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One question the impeachment inquiry probably isn’t going to answer: What is it with Trump and Russia, anyway?

Trump has ordered aides not to testify in the impeachment hearings. He’s going to the Supreme Court to avoid turning over his tax records. The question, as it has been for his entire presidency, is what exactly is he hiding — and does it have anything to do with Russia? 

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, President Donald Trump
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy listening during a bilateral meeting with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 25.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As impeachment hearings start to create the public record of the Trump administration’s dealing with Ukraine, it’s important to keep in mind that in some fundamental ways, this is less about Ukraine than it is about Russia — and we’re not much closer to understanding Trump’s relationship with Moscow than we were before he became president. 

Sure, in a narrower legal sense, the question is precisely whether Trump withheld military aid and a possible White House meeting to get a public announcement by Ukraine of an investigation into Joe Biden and his son. Did his halfwit band of fellow travelers (this means you, Rudy) persuade Trump that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered with the 2016 election and persuade him to demand that, too, be investigated?

Trump can – probably will – be impeached based on the answers to those questions. But justified as it might be, that would do little to win over those who argue that the punishment is greater than the crime. It would also seem too small compared to all of Trump’s transgressions, and probably leave a longstanding and potentially more pernicious problem untouched: What is it with Trump and Russia, anyhow?

Ukraine is not Russia. But geography is fate. As long as Ukraine’s bigger neighbor defines itself in opposition to the West and western values, Ukraine will be torn between the two. And size matters. We probably wouldn’t be talking much about this if it had happened in Kyrgyzstan. Ukraine, however, is big enough to be important to both sides. For Vladimir Putin it is perhaps the essential link in a sphere of influence insulating Russia from the West. Parts of Ukraine look to the west; parts to the east. Borderlands like this are frequently unstable. 

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There was a lot of money to be made in the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a lot of uncertainty about Ukraine’s place in the world. That created fertile ground for people like Paul Manafort and Hunter Biden. Ukrainians were willing to pay Manafort handsomely for his influence in the United States and his advice – to a political party amenable to Russian interests — on how to get and keep political power. And while there is no shred of illegality about it, there is no other plausible way to look at the hiring of Hunter Biden by a Ukrainian natural gas company than as an attempt to build connections to U.S. political power structure. 

Then, of course, that $391 million in U.S. military aid that Trump held up was intended to counter Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. Trump also wants to believe that it wasn’t Russia that meddled in the election, despite the conclusions of his own government, congressional investigators and the Mueller probe. In that infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he alluded to a stew of conspiracy theories about Ukrainian involvement. Cyber investigators have traced the first ingredient to a man in England posting under an alias to push a pro-Russian agenda. 

This big pot of nonsense was served up to Trump by Manafort and the president’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn (both with unsavory connections to Moscow and both convicted criminals now). Rudy Giuliani was right there, too, spoon in hand. 

Russia didn’t create this scandal in all of its sordid detail. Even its best agents of disinformation couldn’t have imagined it into being. Foreign policy experts can, and should, argue about whether and how much Western policy pushed Russia into a corner – and what U.S. policy toward Ukraine should be. But none of it would have happened if Russia weren’t the aggrieved nationalistic force it has become; nor would it have happened if anyone other than Trump were president.

That brings us right back to the subject of inconclusive investigations and endless speculation. What is Trump’s relationship with Russia? 

It would take too much space to list all the weird events that make you wonder whether Trump is in Putin’s pocket, an egotistical bumbler – or both. But here, courtesy of Elaine Kamarck at the Brookings Institution, is a good reminder.

One of Trump’s clear successes has been keeping anyone from figuring this out. Robert Mueller found plenty of smoke and insufficient fire. The Trump associates who have been charged and convicted mostly have gone down for financial crimes, or for protecting the boss. With the conviction of Roger Stone on Friday, the count is now six. 

One thread for most of them is lying — to either Congress or the FBI. Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering. Prosecutors argued that the truth of his dealings with Wikileaks would have looked bad for Trump. But as David Graham wrote for the Atlantic, “if his goal to was to protect Trump – and obscure the truth – his obstruction worked.”

Trump has ordered aides not to testify in the impeachment hearings. He’s going to the Supreme Court to avoid turning over his tax records. One thing about Trump: You can be pretty sure this is not about principle. The question, as it has been for his entire presidency, is what exactly is he hiding? Does it have anything to do with Russia? If so, what?