KIEV, Ukraine – Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who is leading the Republican presidential field in the polls, told a gathering of the European elite in the Ukrainian capital that America and Europe should be doing more to support Ukraine.
In an unusual appearance Friday night by satellite feed, Trump told participants at the pro-Western Yalta European Security conference why he was seeking the GOP presidential nomination and expressed support for Ukraine.
“My feeling toward the Ukraine and toward the entire area is very very strong. I know many people who live in the Ukraine. They’re friends of mine. They’re fantastic people,” Trump said, noting that he had known and admired Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist Victor Pinchuk for many years and had learned much from him.
Trump also suggested that President Barack Obama was partly responsible for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aggression by paying only “lip-service” to reversing Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea over a year ago. “Our president is not strong and he’s not doing what he should be doing for the Ukraine,” Trump said. “Part of the problem that the Ukraine has with the United States is that Putin does not respect our president whatsoever,” Trump said.
Trump’s remarks to this assembly of the Ukrainian and European political elite in Ukraine, which has been fighting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russian-supported secessionist forces in the country’s industrial heartland, differed from earlier statements he made in August about Ukraine’s plight. Last month, he told a political rally in North Carolina that Europeans, and wealthy Germany in particular, should do more to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea and he “wouldn’t care” if Ukraine joined NATO.
On Friday night, by contrast, Trump said that Ukraine was “not getting the support that you need” and deserve.
Many in the audience seemed stunned that Pinchuk would invite Trump to address his conference, since Pinchuk is known to have given millions to the Clinton Family Foundation and has hosted Bill and Hillary Clinton at earlier conferences. Indeed, Bill Clinton also appeared by satellite linkup Friday to express his support for Ukraine and implicitly criticize Obama by stressing the need to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which Obama has not done lately.
In an interview Thursday, Pinchuk said that he had invited Trump to express his views because he was leading the GOP presidential field by huge margins in the polls and, therefore, he thought it important for Ukrainians to learn more about Trump and his foreign policy views.
Asked by Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster and Fox news commentator, what he would do about Ukraine’s conflict with Russia if he were elected, Trump told the 350 conferees that Ukraine was not “given the proper respect from other parts of Europe,” which he would remedy, and that Obama, too, was not doing enough to help Ukraine, a comment that prompted applause and a few cheers from a largely skeptical crowd.
In his 20-minute appearance in Kiev, which was frequently interrupted by satellite connection problems, Trump repeated much of what he has told Americans. He called Obama a leader who “waffles.” He called his recent deal with Iran to prevent the radical regime from acquiring nuclear weapons one of “the worst contracts that anybody has seen.”
Trump also supported the creation of a “safe zone” in Syria, saying that he doubted Europeans could handle the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East. The world, he said, was getting ever more dangerous. “There’s conflict everywhere,” he said, noting that Ukraine had withstood many challenges and crises that would have crushed other countries.
Trump’s remarks about the need to support Ukraine differed from his statements in August in which he predicted that he would “get along very well with Putin” because he knew “many of his people: and had hosted a major event for him two years ago in Moscow. “It was a tremendous success,” said Trump, praising his own accomplishments, a hallmark of his stump speeches.
He said he was running because “I love my country, but it’s having a lot problems." Americans, he added, supported him because they wanted someone “who’s strong and frankly, can make American great again.”
Reaction to Trump’s appearance here and his remarks was decidedly mixed. Several participants seemed aghast that Pinchuk would invite so polarizing an upstart in American politics to address the 12th annual gathering of political and academic heavyweights.
Dominique Strauss Khan, the former French political superstar whose career was felled by allegations that he had sexually abused a maid in a New York hotel, called Trump’s appearance“incredible.” Several Ukrainian and European participants asked incredulously whether Trump could actually secure his party’s presidential nomination. But while Trump’s speech from New York was initially greeted by some jeers in the conference hall, he received polite, if not enthusiastic, applause at the abrupt end of the linkup.
For his part, Trump said he had agreed to speak because he had known and admired Pinchuk for years. What went unsaid was Trump’s apparent desire to counter the American public’s perception that he knows and cares little about foreign policy.
Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2015).