukraine.
And, when it came to fighting corruption, the Republicans on the committee argued, Trump was better than the Bidens, better than Hillary Clinton—whose campaign, they repeatedly claimed, had unseemly dealings with various Ukrainians, including in the preparation of the so-called Steele dossier—and certainly better than “partisan bureaucrats,” presumably including the diplomats who were testifying. (Nunes sarcastically congratulated the two men for being selected in “the Democrats’ star-chamber auditions,” referring to the Committee’s closed-door hearings, which Nunes said had been held in a “cult-like atmosphere.”) Nunes portrayed those bureaucrats as being shocked at Trump’s determination to keep his campaign promises about dealing with foreign corruption, and of being indifferent to evidence of Ukrainian meddling, which, he said, “deeply concerns the President at whose pleasure they serve.” These diplomats and regional experts were, Nunes added, “remarkably uninformed” about all the many reasons the President had to believe that the Ukrainians were involved in various plots against him.
This is the Republican defense of Trump in its most brazen form: the assertion that the demands he made on Zelensky came from a place of honest revulsion at corruption and worry about the integrity of the American electoral system. Steve Castor, a lawyer for the Committee Republicans, pushed this point repeatedly in his questioning.
The most thoughtful answer to the claim that Trump was simply trying to combat corruption in Ukraine came from Kent. He acknowledged that there were problems with Burisma that he’d wished had been investigated. (And Hunter Biden’s involvement with the company was clearly misguided, even though there is no evidence that his father took any official actions because of it.) Kent has spent much of his career on international anti-corruption initiatives. One lesson he’d learned is that getting to a point where corruption is not, as Jordan put it, “the system” requires that countries not engage in “selective, political prosecution and persecution of their opponents.” Doing so just corrodes the rule of law; prosecutions become a weapon for each new government of thieves to use on the previous one, rather than a tool for cleaning things up. In other words, Trump, in pushing Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, was not fighting corruption but encouraging it. Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, asked Kent if he thought that what the President was asking of Zelensky constituted a “thoughtful and well-calibrated anti-corruption program.” Kent replied, “I do not.”
Trump’s supporters might not agree. He is an expert in exploiting many voters’ belief in the corruption of just about anyone at whom he chooses to point a finger. (That includes the media.) Distrust is one of his allies in this process. In remarks at a press conference with President Erdoğan of Turkey, Trump said that he hadn’t watched the hearings, but he nonetheless called them “a sham” that “shouldn’t be allowed.” The congressional Republicans are Trump’s allies, too, and in the hearings on Wednesday, they acted as though they were all behind him. “Sham” was also a word that Jordan and Nunes used—Jordan referred to the impeachment process as “the whole darn sham.” And he was ready to play his part.