(CNSNews.com) – President Trump on Wednesday linked his decision to delay U.S. military aid to Ukraine to concerns about high levels of corruption in that country, and especially to frustration that the Europeans weren’t doing more to assist their neighbor, which serves as a bulwark between Europe and Russia.
Trump also said he released the funding last month at the urging of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) – who co-founded and co-chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus – and others who stressed the importance of helping out Ukraine.
His comments at the White House, spoken alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, implicitly challenged the narrative driving the Democrats’ impeachment push – that Trump delayed the appropriated military aid in order to pressurize the new leadership in Kyiv to cooperate in a probe aimed at discrediting 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden.
Trump told reporters Wednesday that he had been troubled about giving aid to Ukraine “from day one.”
“I say, ‘How come it’s always the United States that gets ripped?’”
He said that he wants to help Ukraine and that he likes President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump said he initially delayed the aid because Ukraine had been “rated one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” while his second concern was that Europe was not doing enough to support it militarily.
When Portman called him to urge him to release the funding, Trump said, he told him that he hated the U.S. being the one to give Ukraine money while Europe does not do enough.
“I gave the money because Rob Portman and others called me and asked,” he said. “But I don’t like to be the sucker. And European countries are helped [by Ukraine] far more than we are, and those countries should pay more to help Ukraine.”
Trump did not elaborate on how Ukraine helps Europe, although he did describe the country as “a big, wide, beautiful wall” between Europe and Russia.
The White House lifted a hold on $250 million in military aid for Ukraine on September 12, one day after Portman spoke to Trump by phone and urged him to release it.
Portman confirmed last week that, when he spoke to Trump on September 11, the president’s concerns had focused on the need for Europeans to do more.
Speaking on Fox News on Wednesday, he recalled that, during their phone conversation “the president was very clear with me, he only raised one issue, and that issue only, and that was about the Europeans not doing enough.”
“He said, ‘Rob, you know, I understand we need to help Zelensky and I know you want this aid to go, but I’m worried that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, aren’t doing enough to help Ukraine.’”
“I don’t disagree with him on that,” Portman added. “We were kind of at the point where we had to obligate the funds so they could be effective for Ukraine to defend itself, so we needed to get the money going. But, you know, I think the president was interested in using the funds as leverage to try to get the Europeans to do more, that’s what he said to me.”
Military support for Ukraine has received strong bipartisan support since Russia’s military intervention in the east of the country and its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The Obama administration that year insisted on restricting military aid to “non-lethal” assistance, but Congress then passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, authorizing the provision of defensive lethal weapons, including anti-tank and anti-armor weapons. President Obama signed it into law that December.
National Defense Authorization Acts between FY 2016 and FY 2019 authorized security aid, including “lethal assistance,” to Ukraine, with Portman playing a driving role. In 2018, the State Department approved the sale to Ukraine of Javelin anti-tank missiles, launchers, and associated equipment worth $47 million.
The U.S. provided $318 million in security assistance to Ukraine in FY 2016, $262 million in FY 2017, and $298 in FY 2018.
Last June, the Pentagon announced $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine – “for additional training, equipment, and advisory efforts to build the capacity of Ukraine’s armed forces” – bringing the total security assistance since 2014 to $1.5 billion.
It tied the cooperation to ongoing progress in reforms of Ukraine’s defense sector.
That is the funding that was held up by the White House, until September 12.
Calls to reduce foreign aid or link it to recipients’ cooperation, and protests about other countries – particularly in Europe, but also allies in Asia – not spending more have been regular themes during the Trump presidency.
As the president pointed out on Wednesday, Ukraine a poor record when it comes to corruption.
In Transparency International’s 2018 “Corruption Perceptions Index,” the former Soviet republic is ranked in 126th place out of 183 countries assessed.
The CPI scores, which are based on 13 separate surveys and expert assessments, indicate a country’s perceived level of public sector corruption, with 0 being “highly corrupt” and 100 being “very clean.”
Ukraine’s score in 2018 was 32 which, while poor, reflected an ongoing pattern of small improvements over the previous six years – 25 in 2013, 26 in 2014, 27 in 2015, 28 in 2016, 30 in 2017, and 32 in 2018.
(The 2018 CPI scored the U.S. 71, placing it 22nd in the list of 183 countries. Demark topped the list, with a score of 88, while Somalia was at the bottom, with a score of 10.)