Trump wasn’t responsive. Monotone and standoffish, he remained stubbornly aloof to Zelensky’s efforts to make a personal connection. The president wasn’t using my talking points at all. He may never have seen them. As the conversation progressed, my worst fears about the call kept being reconfirmed. Off on a tangent of his own, the president was aggravating a potentially explosive foreign-policy situation.
And so I did what we in the foreign-policy community so often found ourselves doing during the Trump presidency. I began to accept that all our hopes for today’s chat had been dashed. I had to move on. In the face of the president’s erratic behavior, that’s what we’d all learned to do. I began mentally walking through new ways to rectify the situation. If the hold on security assistance to Ukraine was not lifted by early August, the Department of Defense would not be able to send the funds required by Congress. I was thinking fast. There was a tentative plan for Bolton to take a personal trip to the region I covered. If Bolton met with Zelensky on that trip, could we get another bite from Trump, maybe start shifting things back in the right direction? Maybe the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, could have a phone conversation with Zelensky and report back to the president that Ukraine warranted a shift in the antagonistic approach coming from the Oval Office? And I could always redouble my efforts to coordinate an interagency position: Maybe the unanimity of government certainty that aid to Ukraine was a national-security imperative would sway the president and get him to lift the hold.
It may seem surprising that my colleagues and I were busy thinking up ways to pursue a Ukraine policy out of sync with the direction that the president of the United States himself now seemed to be taking. But seemed is the key word. The policy of U.S. support for Ukraine had remained in place all along, with the unanimous consent of the secretary of state, all the Cabinet deputies, and bipartisan congressional leadership, including Trump’s most loyal followers: Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and the chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. It’s true that odd, outlying data points contradicted the policy: Giuliani, Sondland, Mulvaney, and their mysterious errand; the hold on funds; the president’s negative tone on this call with Zelensky. But these indicators were consistent with a pattern in which the president made ill-conceived decisions only to retract them later.