Were We Combating Corruption in Ukraine?

The House Intelligence Committee is called that for good reason: It oversees intelligence matters. And Trump’s defenders on the committee think it’s their job to insult our intelligence.

One of their more novel defenses of how Donald Trump dealt with Ukraine is that he was implacably determined to root out corruption in that country. For sheer gall, that claim is hard to beat. It’s as though Bill Clinton had rebutted allegations of an affair with Monica Lewinsky by claiming to be a virgin.

It’s not just that Trump is personally corrupt, as he had to admit recently in settling a lawsuit that required him to shut down his foundation and pay a fine of $2 million. Last year, he also had to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits by students who said they were defrauded by Trump University.

His former lawyer Michael Cohen is in prison for providing hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, which he testified was at the direction of Trump.

Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote “The Art of the Deal,” tweeted Thursday: “Donald Trump doesn’t clean up corruption anywhere. He lives and breathes it every day, in every way.”

It’s also worth noting that Trump has never shown the faintest concern about corruption in any other country. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Trump withheld aid because wanted to make sure that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met Trump’s demanding ethical standards.

When Trump’s concerns were assuaged, he lifted the hold.

In fact, as former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified Friday, combating corruption was a high priority for her in Kyiv. When Trump removed her, he did so on the advice of Rudy Giuliani, who was working with corrupt Ukrainians she had antagonized.

“Individuals, who apparently felt stymied by our efforts to promote stated U.S. policy against corruption — that is, to do the mission — were able to successfully conduct a campaign of disinformation against a sitting ambassador, using unofficial back channels,” she said. Her removal only undermined the State Department’s anti-corruption efforts.

Jordan’s interest in the topic is a recent development. He and most House Republicans voted in 2015 to authorize lethal military aid to Ukraine — even though Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked it a dismal 142nd in the world.

Corruption was not on the GOP radar then.

In 2017, Trump approved the aid despite Ukraine’s reputation. In May, Trump’s own Pentagon certified Ukraine’s “continued progress” on corruption. Republicans in Congress didn’t urge Trump to withhold aid to force reform, because they didn’t see it as necessary — until Trump decided to pretend it was.

If he was determined to keep hard-earned U.S. tax dollars out of the hands of a crooked foreign leader, then it was the first time. Trump has shown a fond affection for crooked foreign leaders, and he has been happy to provide them a cushion of U.S. cash.

Egypt gets some $1.3 billion a year in military aid — triple the amount that Trump withheld from Ukraine. Yet Egypt scores nearly as low as Ukraine in the Transparency International index.

The worst-rated country in the world, Somalia, will get nearly $500 million this year. Has Trump called President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to request good-government reforms? Has he ever heard the name Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed?

Afghanistan and Iraq, notorious for corruption, get large sums of American assistance. Trump is a loyal friend to Vladimir Putin, who miraculously became one of the richest people in the world on a government salary.

So is it plausible that Trump cared about graft in Ukraine? Don’t make me laugh. Anyone who reads the memo of his July 25 phone conversation with Zelenskiy can see his mind was elsewhere.

Trump never uttered such words as “corruption” and “reform.” He pointedly reminded Zelenskiy how much the U.S. has done for Ukraine. He urged him to investigate the Bidens. He told him to talk with Rudy Giuliani — who admits trying to get the Ukrainians to go after the Bidens.

When Zelenskiy expressed a strong desire for anti-tank missiles, Trump got to the actual point: “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Not: “I would like you to adopt the following reforms to ensure that our assistance is not wasted.” The favor was to unearth — or fabricate — information that would discredit Democrats, especially his potential 2020 election rival.

Jim Jordan may be able to fool many Republicans on the corruption defense. But I don’t think he could fool a polygraph.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.