Oct. 2, 2019

Trump’s concern about ‘corruption’ in Ukraine is highly selective and remarkably convenient

Reported by Aaron Blake of the Washington Post

President Trump and the relatively few Republicans who have defended him regarding his contact with the president of Ukraine have settled on one universal talking point: This is about corruption.

“We’re supporting a country; we want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said last week. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) also said Sunday that’s all Trump was conveying to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He and President Trump are talking about that in the conversation, things that both of them are doing to clean up corruption and drain the swamp,” Scalise said.

GOP Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) wrote a letter Monday supporting Trump’s alleged corruption-busting inquiries in Ukraine. “Such allegations of corruption deserve due scrutiny, and the American people have a right to know when foreign forces attempt to undermine our democratic processes,” they said.

Among the many logically strained arguments coming from the Trump side, though, this may be the biggest stretch, for a few reasons:

1. These cases are tenuous, at best

Trump pushed for two specific investigations in his July 25 call with Zelensky — one involving CrowdStrike and the other involving former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Both are dubious.

The first is essentially part of a conspiracy theory alleging that Russia wasn’t actually behind the interference in the United States’ 2016 presidential election. Even Trump’s former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert denounced it. “That conspiracy theory has got to go,” Bossert said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that it has been “completely debunked."

As for the Bidens’ case, then-Vice President Biden pushed for the removal of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, who had been investigating an energy company that employed Hunter Biden. But as U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said, the investigation was dormant when Biden applied the pressure. And even when the investigation was underway, it hadn’t been scrutinizing the Bidens.

2. Both carry obvious political benefits for him

It’s one thing for the allegations to be dubious; it’s another for them to be dubious and carry obvious political benefits for Trump.

The CrowdStrike thing appears to be a Trump hobby horse aimed at questioning the origins of the Russia inquiry, while the Bidens thing is clearly intended to damage the Democratic candidate who polls the best against Trump in 2020.

And as far as we can tell, these are the only specific investigations Trump has pushed for from Ukraine. Ukraine is a big country with a demonstrated history of government corruption. It seems a very odd coincidence that the Trump team, if it is truly concerned about corruption, is focused on these two relatively narrow matters that just so happen to pertain to Trump, and not much bigger matters.

3. He has rarely mentioned corruption in other countries

A search through Trump’s past comments on corruption shows he has rarely raised concerns about corruption in foreign countries — except when it suited his political purposes.

Last month, Trump referred to Romania’s “tremendous corruption problem,” but only after being asked about it and saying the Romanian president (who was sitting next to him) was the right man to tackle it. He also, in 2018, hailed the visiting Nigerian president in a similar way.

He has regularly talked about corruption in Venezuela, which segues nicely into his arguments about the dangers of socialism.

Other instances in which Trump has decried governmental corruption:

  • Iran
  • Puerto Rico, whose leaders he has clashed with over Hurricane Maria aid and recovery
  • While talking about major urban cities run by Democrats, including Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit

And that seems to be the extent of Trump’s professed concerns about government corruption outside of Washington, according to Factba.se’s compendium of his public comments. No dire warnings about corruption in North Korea or Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

And indeed, Ukraine appears to be the first country that we know about that Trump has actually threatened if it doesn’t root out corruption.

4. The U.S. gives lots more money to countries more corrupt than Ukraine

The above fact looms large. If, theoretically, Trump simply decided that it’s time to start tying foreign aid to getting rid of corruption, Ukraine is apparently the first country he has zeroed in on. But Ukraine would seem to be an odd starting place, given there are many more corrupt countries that receive much more U.S. aid.

According to USAID, Ukraine in fiscal 2018 ranked 25th in the amount of U.S. aid it received — economic, military and other. Of the 24 countries who received more aid, 13 ranked as more corrupt than Ukraine on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

The United States sent more than twice as much money to Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria as it did to Ukraine, despite them ranking as more corrupt. Of those four, Trump has talked about corruption in only one of them.

But even when he did, he suggested that corruption was a secondary concern, relative to trade.

“We give Nigeria well over $1 billion in aid every year,” Trump said in April 2018. “And we have already started talking with the president about taking down the trade barriers — very substantial barriers to the United States trading with Nigeria. So we think that we are owed that.

“President [Muhammadu] Buhari has also taken several steps to fight corruption and improve the Nigerian business climate. And, most of all, to me, yet again, is ripping down those trade barriers.”