Refresher: How Trump attempted to extort Zelensky for personal gain
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Given recent events, I thought it might be helpful to review Donald Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukrainian President Zelensky into assisting his 2020 re-election. The effort started with the smear and removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was not seen as loyal enough to Trump and was willing to obstruct his attempts to spread disinformation. Then, after Zelensky’s election, Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine and withheld a White House visit for Zelensky in the hopes of forcing the Ukrainians to smear Joe Biden. This was a concerted multi-year plan to involve a foreign nation in domestic US politics, at a time when Ukraine needed American support to fight Russian-backed separatists.
In 2014 Joe Biden’s son Hunter took a position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma holdings. Then-Vice President Biden, other U.S. officials, and other western governments advocated for Ukraine to fire the Prosecutor General, Viktor Shokin, who was investigating Burisma’s owner for alleged money laundering and tax evasion. Shokin was accused of slow-walking investigations, protecting the elite, and was considered “an obstacle to anti-corruption efforts”. The Ukrainian parliament voted to dismiss Shokin in March 2016.
Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office a day after firing FBI Director James Comey. The former president reportedly told Lavrov and Kislyak that he fired “nut job” Comey to relieve the pressure of an investigation into his ties to Russia.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”
U.S. media was barred from the Oval Office meeting; only a photographer from Russian News Agency TASS was in the room.
Trump tweeted a call for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate Ukraine’s alleged preference for a Clinton win in 2016: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign — `quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.,” he wrote.
The Trump administration approved the sale of lethal weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine.
Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas and Belarusian-American associate Igor Fruman meet with Trump at the president’s D.C. hotel. The pair told Trump “that they thought the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was unfriendly to the president and his interests.”
According to Parnas, the president reacted strongly to the news: Trump immediately suggested that then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who had been in the Foreign Service for 32 years and served under Democratic and Republican presidents, should be fired, people familiar with his account said.
Parnas and Fruman obtained the assistance of Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) in ousting Ambassador Yovanovitch. In exchange, the duo made substantial campaign donations to Sessions, funneled through a shell company to obscure a foreign origin.
Congress passed a bill allocating $250 million in Ukrainian military assistance funding. This was later supplemented with an additional $150 million, for a combined total of $400 million to be spent in fiscal year 2019.
Parnas and Fruman introduced Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to Ukrainian prosecutors in order to pressure the officials to open investigations into the Bidens and Burisma.
In an interview, Yuri Lutsenko said while he was Ukraine’s prosecutor general he told Rudolph W. Giuliani that he would be happy to cooperate if the FBI or other U.S. authorities began their own investigation of the former vice president and his son Hunter but insisted they had not broken any Ukrainian laws to his knowledge.
Trump and Giuliani tasked Parnas and Fruman with “a secret mission” to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens.
To Parnas, the chain of command was clear: Giuliani would issue the President’s directives while Parnas, who speaks fluent Russian, would be an on-the-ground investigator alongside Fruman, who has numerous business contacts in Ukraine.
Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman met with Prosecutor General Lutsenko in New York. They reportedly discussed investigations into Burisma and whether the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was “not loyal to President Trump.”
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov informed Yovanovitch that “two Giuliani associates were telling people that she should be replaced and warned her to watch her back.”
In February, a senior Ukrainian official had told her he had been rebuffing repeated attempts by Giuliani to discuss investigations into Democrats and the 2016 election. At some point, Giuliani and his associates decided Yovanovitch was also an obstacle to those aims.
Late February 2019
Parnas and Fruman offered then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a quid pro quo: announce investigations into Hunter Biden and (unfounded) allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election in exchange for an official visit to the White House. An important trip to Washington DC would have helped Poroshenko in his tough re-election campaign against his challenger, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump world coalesced around the campaign to remove Yovanovitch from her post. Don Jr. tweeted that she is a “joker,” Fox News aired numerous segments claiming she displayed “anti-Trump bias,” and The Hill’s John Solomon orchestrated articles alleging misconduct on her behalf.
Giuliani gave a packet of disinformation about the Bidens, Burisma, and Yovanovitch to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 28th. On the same day, both Giuliani and Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, scheduled phone calls with Pompeo.
Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine on April 21st. Trump has his first phone call with Zelensky to congratulate him and invites the new president to the White House. Zelensky asked Trump to attend his inauguration, to which Trump replied that he’d send “a great representative” at a “very, very high level.” This representative was to be Vice President Mike Pence.
Ambassador Yovanovitch was recalled from her post on April 24th. She testified before the House of Representatives that she was told Trump personally orchestrated her removal:
Finally, after being asked by the Department in early March to extend my tour until 2020, I was then abruptly told in late April to come back to Washington from Ukraine “on the next plane.” You will understandably want to ask why my posting ended so suddenly. I wanted to learn that too, and I tried to find out. I met with the Deputy Secretary of State, who informed me of the curtailment of my term. He said that the President had lost confidence in me and no longer wished me to serve as his ambassador. He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018. He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause.
The State Department and Defense Department certified that Ukraine had “taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability,” therefore completing the requirements for the disbursement of US military aid (as approved by Congress in September 2018).
However, the same month, Parnas told Zelensky’s incoming administration “that it had to announce an investigation into Mr. Trump’s political rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his son, or else Vice President Mike Pence would not attend the swearing-in of the new president, and the United States would freeze aid.”
Trump talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban during this same time frame. According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent’s testimony before the House impeachment panel, Putin and Orban “talked down Ukraine to” Trump.
Putin’s motivation is very clear. He denies the existence of Ukraine as a nation and a country…So that’s his agenda, the agenda of creating a greater Russia and ensuring that Ukraine does not survive independently.
…their communications with President Trump shaped the President’s view of Ukraine and Zelensky.
On May 7th, Zelensky and his top advisers held a meeting to determine “how to navigate the insistence from Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani for a probe and how to avoid becoming entangled in the American elections.”
On May 9th, the New York Times reported that Giuliani was planning a trip to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky “to urge him to pursue inquiries” into the 2016 election and Hunter Biden.
“We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview on Thursday when asked about the parallel to the special counsel’s inquiry.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he said. “Somebody could say it’s improper. And this isn’t foreign policy — I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
Giuliani claims he canceled the trip but former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said Zelensky actually rejected the meeting: “My understanding is that the president-elect’s party and his group said that the president- elect [Zelenskiy] sees no reason to have a meeting about an issue which is so transparently an American domestic political issue.”
Trump instructed Pence on May 13th to cancel his trip to attend Zelensky’s inauguration; Secretary of Energy Rick Perry was sent instead. According to the whistleblower who later informed Congress of Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, it was “made clear” to Ukrainian officials that Trump did not want to meet with Zelensky “until he saw how Zelensky ‘chose to act’’ in office. This was interpreted to be a reference to Zelensky’s apprehension of pursuing Trump’s desired investigations.
On May 23rd, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, Energy Secretary Perry, and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland met with Trump to convince him that he should invite Zelensky to the White House.
The president was very skeptical. Given Ukraine’s history of corruption, that is understandable. He said that Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of terrible people. He said they “tried to take me down.” In the course of that conversation, he referenced conversations with Mayor Giuliani. It was clear to me that despite the positive news and recommendations being conveyed by this official delegation about the new president, President Trump had a deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine rooted in the past. He was clearly receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view.
The Defense Department announced $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine, to be spent on war-fighting equipment. This was in addition to $141 million from the State Department for anti-armor, anti-personnel, and counter-sniper capabilities.
A day later, an aide to White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Russell Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), that “we need to hold” up the money for Ukraine.
Informed that the president had a problem with the aid, Mr. Blair called Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget. “We need to hold it up,” he said, according to officials briefed about the conversation.
Typical of the Trump White House, the inquiry was not born of a rigorous policy process. Aides speculated that someone had shown Mr. Trump a news article about the Ukraine assistance and he demanded to know more. Mr. Vought and his team took to Google, and came upon a piece in the conservative Washington Examiner saying that the Pentagon would pay for weapons and other military equipment for Ukraine, bringing American security aid to the country to $1.5 billion since 2014.
Giuliani tweeted on June 21st: “New Pres of Ukraine still silent on investigation of Ukrainian interference in 2016 election and alleged Biden bribery of Pres Poroshenko. Time for leadership and investigate both if you want to purge how Ukraine was abused by Hillary and Obama people.”
Numerous officials throughout the federal government are made aware of the hold on aid to Ukraine, including Army Lt. Col. Alex Vindman (then on the National Security Council).
During a White House meeting with two advisers to Zelensky, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, “blurted out” that Ukraine should start up investigations into Burisma and Biden.
Vindman told the impeachment panel of another meeting between Sondland and Ukrainian officials:
“The meeting proceeded well until the Ukrainians broached the subject of a meeting between the two presidents. The Ukrainians saw this meeting as critically important in order to solidify the support of their most important international partner. Amb. Sondland started to speak about delivering the specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the President, at which time Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short. Following this meeting, there was a scheduled debriefing, during which Amb. Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma.”
On July 18th, OMB officially informed State and Defense Department officials that the White House was putting a hold on Ukraine aid.
“I and the others on the call sat in astonishment,” William B. Taylor Jr., the top United States diplomat in Ukraine, testified to House investigators. “In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened.”
That same day, aides on the House Foreign Affairs Committee received four calls from administration sources warning them about the hold and urging them to look into it.
July 25th, Trump-Zelensky phone call
Trump and Zelensky talked for the second time on July 25. According to the whistleblower, Trump spent the majority of the call “to advance his personal interests.”
…the President pressured Mr. Zelensky to…
- initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden;
- assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine, with a specific request that the Ukrainian leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cyber security firm Crowdstrike, which initially reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the DNC’s networks in 2016; and
- meet or speak with two people the President named explicitly as his personal envoys on these matters, Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General Barr, to whom the President referred multiple times in tandem.
…The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call. They told me that there was already a “discussion ongoing” with White House lawyers about how to treat the call because of the likelihood, in the officials’ retelling, that they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain.
The following day, Sondland and U.S. Embassy diplomat David Holmes had lunch in Kyiv. Holmes testified to the impeachment panel that Sondland placed an unsecured phone call to Trump that was so loud he could hear the entire conversation.
I heard Ambassador Sondland greet the President and explain he was calling from Kyiv. I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelensky, quote, “loves your ass.” I then heard President Trump ask, “So he’s going to do the investigation?” Ambassador Sondland replied that he is going to do it, adding that President Zelensky will do “anything you ask him to do.”
…I then took the opportunity to ask Ambassador Sondland for his candid impression of the President’s views on Ukraine. In particular, I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the President did not give a shit about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed that the President did not give a shit about Ukraine.
I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the President only canes about, quote, unquote, “big stuff.” I noted that there was, quote, unquote, big stuff going on in Ukraine, Iike a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant, quote, unquote, “big stuff” that benefits the President, like the, quote, unquote, “Biden investigation” that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.
According to then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump told him in August that “he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens.”
OMB political appointee Michael Duffey takes the lead in communicating the delay of aid to Ukraine. Career staff began raising the alarm that the executive office lacked the legal authority to hold up the funds that Congress required to be distributed by September 30, 2019. Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker warned Duffey and other OMB officials that they were running out of time to spend the money:
“As we discussed, as of 12 AUG I don’t think we can agree that the pause ‘will not preclude timely execution.’ We hope it won’t and will do all we can to execute once the policy decision is made, but can no longer make that declarative statement.”
On August 12th, the whistleblower filed a complaint with Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson regarding the president’s phone call with Zelensky. Atkinson forwarded the complaint to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire on August 26th. However, the Justice Department (under Bill Barr) told Maguire that he did not have “a statutory obligation” to send the complaint to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.
On August 14th, CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood attempted to submit a criminal referral to the Justice Department centering on the whistleblower’s complaint. The Justice Department declined to open an investigation, claiming they didn’t know it was a criminal referral.
By the end of August, the Defense Department had warned OMB on multiple occasions that the aid would be canceled if the hold was not lifted. Duffey again extended the hold, telling the Pentagon comptroller, “Clear direction from POTUS to hold.”
According to acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, Sondland met with top aides to Zelensky in Warsaw on September 1st. Taylor was told that Sondland informed the Ukrainians that “ the security assistance money would not come until President Zelensky committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.”
Very concerned, on that same day I sent Ambassador Sondland a text message asking if “we [are] now saying that security assistance and [a] WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Ambassador Sondland responded asking me to call him, which I did. During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US. election…
Ambassador Sondland said, “everything” was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskyy “in a public box” by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.
On September 9th, the Intelligence Community Inspector General informed the House Intelligence Committee of the whistleblower complaint. The House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform committees immediately announced an investigation into the pressure campaign:
“A growing public record indicates that, for nearly two years, the President and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, appear to have acted outside legitimate law enforcement and diplomatic channels to coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity.”
On September 11th, 2019, Trump finally released his hold on the Ukrainian aid.
The House opened an impeachment inquiry on September 24th. In December, the House voted 230-197 to approve of the first article of impeachment, abuse of power. All Democrats voted in support except Reps. Collin Peterson (D-MN, retired) and Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ, now Republican), who voted against. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI, now retired) voted present. The second article of impeachment, obstruction of congress, passed with 229 in favor and 198 against. Reps. Peterson, Van Drew, and Jared Golden (D-ME) voted against; Gabbard voted present. Rep. Justin Amash (a Republican who switched to Independent) voted in favor of both articles.
The Senate took up the articles of impeachment in January 2020. No witnesses or documents were subpoenaed after all but two Republicans (Sens. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins) voted against it. Article 1, abuse of power, failed by a 52-48 vote. Article 2, obstruction of Congress, failed by a 52-47 vote. Mitt Romney was the only Republican to vote in favor of impeachment, voting that Trump abused the power of his office.