The White House trade representative restored some of Ukraine’s trade privileges Friday evening, reinstating benefits that were initially prepared for approval in late August.
The paperwork was expected to be routine at the time, but then-national security adviser John Bolton had warned U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer that President Trump would oppose any action that benefited Kyiv, said people briefed on the matter.
Following Bolton’s warning, the White House pulled the paperwork back. Bolton resigned in September but the paperwork continued to languish. It was finally approved Friday.
The move, announced by Lighthizer’s office, comes a day after The Washington Post reported on Bolton’s exhortation. The revelation of that exchange between Bolton and Lighthizer was the first sign that the administration’s suspension of assistance to Ukraine extended beyond Trump’s withholding of $391 million in military aid to the country — the action at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
In a statement, the White House said it suspended Ukraine’s ability to export some products to the United States on a duty-free basis in December 2017 amid long-standing concerns that the country was routinely violating U.S. intellectual property rights. It decided to reinstate roughly a third of them now, the statement said, because the Ukrainian government passed a law in 2018 that addressed U.S. concerns.
But the restoration would have come sooner, current and former administration officials said, if it weren’t for Bolton’s warning in August. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“It was pulled back shortly before it was going to POTUS’s desk,” one administration official said, referring to the Ukraine paperwork and using an acronym for the U.S. president. “Bolton intervened with Lighthizer to block it.”
It is not clear whether Trump directed Bolton to intervene over Ukraine’s trade privileges or was even aware of the discussion.
The move coincided with Trump’s withholding of congressionally authorized military aid and security assistance earmarked for Ukraine. A chief subject of the Democrat-led inquiry is the allegation that the president did so to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business activities of former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Legal experts said the use of U.S. trade policy to further Trump’s personal political agenda would constitute another improper use of his office.
“A month into the impeachment inquiry, and we are still learning every day of new damning evidence of the president’s corrupt abuse of power,” tweeted Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The White House included the Ukraine announcement in a package of trade measures dealing with the “generalized system of preferences,” or GSP, which allows 120 countries to ship roughly 1.5 percent of total U.S. imports without paying tariffs. The decree also suspended $1.3 billion in trade preferences for Thailand, citing the country’s “failure to adequately provide internationally-recognized worker rights.”