White House

Trump’s Russian and Ukrainian Connections, Explained

While the allegations at the core of the current presidential impeachment effort are fairly straightforward, the larger story of the president’s alleged misconduct can become extraordinarily complicated, as Republicans are actively spreading Russian disinformation to defend the president, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Additionally, quite a large number of people are involved in this story, each with unique and often mysterious worldviews and motives. While you may know the basic allegation that Donald Trump asked the president of Ukraine for assistance in his personal political campaign in exchange for desperately-needed military assistance, thereby trying to cheat in his next election, you may have not heard about, or have forgotten, the numerous associates of Donald Trump who are linked to Russia and Ukraine, some of whom are currently serving time in jail.

Trump’s connections with Russia and Ukraine predate matters directly related to impeachment. Trump has a substantial personal financial investment in Russia, a corrupt dictatorship, as he has pursued building a Trump property in Moscow for decades. Infamously, Trump publicly implored Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account when he was the nominee and she was his opponent, but was not found to have successfully colluded with the Russian government to promote his 2016 campaign. The day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified that his team had not found evidence of successful collusion with Russia, President Trump called Ukraine’s President Zelensky for help in his domestic political campaign, apparently having believed he had gotten away with it the first time and thus could do so again without facing consequences. To this day, Trump contends that he did nothing wrong and that his call was “perfect,” and while he often lies, he likely believes this to be true, as he is prone to subscribing to conspiracy theories that are disproven but nonetheless help him politically.

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Trump’s connections with Ukraine are related to his connections with Russia. Paul Manafort, the president’s campaign chairman who is now a convicted felon, previously helped in the campaign of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was a corrupt politician who was preferred by Russia and acted to strengthen Ukraine’s ties with Russia. He was removed from office by the Ukrainian parliament, who also issued a warrant for his arrest for “mass killing of civilians.” Yanukovych now lives in exile in Russia and was succeeded by oligarch Petro Poroshenko, whose administration was also involved in widespread corruption. Poroshenko’s reelection efforts were defeated by the election of current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who won a landslide victory after campaigning on a platform of rooting out corruption.

When Poroshenko was elected president, Joe Biden was the Vice President and had urged President Obama to provide Ukraine with military assistance after that country was invaded by Russia, which he declined to do. So Biden called Poroshenko and urged the newly-elected President to reform his country’s corruption-laden political system, explaining that corruption makes it difficult for other countries to work with them, particularly in their fight against Russia. At around the same time, Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, joined the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, in large part not because of the younger Biden’s experience or skills but because of the value of his last name. 

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Joe Biden, alongside most of the international community, worked to oust Ukraine’s corrupt prosecutor general who was accused of taking bribes from various companies, including Burisma, to protect them from investigation. Ultimately, this prosecutor was fired as a result of the allegations, resulting in the hiring of a prosecutor who would have been more likely to investigate Burisma. Joe Biden contends that he has not discussed Burisma with his son, and there’s no evidence to suggest that he even took Burisma into consideration when deciding to oppose the corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor. Notably, this prosecutor’s removal actually increased the chances that Burisma would be investigated, as the prosecutor was replaced by one who was less likely to accept bribes from companies like Burisma. The fact that Hunter Biden worked for Burisma while his father was the Vice President shows poor judgment and a willingness to take advantage of nepotism, but does not constitute evidence of a crime.

While based on partial truths, Trump’s narrative depends on several facts arguably invented by Moscow

The president’s narrative, then, depends on material falsehoods and happens to be identical to a Russian disinformation campaign, as Russia expert and impeachment witness Fiona Hill recently testified. Republicans and the president falsely allege that it was Ukraine, not Russia, who interfered in the 2016 American presidential election, and that Biden’s actions in Ukraine were meant to protect his son from investigation into corruption. These claims are refuted by material evidence, but have nonetheless convinced a significant portion of the American electorate, thanks to Trump and the network of media that supports him. 

While based on partial truths, Trump’s narrative depends on several facts arguably invented by Moscow in an attempt to even further divide the American electorate, as such behavior is consistent with Russia’s foreign policy, particularly in the aftermath of their successful attempt to elect a president they believed would harm the United States. Putin, a former KGB spy, often uses disinformation against his political opponents to harm them, both domestically and abroad. Throughout his presidency, Trump has repeatedly and consistently praised Russian President Putin, despite his corruption and human rights abuses, and has privately met with Putin several times. To this day, we don’t know exactly what the two presidents discussed in these closed-door meetings, as the only other people in the room were translators.

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In addition to Manafort, Putin, and Zelensky, Trump has an unusually large number of connections to people in Eastern Europe for a sitting American president. Rick Gates, for instance, worked in a high level position during the 2016 Trump campaign and briefly worked for the Trump administration before pleading guilty to lying to the FBI and conspiring against the United States by concealing millions of dollars he earned representing pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Yesterday, he was sentenced to 45 days in jail and three years’ probation for this offense. Other Trump associates with connections to Russia who are facing criminal penalties include his former personal lawyer, Micheal Cohen, self-professed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and former foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos. Furthermore, The Moscow Project, which documents the connections between Trump and Russia, has identified 272 contacts between Trump and Russia-linked operatives.

It’s no coincidence, I believe, that Trump’s ongoing abuse of power involves extorting Ukraine, an enemy of Russia and an ally of the United States

While the Mueller Report did not explicitly find that Trump successfully colluded with Russia, it did find that Trump obstructed justice by refusing to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, as he is accused of doing to Congress in the present impeachment. It’s no coincidence, I believe, that Trump’s ongoing abuse of power involves extorting Ukraine, an enemy of Russia and an ally of the United States, to the benefit of both Trump personally and Russia. In my view, Trump felt emboldened by the lack of consequences for his request for election interference from Russia, and so did so again with Ukraine, perhaps at Russia’s direction, this time bolstered by a quid pro quo. Thankfully, this second attempt has not so far been as successful, as Trump released the withheld military aid to Ukraine after he was caught and has faced accountability in the form of impeachment proceedings, which have convinced roughly half of the American electorate of the president’s substantial wrongdoing. No one can predict how the results of impeachment will affect the outcome of the next election, but one thing is clear: the theories that Trump was looking forward to impeachment as it would help him politically have been debunked, as the president is clearly troubled, as evidenced by his hundreds of tweets on the subject and his angry letter to Nancy Pelosi, by the constitutional remedy currently being exercised.


Link’s Awakening on Nintendo Switch Earns Positive Reviews, With Some Caveats

Reviews for Nintendo’s remake of the 1992 Game Boy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which releases tomorrow, September 20th, are finally live. After the date for lifting the review embargo was delayed to just a day before the game’s launch, many were worried about the quality of the game, as publishers tend to prolong review embargoes for games they expect to review poorly. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief, however, as reviews indicate that the new Switch title is a faithful, polished, and immensely enjoyable recreation of the beloved original.

One thing you’ll notice immediately upon booting up the game for the first time is the graphics. While the original game was designed around the limitations of the Game Boy’s black-and-white 160×144 display, the remake takes full advantage of the processing power and high-definition capabilities of the Switch, rendering a beautifully detailed and animated world with a unique new art style reminiscent of plastic toy figures. The game takes advantage of rendering techniques like shallow depth-of field to give the impression of a miniature diorama-style environment, brought to life by smoothly animated enemies, characters, and objects. One of the few complaints reviewers had concerned the game’s performance; during certain segments, the game’s framerate would stutter and lag, temporarily disrupting the player’s sense of immersion. These issues are minor, however, and while nothing has yet been announced it’s possible Nintendo will push out a software update that addresses these concerns.

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Another notable improvement from the original game is found in its soundtrack. While the limited processing power of the Game Boy imposed significant limitations on the score’s instrumentation, the remake features an entirely re-recorded, almost fully-orchestrated collection of songs, which are pleasing to hear even as they are repeated throughout the game. Like the game’s graphics, its reimagined soundtrack breathes new life into the game’s original melodies, highlighting and emphasizing the quality of the composition. Nintendo games are famous for the quality of their music, and Link’s Awakening, featuring compositions from the legendary Kazumi Totaka among others, is no exception.

For the most part, reviewers feel that because the original game was so good, few changes were necessary

The game’s overall design is largely unchanged from the version released 27 years ago, but some changes have been made to meet the game design standards of 2019. While the original game only displayed one screen of the environment at the time due to technological limitations, the remake scrolls smoothly across the environment, helping to make the game world feel more cohesive. While the original game only let the player save their progress in certain locations, players of the remake can save and load their game at any point in the environment, picking up right where they left off. Just as in the original game, the player traverses the environment, collecting tools and abilities, interacting with in-game characters, and solving puzzles to progress and allow an original story to unfold. These gameplay elements are largely unchanged, with the exception of features that take advantage of the Switch’s expanded number of buttons and an enhanced map system, among other minor improvements. For the most part, reviewers feel that because the original game was so good, few changes were necessary, and the fundamental gameplay experience holds up even today. While Patrick Klepek of Vice noticed that elements of the game’s design feel dated, Andrew Webster of The Verge described the game as seeming like a brand-new experience.

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The remake introduces a new feature, called Chamber Dungeons, which allows players to customize the game’s various dungeons, rearranging the order of rooms to create a new experience. While the option of creating your own Zelda dungeons sounds enticing, reviewers felt that this mode did not live up to the hype, and instead proved to be a frustrating and dull affair. Reviewers complained that the level of customizability afforded in this mode was far too restrictive, and the dungeons created in this mode ended up feeling repetitive and overly simplistic. Fortunately, this mode is entirely optional, and players who stick to the game’s main campaign won’t have to miss out on any secrets or bonuses if they choose not to bother with the Chamber Dungeons mode.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Link’s Awakening has been remade. In 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX was released for the Game Boy Color, featuring color graphics and an optional ninth dungeon which has been carried over to the Switch release. The fact that the game received such strong reviews after having been remade not just once, but twice after nearly 30 years is a testament to the quality of the core gameplay and a sign that the Switch edition of this cult classic is worth checking out, particularly if you’ve never played any version of the game before.