WASHINGTON — President Trump has repeatedly denied that there was any quid pro quo attached to his pressure on Ukraine to investigate his political enemies, but a new batch of text messages released late Thursday night indicated that his own representatives saw it differently.
Envoys representing Mr. Trump sought to leverage the power of his office to prod Ukraine into opening investigations that would damage his Democratic opponents at home. They made clear to Ukrainian officials that the White House invitation their newly inaugurated leader coveted depended on his commitment to the investigations.
And the senior American diplomat posted in Ukraine suspected it went even further than a trade of an Oval Office visit, telling colleagues that it appeared to him that unfreezing $391 million in American aid that Mr. Trump had blocked was contingent on the former Soviet republic following through on the politically charged investigations sought by the president and his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The text messages, provided to three Democratic-led House committees by the former special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt D. Volker, may shape the impeachment inquiry now threatening the future of Mr. Trump’s presidency. They provide new pieces of a timeline of events in recent months and a road map for further investigation by House Democrats.
Among other things, the messages demonstrated that the president’s team had made clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine before the now-famous July 25 call with Mr. Trump that he would have to agree to the investigations to confirm a promised visit to the White House that had been held up for two months.
“Heard from White House – assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Mr. Volker wrote to Andrey Yermak, a top Ukrainian presidential adviser at 8:36 a.m. the morning of the phone call.
During the call that followed, Mr. Trump did press Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor” and investigate supposed Ukrainian efforts to help Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, pursuing a conspiracy theory that even the president’s own homeland security adviser had told him was “completely debunked.” The president also pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Mr. Zelensky assured the president he would, according to a reconstructed transcript released by the White House. The text messages indicate that the Ukrainians were quickly given possible dates for a White House visit by Mr. Zelensky.
“Phone call went well,” Mr. Yermak wrote Mr. Volker afterward. “President Trump proposed to choose any convenient dates. President Zelenskiy chose 20,21,22 September for the White House Visit. Thank you again for your help!”
The text messages underscore the danger to Mr. Trump as the House Democratic impeachment inquiry gains steam. So far, the House committees have interviewed just a single witness, Mr. Volker, and already uncovered information damaging to the president’s case.
The Democratic chairmen of the committees said in a letter to colleagues late Thursday night that the texts were “only a subset of the full body of materials” that Mr. Volker turned over and that others would be released in time.
Mr. Trump has asserted he did nothing wrong and was only trying to uncover corruption by Democrats. Undaunted, he doubled down on Thursday, publicly calling on Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden and adding a call to China to do the same.
“As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday night, and he repeated the sentiments on Friday morning.
Republican lawmakers said that Mr. Volker’s testimony, taken behind closed doors on Thursday by House investigators, did not support the nefarious interpretation of Mr. Trump’s actions advanced by Democrats like Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“The facts we learned today undercut the salacious narrative that Adam Schiff is using to sell his impeachment ambitions,” Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican members on two of the committees, wrote in a letter. “We hope the American people get to read the transcript of today’s testimony and see the truth.”
Mr. Volker, a former ambassador to NATO who served unpaid and part-time as Ukraine special envoy before abruptly resigning last week, was not a hostile witness who went into the testimony intending to make accusations against the president. Instead, he told investigators that he was devoted to helping Ukraine resolve its grinding five-year-old conflict with Russian-armed separatists and tried to satisfy the president’s suspicions about Ukraine but was never fully kept in the loop.
Nonetheless, his account, as related by a person familiar with his testimony and the documents released by the committee, raises significant questions for the president as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others.
Mr. Volker told the House investigators that he was eager to help the newly elected Mr. Zelensky build a relationship with Mr. Trump that would bolster Ukraine but found last May that Mr. Giuliani’s efforts were convincing the president that Ukraine was full of “terrible people” who “tried to take me down” in 2016.
The new Ukrainian government sought Mr. Volker’s help in managing Mr. Giuliani. In July, Mr. Yermak asked Mr. Volker to connect him with the former New York mayor, which Mr. Volker agreed to do. Mr. Volker met with Mr. Giuliani for breakfast on July 19 and, he told the committee investigators, warned the former mayor that his theory about corruption involving Mr. Biden was unfounded and implausible and that his sources about it were not credible.
The Ukrainians were wary of being dragged into American domestic politics. “President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” William B. Taylor, the top American diplomat in Kiev, wrote in a text message a couple days after the breakfast.
Mr. Giuliani talked with Mr. Yermak the next day and then advocated a phone call between the two presidents. At the same time Mr. Trump had ordered his aides to hold up the $391 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine, with no explanation provided to the agencies involved. Then he got on the phone with Mr. Zelensky to ask for “a favor.”
A week after the phone call, on Aug. 2, Mr. Giuliani met in Madrid with Mr. Yermak and then said the Ukrainian president should issue a statement committing to fighting corruption. A week later, Mr. Volker talked with Mr. Yermak and then reached out to Mr. Giuliani.
“Had a good chat with Yermak last night,” Mr. Volker wrote. “He was pleased with your phone call. Mentioned Z making a statement. Can we all get on the phone to make sure I advise Z correctly as to what he should be saying? Want to make sure we get this done right.”
Later the same day, Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and a Trump supporter who had actively involved himself in Ukraine, reported that the president was ready to schedule the White House visit that Mr. Zelensky had been seeking.
Mr. Volker asked Mr. Sondland how he swayed the White House. “Not sure i did,” Mr. Sondland replied by text, using the acronym for president of the United States. “I think potus really wants the deliverable.”
Mr. Sondland then raised the proposed statement by Mr. Zelensky. “To avoid misunderstandings, might be helpful to ask Andrey for a draft statement (embargoed) so that we can see exactly what they propose to cover,” he wrote.
“Agree!” Mr. Volker replied.
The next day, Mr. Yermak pressed for a date for the White House visit, clearly seeing it as linked to the statement. “I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things. Which we discussed yesterday,” he wrote. “But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date.”
In other words, the Ukrainians would issue their statement committing to the investigations Mr. Trump wanted only after the White House visit was officially scheduled. “Once we have a date, will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations,” Mr. Yermak wrote.
Mr. Yermak’s first draft of the statement did not mention Burisma, the company that Hunter Biden worked for, or the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani insisted the statement had to explicitly mention both of those otherwise there was no point, Mr. Volker told investigators.
Mr. Volker drafted language that would satisfy Mr. Giuliani and sent it to Mr. Yermak.
“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,” it would say. “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 the recurrence of this problem in the future.
But Mr. Yermak ultimately objected to specifically citing Burisma or 2016 in the statement, Mr. Volker told the committee. Then on Aug. 28, Politico reported the Ukrainian aid freeze and a couple days later, Mr. Trump canceled a trip to Poland, where he was to meet with Mr. Zelensky.
Mr. Taylor, the diplomat in Kiev, saw a connection. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked Mr. Sondland in a text message on Sept. 1.
“Call me,” Mr. Sondland replied.
Mr. Taylor clearly was not convinced. A week later, he expressed fear that the Ukrainians would go ahead with the statement Mr. Giuliani wanted and Mr. Trump would still not release the aid.
“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” he wrote. “The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”
The next day, Mr. Taylor again made clear that he believed the aid freeze and the investigations were linked. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote Mr. Sondland.
“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Mr. Sondland replied. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.”
If Mr. Taylor still had concerns, Mr. Sondland added curtly, he should give Mr. Pompeo “a call to discuss them directly.”
It is not clear whether he did.
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com