Not only did the president hold up aid to Ukraine; he made its release contingent on a statement advancing his own political interests.
Newly released testimony in the House impeachment inquiry shows in new detail how the Trump administration’s demands for a quid pro quo from the Ukrainian government operated.
Ambassador Gordon Sondland, in an addendum to his original testimony released alongside his deposition transcript today, acknowledges telling a Ukrainian official that the country wouldn’t receive U.S. military aid without a statement about public corruption from President Volodymyr Zelensky. And other testimony and communications show that the statement had to specifically mention President Donald Trump’s personal political obsessions.
“I now recall speaking with Mr. [Andrey] Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said in his update, referring to an aide to the Ukrainian president. “Soon thereafter, I came to understand that, in fact, the public statement would need to come directly from President Zelensky himself.”
While Republicans initially defended Trump by insisting he had never tried to extract a quid pro quo from Ukraine, that defense has become untenable as a mountain of evidence, as well as an ill-advised outburst of honesty from the White House chief of staff, shows it has no basis.
Related: Why America Needs Ukraine
Now Trump’s defenders have adopted a new talking point: It was a quid pro quo, but not a corrupt quid pro quo. According to this claim, Trump may have demanded that Ukraine combat corruption in exchange for releasing the aid, but he was simply trying to fight corruption overseas, a core principle of American foreign policy. That move might have skirted the law by holding up congressionally appropriated funds, but the move was fitting and well intentioned. The testimony released today cuts straight through that excuse, suggesting that not only did Trump hold up the aid in exchange for a statement (the quid pro quo), but he did so to further his own political prospects (the corrupt quid pro quo).
Among the documents released today is a set of text messages between American and Ukrainian officials, discussing a statement that Ukrainian officials understood was essential to getting the administration to agree to a White House meeting. On the evening of August 12, Yermak sent a draft statement to Kurt Volker, then a special envoy to Ukraine.
“Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians,” Yermak’s draft stated. “I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, which in turn will prevent a recurrence of this problem in the future.”
But that wasn’t enough for the Americans. Rudy Giuliani, Volker and Sondland both testified, insisted that any Ukrainian statement mention two specific things. The next afternoon, on a new chain adding Sondland, Volker sent Yermak an edited draft. “Following is text with insert at the end for the 2 key items. We will work on official request,” he said. The updated draft read:
Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent a recurrence of this problem in the future.
The “2 key items” are indeed important, because they connect directly back to Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky and the president’s obsessions. On that call, he brought up a baseless conspiracy theory holding that Ukraine was behind hacking in the 2016 U.S. election. In their testimony, both Volker and Sondland separately recounted an angry outburst from the president in an Oval Office meeting, in which he attacked Ukraine for its supposed opposition to his candidacy in 2016. “They tried to take me down,” the ambassadors each recalled him saying.
On the call, Trump also appeared to bring up Burisma, a Ukrainian natural-gas company on whose board Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, served. The name Burisma does not appear in the partial transcript released by the White House, but it’s clear from context that Trump referred to a particular company, and in testimony last week, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official who was on the call, reportedly testified that Trump referred to Burisma.
When Trump brought these ideas up on the July 25 call, it set off alarm bells at the White House. Vindman himself raised concerns with his superiors. Multiple people brought their objections to an official, who then filed a whistle-blower complaint. There was reportedly widespread feeling that the request for the investigation was inappropriate. A White House lawyer had the partial transcript moved to a very secure server.
Yet even as the White House scrambled to cover up the call, Trump-administration officials in the field, like Volker and Sondland, continued to understand that the Burisma and hacking mentions were essential to the president. The Ukrainians tried to satisfy the Trump administration with a general anti-corruption statement, and Volker—whether approving of Trump’s desires or not—made clear that was not enough.
Though the White House issued a statement distancing the president from the quid pro quo that Sondland acknowledged, Sondland and Volker both testified that Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, insisted that the statement include Burisma and the 2016 election. The edited statement doesn’t make much sense—even in Trump’s conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden, there’s been no allegation that his role on the Burisma board was tied to Ukrainian interference in U.S. elections.
Moreover, the statement is steeped in Orwellian irony. Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue these investigation in order to further his chances at reelection in 2020. The Ukrainian government was having its arm twisted into giving a statement swearing to stop interference in U.S. elections—even as the statement was itself coerced interference in U.S. elections. (Sondland testified that a demand to investigate Hunter Biden would be improper.)
The demolition of the binary between the good and the corrupt quid pro quo poses the latest political challenge to Trump and his defenders. The president has argued that everything he did was totally appropriate. Republicans in Congress have been slouching toward a compromise position, arguing that what Trump did was bad, but not impeachable. The testimony released today makes that argument even less appetizing than it already was—though it may still taste better than the alternatives.