Do You Believe Trump and Manafort on Ukraine?

There’s good reason not to.

Steven Lee Myers and Andrew Kramer have an important article in today’s New York Times that takes a long look at Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s connections to pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and various Russian oligarchs. I encourage you to read the entire piece and share it widely in your social networks because it’s very important information.

The reason I think people need to be aware of Manafort’s history is not just some guilt by association way of casting doubt on the candidacy of Donald Trump. It’s vital that people have this context so they can at least try to understand why Donald Trump has been taking positions that are far out of the mainstream on matters that pertain to Russia and Ukraine.

It’s been much noted that Trump has said flattering and conciliatory things about Vladimir Putin that no ordinary politician would ever say, but his accumulating record goes much further than that. Most troubling, Trump has threatened not to honor our NATO obligations unless certain demands for money are met. He has made similar threats against our Far Eastern allies, Japan and South Korea, so the NATO threat doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump is thinking primarily of Putin’s interests rather than the interests our country and our allies.

However, the Republican platform committee removed a plank that called for arming Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces within their borders. You should probably take a look at the astonishing transcript of Donald Trump’s Sunday appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos for a wide variety of reasons, but his claims about this change in the platform are troubling. I am going to cite a big chunk of the exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Then why did you soften the GOP platform on Ukraine?

TRUMP: I wasn’t involved in that. Honestly, I was not involved.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your people were.

TRUMP: Yes. I was not involved in that. I’d like to — I’d have to take a look at it. But I was not involved in that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you know what they did?

TRUMP: They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They took away the part of the platform calling for the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves.

Why is that a good idea?

TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK?

Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right?

You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?

TRUMP: OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime, he’s going where — he takes — takes Crimea, he’s sort of — I mean…

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you said you might recognize that.

TRUMP: I’m going to take a look at it. But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.

Now, that was under — just so you understand, that was done under Obama’s administration. And as far as the Ukraine is concerned, it’s a mess. And that’s under the Obama’s administration, with his strong ties to NATO.

So with all of these strong ties to NATO, Ukraine is a mess. Crimea has been taken. Don’t blame Donald Trump for that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You said that…

TRUMP: And we’ll do better and yet we’ll have a better relationship with Russia.

And having a good relationship — maybe. and having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Much of the focus today is on Trump seeming to be unaware that Russia has already invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. But, reading the full body of his remarks it is clear that he basically sympathizes with Putin’s annexation of Crimea and accepts his rationale for compromising the territorial integrity of another nation state.

It’s quite puzzling that Trump claims to have no idea who was responsible for changing the platform. Paul Manafort appeared on Meet the Press and backed up Trump’s claim. Manafort also argued unpersuasively that he didn’t have anything to do with it, either. In fact, he went so far as to say that the change “absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign,” which even Trump had not tried to deny.

People shouldn’t get distracted over the question of whether or not it should be U.S. policy to arm the Ukrainians, or even whether it’s appropriate to put that kind of foreign policy specificity in a document like the Republican Party platform. The focus should be on the possibility that there’s enough smoke here to indicate a fire. You don’t have to agree that the Ukrainians should be armed in order to consider it disqualifying (or worse) for Donald Trump to be putting the territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin over the interests of Ukraine and our NATO allies. If there are financial explanations for these policy stances, that’s treasonous, criminal stuff.

In any case, I’m fairly certain that either Trump or Manafort went on television yesterday and lied about their involvement in the platform change. Quite possibly, they both lied. And that’s a cause of concern quite irrespective of the context in which they lied.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.