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Ukraine probe offspring of Russiagate

Roger Stone, former advisor to President Donald Trump,

Roger Stone, former advisor to President Donald Trump, leaves with his wife Nydia after being found guilty on all counts in his trial at DC Federal District Court in Washington on Friday. Stone was charged with seven counts of obstruction of justice, making false statements and witness tampering. Credit: ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto/ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

As the impeachment hearings on President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal continue this week, his partisan supporters dismiss the process as a would-be coup and the Democrats’ second shot at succeeding where they failed with Russiagate. But recent events show that Russiagate was far from the “nothingburger” Trump apologists made it out to be — and that Ukrainegate is its hardly unexpected offspring.

Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to provide a “favor” in exchange for American military aid involved two issues. One was Hunter Biden’s high-paying job on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president of the United States and allegations that Joe Biden used his position to oust the Ukrainian prosecutor investigating the company. Whatever legitimate questions there may be about the younger Biden’s role, none of that justifies Trump’s blatantly political demands for an investigation. But the other part — Trump’s demand that the Ukrainian government pursue a conspiracy theory shifting the blame for 2016 U.S. election interference and for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee from Russia to Ukraine — is even more egregious.

Trump’s attempts to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing the investigations he wanted stemmed from his determination to prove that he didn’t owe his victory to Russian help — something the report by special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t settle to his satisfaction.

Mueller found no evidence of the Trump campaign actively engaging in conspiracy to hack the DNC and obtain emails which were used to damage Hillary Clinton. But it’s fairly clear that the campaign, and Trump himself, eagerly welcomed the release of those emails via WikiLeaks despite knowing about their tainted provenance. What’s more, many questions remain about what and when Trump and his people knew. Last week, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was convicted in federal court of lying to Congress about his activities related to the pilfered emails, among other charges. According to prosecutors, Stone not only tried to obtain the emails but regularly briefed the Trump campaign on what he learned about WikiLeaks’ plans — something he denied to Congress in 2017.

The verdicts open new questions about whether Trump lied to Mueller about his contacts with Stone in the months before the election. Prosecution witness Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign official, testified that in July 2016, he heard Trump say that “more information” was coming from WikiLeaks after wrapping up a phone call with Stone.

None of this means that Trump is a Kremlin “asset” or Vladimir Putin’s tool. But there is ample evidence suggesting that he willingly took advantage of Russian operations to undermine his rival. Ukrainegate disclosures also show that he shared the Kremlin’s disdainful view of Ukraine as unworthy of independence.

Trump defenders point out that while Trump may have delayed military aid to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to do his bidding, the Obama administration had denied such aid altogether, agreeing to provide only non-lethal assistance (such as clothing and medical supplies) for Ukraine’s defense against Russian incursions in the East. But even there, the story is more complicated. In 2016, the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes to remove support for lethal aid for Ukraine from the GOP platform. According to a Foreign Policy report based on information from current and former administration officials, Trump initially opposed such aid in 2017 until he was persuaded that it would be a good business deal for the United States.

Additional revelations are coming from Mueller grand jury materials, the first batch of which was published earlier this month after a court ordered their release.

Whatever the outcome of the impeachment effort, defending Trump in the matter of the Russian connection is increasingly indefensible.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.