The main revelation in the latest release of transcripts from the House impeachment inquiry is that Ambassador Gordon Sondland explicitly told a Ukrainian official that the U.S. would withhold military aid until his government pledged to pursue corruption investigations that Donald Trump had a political stake in—buttressing the case that the American president engaged in a quid pro quo in order to settle scores over the 2016 U.S. election and damage Joe Biden.
But it’s also telling that this message was delivered to the Ukrainian government by Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, which, as of this writing, does not include Ukraine as a member. The testimony by Sondland and Trump’s former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, two diplomats at the center of the impeachment investigation, also offers a window into what it’s like to be a foreign government trying to make sense of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era: navigating through the thicket of Trump’s personal interests and America’s national interests, stated U.S. policy and actual U.S. policy, official U.S. representatives and shadow envoys, and mixed messages delivered by a shape-shifting cast of characters and sometimes by the same character in the same breath.
Consider, for example, what Volker had to say about Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the orchestrator of the president’s efforts to pressure Kiev into probing alleged Ukrainian interference against Trump in the 2016 election and alleged corruption by Joe Biden and his son Hunter in the country. Volker told House investigators that he repeatedly stressed to Ukrainian officials that Giuliani was a “private citizen” and did “not represent the United States government.” He recounted a meeting on July 3 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he emphasized that Giuliani, buying into allegations by a Ukrainian prosecutor general whom Volker deemed “not credible,” was amplifying a “negative narrative about Ukraine” that was influencing Trump’s thinking, and acting as an obstacle to improved relations between the two nations.
Just a week after that meeting, however, Volker was texting Giuliani, “I think we have an opportunity to get you what you need,” and obliging a request from Andrey Yermak, an aide to the Ukrainian president, to connect him with the president’s lawyer. “I feel that the key for many things is Rudi,” Yermak wrote to Volker. If Volker disputed Yermak’s assessment, there’s no record of it in the text messages that he handed over to the committees. Ukrainian officials came to believe that dealing with Giuliani was the best way to convey their views directly to Trump, Volker conceded to investigators.
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In another text exchange, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko vented frustration with the disconnect between what he was hearing from Trump’s officials and what he understood to be true regarding Trump’s intentions. In discussing a potential White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky, Prystaiko criticized Volker for portraying the meeting to the Ukrainian as a done deal. “I must admit, I felt that you sugarcoated a message on a visit, or the message I got earlier was not correct,” Prystaiko texted the Ukraine envoy.
“I had probably communicated with [Prystaiko] that, you know, we’re getting nowhere here. We’re trying, but we’re not getting any date out of the White House,” Volker explained to investigators.
According to Sondland’s testimony, one reason for Volker’s struggle to secure a date is that the White House was holding back on the meeting until Kiev publicly committed to inquiries into Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election and Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.
Volker and Sondland both advocated for the meeting between the leaders, and the official policy across the Trump administration was to maintain military aid to Ukraine. But here, as elsewhere, politics upended policy. Shadow diplomats managed to make hundreds of millions of dollars in military support inexplicably disappear. In Kiev, the authorities were hearing from official channels that the United States was committed to security and reforms in Ukraine. The message via unofficial channels—which seemed to be just as important, if not more so—was that all that really mattered was getting the 2016 and Biden probes going, thank you very much.
“You had an instance where everyone that I spoke with in the policy side of the administration—you know, Pentagon, military, civilian, State Department, National Security Council—they all thought this is really important to provide this assistance,” Volker told the committees. “At least I, Secretary Pompeo, the official representatives of the U.S., never communicated to Ukrainians that it is being held for a reason. We never had a reason. And I tried to avoid talking to Ukrainians about it for as long as I could until it came out in Politico a month later.”
That left one Ukrainian official with no recourse but to text Volker the Politicoreport about the suspended assistance with the message “Need to talk with you.” As for how he responded, Volker told investigators, “You’re just trying to explain that … we have a complicated system. We have a lot of players in this. We are working this. Give us time to fix it.”
In August, at Giuliani’s insistence, Volker requested that the Ukrainian government add mentions of the specific probes Trump was pressing for when Yermak sent him a draft statement without such references included. “We spoke with Rudy … Following is text with insert at the end for the 2 key items,” Volker texted Yermak, including a new clause about investigating “Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.”
The Ukrainian government never actually issued the statement, and Volker told House investigators that this was in part because he’d advised the Ukrainians to “drop it” and instead “work on substantive issues” such as “security assistance.” He explained that he’d counseled them to “avoid anything that would look like it would play into our domestic politics” and to make no reference to Giuliani’s desired probes once he discovered that the U.S. Justice Department had not officially asked Ukraine to initiate the investigations. “I was becoming now here convinced this is going down the wrong road,” the Ukraine envoy explained to investigators regarding his change of heart. Kurt Volker the professional diplomat was rejecting the earlier proposal of Kurt Volker the political go-between.
Sondland, a Trump donor turned diplomat who seems to have been tasked with running point in Europe on Giuliani’s pet project, similarly described operating on dual foreign-policy tracks. “He just kept saying, ‘Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy,’” the ambassador told the House committees at one point, recalling an instruction from Trump during an Oval Office meeting on Ukraine in May. When Giuliani’s involvement came up while he was talking to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sondland recalled that Pompeo “rolled his eyes and said, ‘Yes, it’s something we have to deal with.’”
“People usually smiled when they heard Rudy’s name because he was always swirling around somewhere,” Sondland said. But ultimately, he suggested, their hands were tied. “Listen, the State Department was fully aware of the issues,” Sondland told investigators, “and there was very little they could do about it if the president decided he wanted his lawyer involved.”
In one especially revealing exchange, Volker seeks to persuade Bill Taylor, now famous for delivering the most damning testimony of the impeachment inquiry so far, to accept a position as the chargé d’affaires in Ukraine.
Taylor, a career diplomat, wonders: “I am struggling with the decision whether to go. Can anyone hope to succeed with the Giuliani-Biden issues swirling for the next 18 months? Can S [presumably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] offer any reassurance on this issue?”
“I don’t know if there is much to do about the Giuliani thing, but I do think the key thing is to do what we can right now since the future of the country is in play right now,” Volker responds, in reference to official government business such as helping defend Ukraine from Vladimir Putin’s aggression and collaborating on anti-corruption efforts unrelated to Trump’s political fortunes. Volker notes that while he was not inhabiting a “normal world” of diplomacy, he felt he had “moved the ball substantially forward” in the U.S.-Ukraine partnership during his tenure, “despite everything.”
Now, however, the U.S.-Ukraine relationship has been reduced to a political football, and Volker finds himself out of his post, testifying before Congress on the question of whether the president has abused the power of his office—the abnormal, the “Giuliani thing,” the “everything” having overwhelmed all the substantive policy wins along the way.
Russell Berman contributed reporting.