First Person

How I missed the Ukraine story

September 27, 2019
Kurt Volker, US Department Special Representative for Ukraine. (Photo by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In early August, I met Ambassador Kurt Volker, US Special Representative to Ukraine, in Washington, DC. Volker, fifty-four, is one of a handful of “ordinary” foreign policy Republicans—confident of American power, hawkish on Russia, eager to expand NATO—who have come to occupy senior positions in the Trump administration because there just aren’t enough qualified Trumpians to fill the seats. He told me that, in the summer and fall of 2016, he’d been sent a lot of the “Never Trump” letters circulating among Republican establishmentarians, and he’d declined to sign them. “If he wins,” he recalled saying, of Trump, “he’s going to need good people in government. So why put all their names on a blacklist?” In the spring of 2017, Volker signed on to coordinate US policy on Ukraine, which was struggling to resolve multinational negotiations to end the fighting in the east of the country and preserve its territorial integrity.

I was meeting with Volker as part of my research for a book on post-Soviet “Russia hands”—that is, the people in the US government who have worked on Russia policy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Volker was not a Russia hand, but he was a Russia hawk. He’d served on the National Security Council as a director for Europe and as the US ambassador to NATO; he’d been active in debates over NATO expansion in the George W. Bush administration. We talked about that. Also, I was curious to know what it was like for an “ordinary” Republican to be working for this very unordinary president. I asked about that, too.

ICYMI: “I had to rewind this to believe what I was hearing”: The media’s missteps in the Ukraine scandal

Volker put on a brave face. “It’s been two years,” he said, since his appointment. “I am very, very happy.” Trump, he admitted, has “a built-in, negative bias against Ukraine. He thinks it’s corrupt, they’re all terrible people, it’s a horribly corrupt country, you can’t fix it, and it’s not worth it.” But Volker thought he was bringing Trump around to his perspective, which was that the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky represented the best hope for Ukraine to clean up since it had gained independence. In a meeting after Zelensky’s election, in April, Volker and others had argued to Trump that Zelensky agreed with him about corruption being a major problem in Ukraine. Volker told me that they’d managed to get Trump on the phone with Zelensky twice. “We said, ‘Talk to him. Talk to this guy. We’ve met him, we think he’s for real, you should talk with him.’ ” 

Nothing in Volker’s manner or the way he described the calls—proudly—indicated that they had been catastrophic for Trump and would eventually threaten to bring down his administration. Ukraine policy was trending in the right direction, Volker told me; he was optimistic: “There isn’t a single thing—whether it’s the arms sales or the sanctions or the rhetoric on Russia or Crimea nonrecognition or engaging the new president—not a single thing where we have not done the right thing.”

I left the meeting thinking that, well, Trump might be awful and unpredictable but, so long as he doesn’t care too much about something—and he seemed not to care too much about Ukraine—the “ordinary” course of US policy, think of it what you will, will basically continue. I was impressed, too, with Volker’s openness, his willingness to talk—a stark contrast to many State Department officials during this administration, who are so uncertain of where things stand that they have buried their heads and mostly refused to speak with reporters.

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I now know that Volker wasn’t being entirely open with me. At the time of our meeting, US military aid to Ukraine had been held up for weeks. And as I learned yesterday from the whistle-blower complaint, Volker had been in Kiev several days before we spoke, doing damage control: on a July 25 phone call, Trump had tried to pressure Zelensky to search for the servers of the Democratic National Committee and figure out a way to prosecute the Bidens; further, he had apparently advised Zelensky on the matter of how. I also learned from the whistle-blower complaint that Volker had talked with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, about these activities, in order to “contain the damage” (these words are in quotes in the whistle-blower complaint). Earlier this week, as the scandal unraveled and Giuliani appeared on TV aiming to defend himself, he said that he had been put in touch with Ukrainian officials by “the State Department.” The person he was talking about was Volker.

To be fair to Volker, I didn’t ask him about all that when we met over the summer. I had seen news reports, out of the corner of my eye, that Giuliani was mucking about in Ukraine. I had seen, too, in some of Trump’s tweets and public comments, that he thought Ukraine had somehow meddled in the 2016 election. But I didn’t take any of that seriously—why would I? There were so many controversies to sift through. Were the happenings in Ukraine in the same league as the “millions” of people who had supposedly voted illegally to give Hillary Clinton the edge in the popular vote; as the “Obama tapped my phone” tweet; as Pizzagate? It all seemed like more of the same right-wing conspiratorial craziness. That stuff did not belong in a serious conversation about US foreign policy.

What I didn’t realize—what, to be fair now to me, none of the Russia hands I spoke to this summer realized—was that the president had been working hand in glove with Giuliani. We all should have figured: just because Trump’s Clinton-Biden conspiracy theories are fantastical does not mean that they wouldn’t, in a real way, direct foreign policy. In the immortal words of footnote 3 of the whistle-blower complaint, regarding a belief on Trump’s part that the DNC servers are in Ukraine, for some reason: “I do not know why the President associates these servers with Ukraine.” No one knows! But it doesn’t matter, because he is the president.


The Ukraine scandal now engulfing the Trump presidency presents a fascinating contrast to Russiagate. The scale is so much smaller this time around, the story so much simpler. Here, Trump used his position to shake down a newly elected president of a medium-size Eastern European country. In Russiagate, by contrast, the president stood accused of taking part in a complex operation involving the theft, by the Russian secret services, of documents from the servers of the DNC. A small-time bit of extortion of a supplicant versus a vast conspiracy with a formidable partner: one of these fits Trump’s way of doing things; the other does not.

We’re now in a news cycle that is much more like that of a classic American political scandal—more like Watergate, more like Iran-Contra. Rather than a single document laying out a grand conspiracy, as the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, seemed to do, we’ve got a lot of good but incomplete reporting. The whistle-blower complaint is admirably restrained about what its author does and does not know. The evidence we have is confusing: the July call and the April call, the director of national intelligence, the inspector general, Giuliani, Volker—it’s a jumble. But that is good; journalists will have some work to do to piece the story together. There are things we don’t yet know but will soon find out. That is how American political scandals form in the press, and in the eyes of the public.

What next? In terms of coverage, the media finds itself with a dilemma not unlike the one it faced in October 2016: a major Democratic politician (then Hillary Clinton, now Joe Biden) has been caught out in a minor scandal (she shouldn’t have used a private server; no way should his son have been operating in Ukraine), whereas Trump is engaged in full-scale criminality. This time, it seems, journalists have learned their lesson. 

So I missed the real Ukraine news, even as I sat in the same room as one of its major players just a week after Trump’s fateful phone call. I was underprepared. I was naive. I asked about American policy and the Minsk accords and NATO expansion. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the real work of this administration was taking place. 

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Keith Gessen is a founding editor of n+1 and a contributor to The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. He is the editor of three nonfiction books and the translator or co-translator, from Russian, of a collection of short stories, a book of poems, and a work of oral history. He is also the author of a novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men.