President Donald Trump wondered how long Ukraine would survive in a fight against Russia, according to an audio recording from a private dinner in which he also calls for the summary dismissal of then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
A recording of the April 30, 2018, dinner was released Saturday by a lawyer for Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Parnas was one of the attendees at the dinner, which was held at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.
"Think Russia ever goes in and gets Ukraine?" Trump asks one companion.
"They would love to but they're scared of you," someone replies.
About halfway through the 90-minute conversation, one of the participants mentions Yovanovitch as a Democratic holdover and alleges she was badmouthing Trump to embassy staff in Kyiv.
"She's walking around telling everybody he's going to be impeached," one dinner participant says.
Trump quickly responds, "She'll be gone tomorrow." He later says, "Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don't care. Take her out. Do it."
Yovanovitch was recalled a year later and was a witness in the Democrats' impeachment inquiry, contending she was removed because she was an obstacle to Trump's effort to get Ukraine to investigate his domestic political rivals. She denied speaking badly of Trump while at the embassy in Kyiv.
It's unclear if the recording will become relevant to Trump's impeachment trial. It appears to offer ammunition to both sides, confirming Trump's proximity to Giuliani associates who later orchestrated the smear campaign that led to Yovanovitch's removal. But it also features Trump praising Ukrainians pushing back against Russian aggression.
In the recording, Trump hails Ukrainians as "great fighters."
"They've been fighting for so long they don't know what to do without fighting," he says.
He separately asked his companion how long Ukraine would last "in a fight with Russia."
"Without us, not very long," someone replies.
"Without us," Trump echoes.
Trump also asks whether Ukraine felt they were "going to be OK" in their conflict with Russia.
"They feel they're going to be OK if you support them," comes the reply.
"It's always us that has to support everyone," Trump says, before complaining that European nations weren't sharing enough of the burden.
The question of burden sharing was a feature of Trump's defense Saturday in his impeachment trial.
Trump's attorney emphasized that one reason Trump paused aid to Ukraine was because of a complaint about whether Europe contributed enough to the effort to push back against Russian aggression.
Ukraine has been in an active war with Russia since 2014, when Moscow sent troops to occupy Crimea. The incursion ignited years of steadily climbing tension between Russia and the West, a period marked by increasing Russian interference in U.S. and European elections.
Democrats say that is a flimsy excuse for what they see as a naked effort to pressure Ukraine — which is dependent on U.S. support — to hurt his political rivals.
Much of the dinner was focused on discussions of the energy industry, legalizing marijuana and armchair politics.
Trump repeats familiar refrains attacking Democrats, referring twice to the "deep state" — a derisive attack on federal agencies he has accused of working against him — and suggests Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton might have fared better against him in 2016 if she named Sen. Bernie Sanders as her running mate.
There were discussions of Kanye West, millennials and how Republicans would fare in the 2018 midterms — with Trump predicting they'd do better than expected.
The dinner participants also discuss weakening Europe's dependence on Russian energy.
At one point, a dinner companion notes that if the U.S. can export LNG to Europe, "Putin's done."
Trump also criticizes Germany for a pipeline deal with Russia. "And we're supposed to be fighting Russia," he says, complaining that the U.S. foots "90 percent of the cost of NATO."