President Donald Trump has a deep enmity for Ukraine that long predates the fateful July 2019 phone call which triggered an impeachment inquiry, The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey reported Saturday. Their story depicts the president raging against Ukraine as early as a 2017 briefing to prepare him for an upcoming September meeting with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. White House aides were reportedly baffled by Trump’s anti-Ukraine animus. “We could never quite understand it,” a former senior White House official told the Post. “There were accusations that they had somehow worked with the Clinton campaign. There were accusations they’d hurt him. He just hated Ukraine.”
There’s a simple answer to Trump aides’ confusion about the source of the president’s conspiracy theories -- check what he’s been watching on his television. In the months leading up to that September 2017 meeting, sometime presidential adviser Sean Hannity was telling Trump and the rest of his Fox News audience that the “real collusion” during the 2016 election had been between Hillary Clinton and Ukraine.
In July 2017, The New York Times broke the news that Donald Trump Jr. had arranged a June 2016 meeting between the campaign’s top aides and “a Russian lawyer who has connections to the Kremlin” after being informed that the lawyer would provide damaging information on Clinton as part of the Russian “government’s support” for the Trump campaign. The story came weeks after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to look into Russian interference in the election and was exacerbated by a false statement Trump Jr. released about the meeting that the president had dictated.
Trump’s media allies responded to this bombshell in two main ways. First, they risibly argued that Trump Jr.’s meeting with agents of a hostile foreign power to obtain information about a political opponent was normal -- any campaign would’ve taken such opposition research from Russia if offered. Second, in a pivot to whataboutism, they claimed that Clinton, her campaign, and the Democratic Party had colluded with Ukraine in a similar manner.
For the latter assertion, right-wing media figures offered a deceptive misreading of a Politico article from that January which found that a single Democratic National Committee consultant had received help from Ukrainian government officials in compiling information on former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia that was later shared with the DNC and the Clinton campaign. The story thus provides “a weak link to the Ukrainians and a weaker link to the Clinton campaign,” as Washington Post reporter Philip Bump noted in a July 2017 assessment of the right-wing narrative. David Stern, the piece’s co-author, similarly described the two situations as “very, very different.”
But those weak links were more than enough for Hannity, who obsessed over the Clinton-Ukraine “collusion” in the weeks after news of Trump Jr.’s meeting broke, discussing it in 12 separate monologues beginning with his first show after the Times published its story.
Notably, Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering drew the attention of the president. On his July 24 show, Hannity discussed the “scandal” of “possible Ukrainian election collusion.”
The next morning, while apparently watching the broadcast on his DVR, Trump sent a tweet in which he quoted from on-screen text aired during the segment, tagged Hannity, and asked the attorney general, “So where is the investigation A.G.”.
While Hannity played a key role in fanning the flames of the president’s hatred for Ukraine, he was not the only close Trump associate providing him with derogatory information about that country. Newly disclosed FBI documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that Manafort had suggested that Ukrainians, not Russians, had hacked the Democratic National Committee and stolen the emails later published by WikiLeaks. Trump would later reference that conspiracy theory during his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, responding to his request for military aid by asking him to work with Attorney General William Barr to investigate it.
Trump’s mercurial nature frequently leads him to take actions that don’t make logical sense. But the answer for his motivations is often as simple as what he’s watching on television. The president believes what he sees on Fox News, and for the past few years, the network’s biggest star has been telling him that Ukraine worked with Clinton to ensure his electoral defeat. That’s as good an explanation for his seemingly inchoate rage against that nation as you are likely to find.