Behind the Scenes of My Trip to Ukraine and Munich
I just got back from a return trip to visit President Zelensky in Ukraine and a stop at the important Munich Security Conference in Germany. As is my habit, on the long plane ride home I wrote a candid, behind-the-scenes summary of my trip. I find that these journals help me digest my thoughts about these foreign trips, but it’s also a helpful way for you to see what really happens on these congressional delegation trips, and why they are so critical to U.S. foreign policy. As usual, this summary is long, but I hope you’ll find it worth your time.
Back to Ukraine
In the middle of the impeachment process, I approached my friend, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, on the floor of the Senate.
“Ron, are you going to the Munich Security Conference this year?” I asked.
“If the trial ends in time,” he replied.
“I have an idea. I think you and I should go see Zelensky on the Friday before the conference. Wouldn’t it be important for you and me to go there directly after impeachment, to send a signal that there is no distance between us, or Democrats and Republicans in general, on supporting Ukraine?”
Johnson immediately agreed, and we quietly started to plan. Back in September, Johnson and I traveled to Ukraine together to see Zelensky and found ourselves right in the middle of the final stages of the corruption scheme that would become the subject of the impeachment of President Trump. We ended up both submitting testimony to the House impeachment committee, and our trip was referenced multiple times by the House managers and the lawyers for the President during the Senate trial.
So on Thursday night, Johnson, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, and I boarded a plane for Frankfurt, Germany, where we would pick up a smaller plane to take us the rest of the way to Kyiv.
On the red-eye flight to Frankfurt, I was restless. At our September meeting with Zelensky, I made a point of telling him that getting involved with Rudy Giuliani and the Trump reelection campaign was potentially disastrous for Ukraine. And I knew that I had to deliver the same message to Zelensky now. Unbelievably, Giuliani was back in Ukraine in the middle of the impeachment trial trying to dig up more dirt on Vice President Biden and other Trump rivals — the corruption was still ongoing — and I felt like I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t once again remind Zelensky of the damage he could do to the country’s reputation if he ever succumbed to the pressure. I couldn’t sleep as I tried to figure out the tactful way to continue to make this case.
We landed in Ukraine around lunch and headed to a small coffee shop to meet the new chief U.S. diplomat in Kyiv. The turnover in the U.S. embassy there has, of course, been dizzying. Marie Yovanovitch was fired in the spring. Bill Taylor resigned after providing testimony of Trump’s corruption, as did the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. The United States has had five (yes, five) chiefs of mission in less than a year, and this is devastating for our continuity of effort in Ukraine. The new, temporary chief, Kristina Kvien, seemed competent and thoughtful, as she briefed us on Zelensky’s continued reform efforts. Sitting next to her at the coffee shop was David Holmes, one of the star witnesses of the impeachment trial (Holmes was the staffer who overheard Ambassador Sondland’s call with Trump in which Trump told him that all he cared about in Ukraine were the investigations into the Bidens). Unlike Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, Holmes has not (yet?) been purged by Trump. Holmes is a smart, committed career non-political State Department staffer. I worry that it may just be a matter of time before Trump’s campaign of vengeance reaches Holmes too.
After a half-hour meeting, we made the short walk to the presidential palace. Zelensky is impressive. A first-time politician who made his name as a TV star in Ukraine, he is pushing hard for reform. He has passed a number of bills into law taking on corruption, and Trump’s undermining of Zelensky, just at the moment when Zelensky was beginning to make progress on cleaning up the country, was devastating.
But on this day, Zelensky has a new beef with the United States, and he doesn’t waste any time expressing it. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded news outlet in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, aired a story reporting that Zelensky had secretly met with a Russian official during his recent trip to the Middle East. He says this is not true, and he worried that since the outlet is funded by the U.S. government, there will be an impression that the U.S. government is trying to find another way to undermine his government.
His complaint is a sign of how fragile our relationship with Ukraine is, and how even the smallest slights now can do so much damage to Zelensky’s need to show that, post-impeachment, he has U.S. support again. We promise him we will look into the matter. “If it matters to you,” I tell him, “then it matters to us.” He seems pleased with our response.
I have two more objectives for the meeting before we leave. First, I want to get his suggestions for how the U.S. can step up aid and support for Ukraine. I believe there is an opportunity to build support in Congress for a new aid package for Ukraine, and I want to make sure it reflects what Zelensky really needs. He calmly ticks off a short list of investments that he cannot afford in the middle of a war with Russia that the U.S. could help with.
Then, I turn to the touchier subject. “Mr. President, your instinct has always been right, to stay out of American politics. You’ve always understood the damage that could have been done if you got involved in our presidential election. But there are reports that Mayor Giuliani isn’t done trying to dig up dirt on Trump’s opponents — he was here in Ukraine in December, we understand — and I just want to ask you directly if you are still feeling pressure to help with his investigations?”
Zelensky clearly doesn’t really want to talk about this, and I don’t blame him. But he tells us that, though Giuliani has long wanted a meeting with him, he has always stayed clear of Giuliani and intends to keep it that way. He has no intention of getting involved in American politics any more than he already has, unintentionally. “As an actor, I always dreamed of becoming famous in America,” he tells us, breaking away from Ukrainian and speaking to us in English. “And now I’m famous in America. But not the way I wanted!”
The preeminent national security conference in the world each year takes place in February in Munich — the Munich Security Conference. Back when I was traveling around the world at the right hand of Senator John McCain, I came to this conference often with him. I haven’t been in several years, but with the impeachment scandal and near-war with Iran, I decide that this is a year that I need to be there. And there is someone specific at Munich that I feel that I need to see.
As usual, there is a big congressional delegation there. By the time Johnson, Barrasso, and I arrive late on Friday night, Speaker Pelosi has landed with a large delegation of House members, and over a dozen Senators are on the ground in Munich too.
On Friday night I attend a dinner hosted by the Open Society Foundations (George Soros’ organization that funds pro-democracy efforts around the world) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I am one of the dinner’s speakers, and I make the case to the distinguished attendees that, “Americans are frankly losing faith in democracy, as are Europeans. Democracy hasn’t delivered during the past fifty years for people in my country. Wages aren’t going up, retirement is getting harder, climate change is still a menace. Meanwhile, the super rich keep getting richer and richer. If we want to support democracy, then we need to start making it work for regular people instead of just billionaires.”
On Saturday morning, I attend two breakfast meetings to deliver similar messages (one hosted by the American Council on Germany and another convened by former Democratic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Republican National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley). I want people in Munich to understand that for America to be strong internationally, we need to be strong domestically. And so when they hear Democratic presidential candidates focusing almost exclusively on domestic economic issues, that doesn’t mean that these candidates aren’t interested in the world — it just means that they believe a strong America at home equates to a strong America abroad.
For the rest of the day, I have two objectives. First, I want to continue my goal of rebuilding support for the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. I attend a presentation to the conference by Zelensky (who flew into Munich just after us on Friday night), and Johnson and I are asked to give remarks to the group following Zelensky. I remind the audience (and Zelensky) that “in every crisis is an opportunity,” and now, in the wake of impeachment, we can build a new level of support for Ukraine in Congress.
Next, I recruit Republican Senator Rob Portman to attend a lunch hosted in Zelensky’s honor at a restaurant down the street from the conference. Portman and I offer similar remarks to the lunch crowd, and we get the chance to talk directly with Zelensky some more. On the short walk back to the conference, I buttonhole Portman to support the legislation I am considering drafting to increase American help for Ukraine. “That sounds like a good idea,” Portman says. By mid-afternoon, I feel very confident that Zelensky is going to come away from this weekend more confident than ever that, at the very least, the United States Congress has his back again.
My second objective is to make some waves within the large Middle East delegation that is in Munich. Trump’s Middle East policy has been an unmitigated disaster. Everywhere you look in the region, he has helped make things worse. Our troops are at risk of being kicked out of Iraq. Iran is restarting elements of their nuclear program. Syria is more dangerous than ever. Lebanon has fallen into the hands of Hezbollah. I have been invited to sit on a panel of Middle East Foreign Ministers. I am the sole U.S. figure on the panel, and I use the spotlight to make the case that the overriding U.S. interest in the region should not be trying to help Saudi Arabia gain preeminence over Iran, as is the policy priority under Trump. Our goal instead should be reducing, not ramping up, tensions between these two regional powers, not on trying to make sure one side eventually prevails. No doubt Saudi Arabia is an ally, but they are a deeply imperfect ally, and we should be more conscious about when our interests align with their interests. My comments are provocative, but they are designed to be. I want the leaders in Munich to understand that Democrats have a different view of the Middle East than Trump — this will be welcome news to some at the conference.
An Important Meeting
As the sun sets in Munich, I have one more mission. For years, I have met on occasion with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, during both the Obama and Trump Administrations. I have no delusions about Iran — they are our adversary, responsible for the killing of thousands of Americans and unacceptable levels of support for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. But I think it’s dangerous to not talk to your enemies. Discussions and negotiations are a way to ease tensions and reduce the chances for crisis. But Trump, of course, has no such interests. For the last three years, there has been no diplomatic channel between America and Iran, and not coincidentally, tensions have escalated, most recently resulting in over 100 American soldiers being injured in an Iranian rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq.
I plan to meet Zarif Saturday night in his hotel suite, and I have several goals for the meeting. First, I want to gauge whether he thinks the reprisals for the Soleimani assassination are over, and I want to make sure it is 100 percent clear to him that if any groups in Iraq that are affiliated with Iran attack the United States’ forces in Iraq, this will be perceived as an unacceptable escalation. Zarif may not have control over Iran’s military decisions, but he is the country’s chief diplomat and I want him to know that our government is united on this point.
Second, I want his help in Yemen. I tell him that I know it is not a coincidence that the recent uptick in attacks from Iranian-aligned Houthis in Yemen started right after the Soleimani killing. I tell him that Iran shouldn’t let the Houthis waste an opportunity for peace. Of course, he predictably tells me that it’s the Saudis, not the Houthis, that are holding up progress on peace talks. But I do manage to get his attention on one subject. I bring up a recent terrible decision by the Houthis to implement a 2 percent “tax” on all humanitarian aid being distributed by the U.S. and other donors in Yemen. It has been temporarily but not permanently suspended, and caused the Trump Administration to rightly consider pulling our aid efforts. Zarif claims he is just learning of the issue this weekend, and he tells me that he is going to get to work on solving this problem when he returns home (while also coyly “reminding” me that he doesn’t control the Houthis).
Lastly, I raise the issue of American prisoners held in Iran. He is ready for this inquiry — he already knows how much I care about releasing innocent Americans from custody — and we spend a few minutes discussing how the situation could be resolved.
I don’t know whether my visit with Zarif will make a difference. I’m not the President or the Secretary of State — I’m just a rank and file U.S. Senator. I cannot conduct diplomacy on behalf of the whole of the U.S. government, and I don’t pretend to be in a position to do so. But if Trump isn’t going to talk to Iran, then someone should. And Congress is a co-equal branch of government, responsible along with the Executive for setting foreign policy. A lack of dialogue leaves nations guessing about their enemy’s intentions, and guessing wrong can lead to catastrophic mistakes.
Sunday morning, exhausted, I climb onto a plane for the long ride back to the United States. My extended family always takes a vacation together during the kids’ February school break, and I am a day late in joining the rest of the Murphy clan. To do this job right, it takes immense amounts of time away from family. That’s the worst part of this job. But on trips like this, when you feel like, even as just a rank-and-file Senator, you made a difference for the security of the country, it makes the time away a little easier to endure.