Ukraine language in GOP platform underscores Trump tensions

The absence of an updated Republican party platform for the 2020 election is allowing President Trump to avoid hard commitments on the sensitive foreign policy issue of Ukraine, where his withholding of $400 million in military assistance was at the heart of his impeachment by the House. 

The GOP’s decision to preserve the 2016 platform keeps in place toned down language related to Ukraine that was negotiated at the time by Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving a seven and a half year prison sentence on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections.

Manafort, who was found by the Senate Intelligence Committee to have had direct contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 campaign, successfully removed any commitments to lethal military assistance to Kyiv as part of efforts to soften language towards Moscow.

That controversy became part of the larger probe into Russian election interference, Kremlin contacts with the Trump campaign and whether Moscow had influence over the then-president-elect.

And how the Trump administration dealt with Ukraine – with Kyiv currently in a fragile ceasefire with Moscow where more than 14,000 people have been killed over six years of fighting in the country’s east – became the benchmark to measure whether the U.S. was shying away from confronting Russia’s aggressive expansionist goals. 

GOP lawmakers say that the administration’s decision to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine reflects its consistent commitment to the nation.

But critics say Trump’s false accusations that Ukraine, and not Moscow, interfered in the U.S. elections and his withholding of military aid to Ukraine as part of efforts to smear Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden tells a different story. 

Steven Pifer, the William Perry Research Fellow at Stanford and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the absence of a 2020 GOP platform is likely a chance for the party to avoid putting out hard policy statements on the issue given the president’s actions.

“If the Republicans were to put into words what would be — what I would call a traditional Republican approach to foreign policy – they would end up in the platform taking positions that would be very inconsistent with what the president said.”

For Ukrainian Americans, the 2016 GOP party platform was a win, as it provided an explicit U.S. commitment more robust than the Obama administration’s efforts in the face of Russian aggression. 

“We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored,” the 2016 GOP platform states. “We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning.”

In the absence of a new platform, the Republican National Committee this year endorsed the 2016 agenda and affirmed support for President Trump’s second-term goals in a resolution.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), co-chairman of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, said in a statement to The Hill he is supportive of Trump’s actions towards Ukraine even without an official party platform. 

“The President’s policy to our ally Ukraine has been clear, and much more supportive than the Obama-Biden administration’s – whether or not there is an official party platform,” he wrote in an email to The Hill. “We will continue to enjoy good relations with our ally during the President’s second term.”

Yet the absence of a 2020 Republican platform is concerning for the Ukrainian American community.

They fear there will be less vigorous support for the country following the president’s impeachment. 

Ukraine was mentioned at least twice during the Republican National Convention, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praising Trump for sending defensive weapons systems. 

Yet in a speech by former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Ukraine was mentioned repeatedly alongside allegations of corruption and opportunism as she attacked Biden. Bondi focused on debunked claims that as vice president, Biden pushed for the ousting of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son Hunter’s business dealings.

The Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was dismissed from his position for failing to enforce anti-corruption efforts which included, at the time, regulatory investigations into the energy company Burisma, where Hunter Biden sat on the board, and that the company wanted done to legitimize its operations. 

“A concrete statement would help the Ukrainian American community understand which vision of Ukraine is held by the [Republican National Committee],” said Andrij Dobriansky, spokesman for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), the largest advocacy organization for Ukrainian Americans.

Further complicating how the GOP views Ukraine is a controversial investigation by Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). He says he is investigating allegations that Biden misused his position as vice president for personal benefit, but it has been criticized for promoting Russian propaganda that discredits Ukraine. 

Johnson is viewed as one of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters on the Hill and had pushed Trump in August 2019 to release military aid he was withholding as part of an effort to get Ukraine to open investigations into Biden.

A spokesperson for the senator said in an email to the Hill that “Sen. Johnson thinks Vladimir Putin is a menace. Sen. Johnson has great respect for the Ukrainian people and is committed to helping them resist Russian aggression.” 

Despite the mixed messaging, the Trump campaign is courting the support of Ukrainian Americans, unveiling last week a “Ukrainian Americans for Trump” coalition, one of 13 groups listed on the campaign website that includes other ethnic, professional and hobbyist groups. 

There’s no concrete information about the group other than a link to provide contact details. 

Ken Farnaso, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said the group is a grassroots effort that supports the president and his mission to enhance U.S. and Ukraine relations “while advocating for the rule of law and greater economic ties.”  

“Like all of our Trump Campaign coalitions, Ukrainians for Trump come together to make phone calls, knock on doors, and submit op-eds to reach out to other Ukrainian Americans,” he wrote in a statement to The Hill.  

The creation of that group follows the forming of an Ukrainian Americans for Biden group in June. 

“Trump’s track record — putting aside his overall track record… even with respect to Ukraine and Ukraine’s biggest adversary Russia, is just pretty appalling,” said Orest Deychakiwsky, a steering committee member for the pro-Biden group.

Democrats in their 2020 platform affirmed commitment for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and reform efforts. Yet despite the update, the Democratic platform’s position on Ukraine still falls short of the 2016 GOP commitments. 

“I’m just glad it’s mentioned and we know Vice President Biden was an ardent supporter of Ukraine,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, told The Hill. 

Kaptur called it “very troubling” that the lack of the GOP platform doesn’t allow for explicit statements on U.S. policy toward Ukraine, but said congressional lawmakers are “absolutely committed” to bipartisan support for Kyiv.  

“I am absolutely committed to it and I think every member of our Ukraine caucus is,” she said. “There is no wavering, the members on our defense subcommittees, be the authorizing or appropriations committee, we are joined at the hip and I think that we await the day when Ukraine is admitted to the league of free nations in Europe and we will work toward that end.” 


Tags 2020 GOP convention Andy Harris Donald Trump Joe Biden Marcy Kaptur Mike Pompeo Mueller report Paul Manafort Republican platform Robert Mueller Ron Johnson Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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