WASHINGTON — The White House delayed a package of military assistance to the new government in Ukraine, and has yet to schedule a White House meeting for its new president. After abruptly pulling the previous American ambassador out of Kiev when conservatives questioned her political loyalty, President Trump has yet to nominate a successor.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Trump has told aides that he sees Ukraine as corrupt and suggested that he harbored a grudge from what he saw as that nation’s support for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
At a time when foreign policy experts and Mr. Trump’s aides say strong support from the United States is especially important to Ukraine in its effort to fight corruption and stop further encroachment by Russia, Mr. Trump has left Ukrainians and some of his own allies uncertain about the degree of his commitment to the government of the newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, according to interviews with people in both countries.
The diplomatic strains come on top of concerns about efforts by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to press Mr. Zelensky’s government to pursue investigations into two matters that date from the previous government and could be politically beneficial to Mr. Trump.
One relates to involvement in Ukraine by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family. The other relates to accusations that Ukrainian government officials improperly aided Mrs. Clinton by seeking to sabotage Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.
On Monday, three House committees announced that they were opening a wide-ranging investigation into whether Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani were misappropriating the American foreign policy apparatus for political ends.
In letters to the State Department and the White House, the chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight Committees asserted that it would be “a staggering abuse of power, a boon to Moscow and a betrayal of the public trust” if Mr. Trump was withholding the military assistance to “improperly pressure the Ukrainian government to assist the president’s bid for re-election.”
Across Washington’s foreign policy community, there is broad optimism that Mr. Zelensky’s government has a chance to finally put an end to twin scourges that have plagued Ukraine, a close American ally — corruption from inside and Russian incursions from the east.
Publicly, Mr. Trump’s administration has suggested that the hiccups in Ukrainian relations are more related to bureaucracy and logistics than to politics.
In private, though, the president has been more adversarial, declaring in May that all Ukrainian politicians are “corrupt,” and that the Ukrainian government “tried to take me down,” according to people familiar with an Oval Office briefing delivered by a United States government delegation that had recently returned from attending Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration in Kiev. The delegation had been impressed by Mr. Zelensky, and had encouraged Mr. Trump to assist the new government.
The White House did not respond to questions about the meeting.
Vice President Mike Pence denied last week that the delay in releasing military assistance was in any way related to Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to convince the Ukrainians to investigate matters related to the family of Mr. Biden, who is the early front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But, after a meeting with Mr. Zelensky on the sidelines of a commemoration of the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Pence said he and Mr. Trump “have great concerns about issues of corruption.” Without detailing those concerns, Mr. Pence linked them to the military assistance, telling reporters “to invest additional taxpayer in Ukraine, the president wants to be assured that those resources are truly making their way to the kind of investments that will contribute to security and stability in Ukraine.”
Mr. Zelensky’s office did not immediately respond to questions emailed after business hours in Kiev.
But Senator Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and met with Mr. Zelensky last week, said the Ukrainian president, a political neophyte who had been a comedian before winning the presidency, seemed confused about why the assistance was being withheld.
“The first question President Zelensky asked us was whether we knew anything about the security aid,” Mr. Murphy said. “There seems to be very little understanding from anyone in the government as to why the aid has been withheld or what they need to do in order to get it released.”
Mr. Murphy said he urged Mr. Zelensky not to heed the requests from Mr. Giuliani, warning that to do so could threaten bipartisan support for Ukraine in Washington, which Mr. Murphy called Ukraine’s “most important asset.”
It would be “disastrous for long-term U.S.-Ukraine relations,” Mr. Murphy said, if Mr. Zelensky were seen as basing prosecutorial decisions on pressure from Mr. Trump’s political allies.
Mr. Murphy rejected the suggestion that his advice to Mr. Zelensky constituted meddling in Ukrainian affairs similar to Mr. Giuliani’s efforts, which he had previously called “private foreign policy engagement” and into which he had sought an investigation.
“If there are investigations that influence American politics one way or another, but the foundations of those investigations are based upon facts rather than political requests, I think that’s legitimate,” Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Giuliani on Monday welcomed the congressional investigation, asserting that he was acting “at the request of the State Department and with the assistance of the State Department” — a reference to communications with an aide to Mr. Zelensky that were brokered partly by Kurt D. Volker, the United States envoy to settlement talks in Ukraine’s war with Russia.
The Ukrainian aide, Andriy Yermak, a close ally of Mr. Zelensky, has said that it was not clear to him whether Mr. Giuliani was representing Mr. Trump in their talks.
But Mr. Giuliani said he was acting only as Mr. Trump’s private lawyer in those talks, during which he urged Mr. Yermak to pursue investigations.
“If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be a good lawyer, I wouldn’t be defending him,” Mr. Giuliani said. “The Ukrainian government is uniquely situated to dig up facts that would vindicate my client.”
Mr. Giuliani has requested an inquiry into documents released during the 2016 campaign reflecting payments earmarked to Paul Manafort for earlier work in Ukraine. Mr. Manafort went on to become Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman, but when The New York Times published a report including excerpts from the documents, it led to Mr. Manafort’s resignation from the campaign. He has since pleaded guilty to charges brought by the special counsel related to his work in Ukraine, and is serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence.
Mr. Giuliani has questioned the authenticity of the documents, and suggested that an investigation into them could undermine the special counsel’s investigation. He has also called for an investigation into the overlap between Mr. Biden’s diplomacy in Ukraine and his son’s involvement in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
Mr. Trump has suggested that he would like Attorney General William P. Barr to look into both matters.
In their letters to the White House and the State Department, the chairmen of the three House committees sought records related to the Biden and Manafort matters, and warned against linking the military assistance to the push for investigations of the matters.
Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat who is the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that “whether or not this improper pressure is made explicitly, it cannot be lost on a country desperate for American military assistance that the president of the United States wants its government’s help in his re-election campaign in the form of damaging information on his political opponent.”
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