A ‘victory for Putin’: California congressman on Ukraine trip saw fallout from Trump’s call

California Congressman John Garamendi’s trip to Ukraine was planned long before the Eastern European country found itself in the middle of a U.S. impeachment inquiry.

The timing of the bipartisan congressional delegation’s visit last week, just days after House Democrats announced their impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, made the subject unavoidable.

Garamendi, of Walnut Grove, and five other representatives on the trip agreed not to try to investigate allegations related to the president’s possible impeachment. But they did discuss $400 million in American military aid that is at the heart of the domestic political dispute — and how Ukraine urgently needs that money to fight its ongoing war with Russia.

A whistleblower from within the U.S. intelligence community has accused the president of leveraging the military aid to push Ukraine to investigate a Democratic political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden. The president and Republicans in Congress insist there was no quid pro quo in the discussions between Trump, U.S. diplomats and Ukrainian officials.

Garamendi said their meetings in Ukraine reinforced how significant the military aid is for the country, which is fighting to resist any further Russian takeover of its territory. Russia seized the Crimea, a peninsula that was part of Ukraine, in 2014 and continues to battle for parts of Eastern Ukraine.

In conversations with Ukraine’s Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, “they all said that that support and the equipment that comes with it is absolutely essential to their defense and their continuing effort to regain the territory that has been stolen,” said Garamendi, a Democrat.

He also noted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had only been in office two weeks when he received the now-infamous phone call from President Trump, asking for help in investigating the Bidens.

“Trump comes in, in the infancy of that government, and places a very, very, heavy burden on the new government,” Garamendi asserted. He basically said, “Play ball with me or else.”

Garamendi said the delegation heard from officials in Ukraine that the temporary freeze in military aid the president ordered over the summer has created “uncertainty in the new government as to whether there would be continued support from the U.S. as well as from NATO,” the treaty organization uniting militaries in Europe and North America.

In that sense, “This whole Ukraine thing is an enormous victory for (Vladimir) Putin,” Garamendi said, noting the Russian president continues to work to undermine its smaller neighbor, as well as other countries in the region. Russia has long had an adversarial relationship with NATO, which it believes is trying to undermine its influence in the region.

Garamendi and the rest of the congressional delegation also met with officials in Estonia and Poland, where he said nerves are also frayed by the Trump-Zelenksy episode. Both Estonian and Polish leaders are aware of the hold-up in aid to Ukraine “and they are very, very concerned about the willingness of America to come to their aid if they were attacked by Russia,” the six-term congressman said.

The other lawmakers on the trip were Reps. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, Vicky Hartzler R-Missouri, Tom O’Halleran D-Arizona, John Shimkus R-Illinois and Jenniffer González-Colón R-Puerto Rico,

The lawmakers on the trip sought to reassure their Eastern European allies that they will continue to deliver military aid to the countries. “What they wanted to hear, what we wanted to say was, have no doubt the U.S. Congress will continue to supply the necessary money and authority to purchase these weapons and the training programs,” Garamendi said. “We told them we’d do everything necessary to see to it.”

The congressman acknowledged, however, that the White House may not take the same position. “Nobody can speak for Trump,” he said.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.