The Ukraine Connection
The Story the Impeachment Depositions Tell
Author’s note: The body of this article draws heavily on the excellent deposition summaries written by Lawfare editors and contributors Charlotte Butash, Kelsey Clinton, Mikhaila Fogel, Vishnu Kannan, Patrick McDonnell, Jacob Schulz, Chinmayi Sharma and Masha Simonova, and edited by us. Many passages are taken verbatim, with the authors’ permission, from those summaries.
Public impeachment hearings by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence begin on the morning of Nov. 13. Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent are scheduled to testify on the first day of hearings, followed by former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Nov. 15. More hearings are scheduled for the next week.
The hearings will be dramatic, but the stories these witnesses tell will not be new. We know a great deal about what they and other potential witnesses have to say—because they have already said it.
Fifteen witnesses have spoken to the impeachment committees behind closed doors. Eleven of their deposition transcripts have been released publicly by the House Intelligence Committee, totaling 3,065 pages of sworn testimony. Lawfare is publishing, separately, summaries of each of the deposition transcripts as they become available. In this post, we have created out of these summaries a cohesive narrative based on the collection of testimony; we have drawn, often verbatim, on the summaries, to try to tell not the whole story but a large chunk of it.
Together, these depositions tell a story. It’s the story that will serve as the narrative backbone for the articles of impeachment the House will prepare and on which members will vote.
In fact, the voluminous pages of the impeachment depositions tell a number of stories. One is about Ukraine itself, as seen through the eyes of the American diplomats and policy analysts who interface with the country: its struggle to defend itself against Russia, its battle with corruption, and its potential for renewal under new political leadership and an electorate that is demanding change. There are a variety of more personal stories as well, stories of public servants with literally decades of service trying to do their jobs under extremely difficult circumstances.
For present purposes, the relevant story—the one on which we will focus—concerns how the president’s personal lawyer influenced Donald Trump’s views on Ukraine and pursued the president’s personal and political goals in that country outside of the regular channels of government. It is a story about how the institutions and actors within the U.S. government struggled to deal with the president’s pursuing his inappropriate objectives, fueled by phony disinformation they all rejected, through an outside actor. And it is a story about how this deviation from the normal policy process ultimately corrupted interactions with a foreign government, leading to extortionate demands of the Ukrainians that actors within the U.S. government regarded as highly inappropriate and actors in Congress regard as impeachable.
The story these depositions tell has countless details, many of them fascinating, but it has four major components.
First, the transcripts show how Rudy Giuliani pursued objectives in Ukraine for the benefit of his business partners, as well as the political interests of his client, President Trump. These activities lead to the president being fed bad information over a long period of time and they ultimately result in the meritless dismissal of Yovanovitch, as well as to a concerted attack on Deputy Secretary of State George Kent.
Second, against the backdrop of the election of a new president in Ukraine, the transcripts show the development of an irregular channel for achieving Trump’s objectives in that country—a channel that was not always playing by the usual rules of diplomacy or bureaucratic lines of communication. The transcripts show the members of both the regular and irregular channels trying to figure out what was really going on and how to navigate the unprecedented situation of Giuliani’s influence on Trump, in order to help the new Ukrainian president solidify a relationship with the United States—a relationship that is crucial for Ukraine’s continued existence as a fully independent sovereign country.
Third, in this broader context, the transcripts tell a specific story of the development of conditionality regarding a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. What began as a mere hostility on the part of Trump toward Ukraine and an unsubstantiated conviction that the Ukrainians had interfered in the 2016 election, came to involve demands to investigate that theory. And it came as well to involve demands that the Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and his connection to the Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, on whose board the younger Biden sat. Those demands, over the course of the summer, came to be linked to the desire of the new Ukrainian government for a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump.
Finally, the transcripts tell a related story of how the provision of military assistance to Ukraine similarly came to be conditioned on U.S. demands—because what Ukraine ultimately needs is U.S. support in an ongoing military conflict with a more powerful neighbor that is occupying its territory. The narrative is ultimately one of how an irregular actor’s behavior—circumventing the normal policy process and feeding bad information and conspiracy theories to a president—led to that president demanding political smears of an embattled, struggling democracy as a condition of U.S. support.
A number of external events are relevant to understanding much of the content of these depositions. The first is an article in Politico from January 2017 that goes into extensive detail about the machinations by various Ukrainians and Americans in connection with the Clinton and Trump campaigns. The second is a March 20, 2019, article in The Hill regarding an interview and statements made by then-Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko about Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The third is a New York Times story about Giuliani’s plans to travel to Ukraine to meet with Zelensky, then president-elect, to urge Ukrainian legal inquiries into the origins of the special counsel’s investigation and Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma. Several of the witnesses deposed by House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry were asked about or referenced these articles.
According to the Times article, Giuliani’s plans created “the remarkable scene of a lawyer for the president of the United States pressing a foreign government to pursue investigations that Mr. Trump’s allies hope could help him in his re-election campaign.” Giuliani’s trip to Ukraine was planned as part of a “months-long effort” by Giuliani and other Trump supporters aiming to discredit the Mueller investigation, undermine the case against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and damage Joe Biden’s chances as a 2020 presidential candidate. Giuliani told the Times,
We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do…. There’s nothing illegal about it…. 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.
On May 10, Giuliani cancelled his plans, telling Fox News that he instead intended to “step back and watch it unfold” and “play it by ear.”
The President’s Lawyer Runs a Parallel Policy
These news reports turn out only to have shown the tip of a very large iceberg, one the transcripts themselves reveal in rich detail. The transcripts show the degree to which Giuliani pursued objectives in Ukraine over a considerable period of time for the benefit of his business partners, as well as Trump’s political interests. Numerous witnesses described how this led Giuliani to feed bad information to Trump, leading to all sorts of mischief.
Former National Security Council (NSC) official Fiona Hill testified that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, as well as think tank researchers in D.C., expressed concerns to her about Giuliani’s activities. Other administration officials had warned Hill of Giuliani’s ties to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman—two Soviet-born businessmen involved in Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine, now indicted on campaign finance charges—as well as a third man named Harry Sargeant. Hill recounted that she “was told these gentlemen, Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman, and Mr. Sergeant had all been in business with Mr. Giuliani and that the impression that a number of Ukrainian officials and others had had was that they were interested in seeking business dealings in Ukraine.”
Hill explained to the committee that she had serious worries about the activities of Giuliani and his associates. She was “extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal.” Her fear about the legality of Giuliani’s behavior was heightened “after ... people had raised with me [that Parnas, Fruman and Sargeant] ... were notorious and that ... they’d been involved in all kinds of strange things in Venezuela and ... kind of were just well-known for not being above board.” Like her colleagues, Hill’s “early assumption was that” Giuliani and his colleagues were “pushing particular individuals’ business interests.”
Hill testified that in May 2019, Amos Hochstein, the former State Department special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs—who is now on the board of the national Ukrainian gas company, Naftogaz—met with her to express concerns about Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman, who were attempting to intervene in the Ukrainian energy sector. According to Hochstein, Giuliani’s efforts centered on two goals: removing Hochstein from the Naftogaz board and getting the Ukrainian government to launch investigations into Burisma. Hill learned that Giuliani had been communicating with Ukrainians about both matters and that Parnas and Fruman were exerting pressure on Naftogaz executives through “their connections … [t]o Rudy Giuliani, and through ... usurpation ... of some kind of Presidential authority.”
For some reason, however, Giuliani and his partners considered Yovanovitch to be an impediment. Yovanovitch testified that around February 2019 she spoke to Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, who said she “really needed to watch [her] back.” Avakov described Parnas and Fruman as setting up meetings for Giuliani with Prosecutor General Lutsenko and said that they wanted a different ambassador to support their business interests. Yovanovitch thought this was “exceedingly strange,” as no one in the embassy had ever met these individuals, even though the embassy routinely promotes U.S. businesses as part of its mission. Giuliani had tried to meet with Avakov, but Avakov—aware of Giuliani’s connections to Trump—had declined out of concern about getting into U.S. domestic politics. Yovanovitch testified that she suspected Lutsenko was hoping Giuliani would open doors for him in Washington.
Yovanovitch knew that Giuliani was promoting investigations related to Manafort, Biden and Burisma, but she did not understand the full circumstances. When she reported the Avakov conversation back to the State Department, nobody else there quite understood what was going on either. Yovanovitch testified that she first heard from Ukrainian officials at the end of 2018 that Lutsenko was in communication with Giuliani; her understanding was that Lutsenko and Giuliani had a number of meetings and that Lutsenko was looking to “hurt her” in the United States, though she did not understand why.
State Department official George Kent testified to learning that Giuliani was actively engaged in Ukraine policy in May 2018, when Lutsenko had planned to go to New York to meet with Giuliani. Kent recounted learning that on May 9, 2018, Parnas and Fruman met with former Rep. Pete Sessions, and afterward Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo impugning Yovanovitch’s loyalty and suggesting she be removed.
In January 2019, Giuliani apparently reached out to the State Department regarding the inability of the previous Ukrainian prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, to obtain a visa to go to the United States. Kent said Shokin was known as “a typical Ukraine prosecutor who lived a lifestyle far in excess of his government salary, who never prosecuted anybody known for having committed a crime, and having covered up crimes that were known to have been committed.” Shokin did not have a valid visa, and Kent indicated that “under no circumstances should a visa be issued to someone who knowingly subverted and wasted U.S. taxpayer money.” Evidently, Giuliani was pushing to have the visa granted, because Shokin was coming to share information about potential corruption at the U.S. Embassy—which Kent called a “bunch of hooey.”
On Feb. 11, 2019, Kent learned from Avakov that Lutsenko had ultimately met Giuliani in New York to “throw mud” at Kent and Yovanovitch, among others. However, Kent did not know the content of this mud-slinging. Later, it became clear that Giuliani had engaged in a “campaign of lies” against Yovanovitch, stating publicly but without substantiation that she was a part of the supposed effort against Trump in Ukraine. It was this campaign that led to the story in The Hill, which falsely reported Yovanovitch had given Lutsenko a “do-not-prosecute” list.
Kent recounted the news cycle surrounding this story, which circulated around U.S. and Ukrainian news sources, alongside interviews with Lutsenko. According to Kent, the four story lines picked up in these news cycles came in waves: (a) claims that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine had undermined the prosecutor general’s office and attempted to halt certain prosecutions the office was pursuing; (b) allegations that had been motivated by a vendetta against Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in publicizing the list of people taking money from the discredited pro-Russian Party of Regions, which included Manafort and led to his departure from the Trump campaign in August 2016; (c) allegations of Vice President Biden using his role to shield his son and Burisma; and (d) descriptions of some civil society organizations, including the Anti-Corruption Action Center, as organizations linked to George Soros. Kent testified that there was no merit to any of these storylines.
But this media effort seems to have reached the president of the United States. Many of the witnesses expressed concerns about Giuliani’s influence on Trump with respect to Ukraine. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an NSC staffer, testified that he became aware in the spring of 2019 that “outside influencers,” including Giuliani, were promoting a “false narrative” about Ukraine that was “inconsistent with consensus views of the interagency.” U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker likewise testified that the president was receiving a negative narrative about Ukraine from Giuliani, which Volker said caused the president to be less willing to support Zelensky. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland similarly described a constant effort within the U.S. government to manage the issues Giuliani created on Ukraine matters.
The first major casualty of Giuliani’s efforts was Yovanovitch. On May 20, 2019, Yovanovitch, a 33-year career foreign service officer who had served as ambassador to Ukraine since August 2016, departed Kyiv after receiving word from the State Department that she needed to leave urgently. The directive was a surprise to her, because she had earlier been asked to extend her tour. While she was aware that Lutsenko had accused her of giving him a “do-not-prosecute” list, she testified that the allegation was false: “I have never, myself or through others, directly or indirectly, ever directed, suggested, or in any other way asked, for any government or government official in Ukraine or elsewhere to refrain from investigating or prosecuting actual corruption.” She also denied ever telling the embassy team not to follow the president’s orders because he was going to be impeached—another allegation that had been leveled against her. Both Hill and Vindman testified that they were unaware of any factual basis for the accusations against Yovanovitch.
Yovanovitch spoke with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan after she returned to Washington. She said that he told her Trump had “lost confidence” in her, and that there had been a “concerted campaign” against her. According to Sullivan, the president had been attempting to remove her since summer 2018.
Two months after Yovanovitch’s departure, Trump and Zelensky spoke by phone in the ill-fated call that launched the impeachment inquiry—a conversation that involved, among other things, negative comments about Yovanovitch by Trump. After the call memo transcribing the Trump-Zelensky call was released, Michael McKinley—senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—was upset to see the president disparaging Yovanovitch. McKinley testified that seeing the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call and Trump’s comments about Yovanovitch “raised alarm bells.” He thought there was a “simple solution,” which was to put out a short apolitical statement attesting to Yovanovitch’s professionalism and strong record. McKinley was very concerned about the impact on Foreign Service morale and the integrity of its work overseas, and said he observed a “significant effect” on department staff morale. McKinley said even an internal email from the secretary would have been meaningful, but that was not done. He raised the matter with a number of people, including with Pompeo directly, and when he realized that no action would be taken, he resigned.
An Irregular Channel
If the transcripts showed nothing more than a weird campaign to slime a long-serving public official based on a combination of business interests, political interests and conspiracy theories, that would be bad enough. But they show a great deal more than that. The second major element of the story is the development of the irregular channel for achieving the president’s objectives in Ukraine.
Zelensky ran for president of Ukraine on a popular anti-corruption platform. Yovanovitch noted that this created “fear among the political elite.” Zelensky was elected on April 21, 2019. That same day, in a very positive call, Trump called Zelensky, congratulated him, and extended an invitation for him to visit the White House. Zelensky was sworn in on May 20 and immediately called a snap parliamentary election, which his party won decisively on July 21.
Many of those deposed by the impeachment panel stated that during most of 2019, they did not have a full or clear understanding of all of the different moving parts affecting the United States’s posture toward Ukraine, most notably the activities of Giuliani. Taylor’s testimony, in particular, describes a “highly irregular” channel of U.S. policymaking through which Volker, Sondland, Guliani, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry exercised influence over the U.S.-Ukraine relationship independent of the “regular” channel, which included institutions such as the embassy in Ukraine. But Volker and Sondland—whom others treat as part of the irregular channel—also describe trying to manage the relationship in the context of the Giuliani’s antics.
On May 23, Trump met with Sondland, Volker, Secretary Perry, Sen. Ron Johnson and others, including then-Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman. The group had just returned from Ukraine after attending Zelensky’s inauguration and requested to meet with the president. Sondland testified that he, Perry and Volker were “disappointed” by Trump’s skepticism about Ukraine and by Trump’s “direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani” about Ukraine policy. They felt compelled to do as the president directed them to “talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the president’s concerns.” Sondland testified that the president told them specifically to “talk to Rudy.”
Volker explained that, at that meeting, Trump referenced Giuliani’s negative assessments of the Ukrainians, including that Giuliani had told Trump that the Ukrainians had tried to “take down” Trump in the 2016 election. When pressed on this conversation during his deposition, Volker said that he thought Giuliani’s comments were in reference to accusations made by Lutsenko that Ukrainians had sought to influence the 2016 election by providing derogatory information about Trump and Manafort to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Volker believed that Lutsenko was not credible and “was making things up ... to create a self-serving narrative to make himself look valuable to the United States, in the hopes that we would urge the new president not to remove him from his job.” But Volker stated that he thought both Giuliani and Trump believed the allegations.
The president empowered Giuliani through this second channel, and the authority with which Giuliani acted was considerable. For example, after Zelensky’s May 20 inauguration, the White House sent a congratulatory letter to Zelensky. Hill stated that Sondland dictated a part of the letter, mentioning a visit with Trump. The letter, Hill noted, “did not go through the normal NSC procedures.... Ambassador Sondland coordinated on that letter directly with the Chief of Staff [Mick Mulvaney], and it did not go back through the National Security Council Executive Secretary.” On June 18, Sondland told Hill that he was in charge of Ukraine policy on orders of the president.
But the regular channel was not dead. On May 28, Taylor—who had retired from government service and was working at the U.S. Institute for Peace—met with Pompeo about taking over the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine temporarily after Yovanovitch’s departure. Taylor was reticent after what happened to Yovanovitch and was concerned that the Trump administration was not actually committed to Ukraine. But Pompeo assured him that the policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue and that Pompeo would support Taylor in defending that policy. With that assurance, Taylor agreed to serve as charge d’affaires on an interim basis in Ukraine. He arrived in Kyiv on June 17.
Taylor testified that upon his arrival in Ukraine, the two channels of U.S. policymaking were largely aligned. One shared goal was to arrange the visit by Zelensky to the White House. But the alignment did not hold, and the regular and irregular policy processes went off in very different directions.
Conditions for a White House Meeting
This brings us to the third major element of the story: how a White House meeting the Ukrainians badly wanted came to be conditioned on their willingness to announce highly political investigations.
Taylor testified concerning events surrounding a call between Zelensky and Sondland, Volker, Perry and Taylor—all dialing in from different locations. In a planning call the day before, Sondland told Taylor that Trump wanted an assurance from Zelensky that the Ukrainian president “was not standing in the way of investigations.” Taylor testified that he “sensed something odd when Ambassador Sondland told [him] on June 28th that he did not wish to include most of the regular interagency participants in” the call. Taylor also testified that Sondland said that he “wanted to make sure no one was transcribing or monitoring as they added President Zelensky to the call.” Before Zelensky joined the call, Volker told the U.S. participants that Volker “planned to be explicit with President Zelensky in a one-on-one meeting in Toronto on July 2nd about what President Zelensky should do to get the meeting in the White House.”
Taylor said that he did not understand the reference to “investigations” at the time. But on a July 19 call with Hill and Vindman, he learned that Sondland had, in a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials at the White House, explicitly connected “investigations” to the proposed White House visit. By that time, Taylor testified, it had become clear to him that a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump was conditioned on the Ukrainian government’s investigating Burisma and alleged Ukrainian influence in the 2016 election.
That July 10 meeting was apparently quite a scene, with a fair amount of drama. It began in National Security Adviser John Bolton’s office in the White House and included Bolton, Hill, Perry, Volker, Sondland, Ukrainian National Security Adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk and Danylyuk’s senior adviser, and Andrey Yermak, an assistant to Zelensky. The meeting went well until the Ukrainians brought up the subject of a meeting between Trump and Zelensky— whereupon, according to Hill, Sondland “blurted out” that “we have an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start.” In response, Bolton abruptly cut the meeting short.
But the Ukrainians did not depart. Instead, Sondland escorted them to the Ward Room of the White House, along with Vindman, Volker and Rick Perry’s chief of staff, Brian McCormack. Hill testified that Bolton “pulled [her] back as [she] was walking out afterwards and said: Go down to the Ward Room right now and find out what they're talking about and come back and talk to me.”
Vindman testified that Sondland, speaking to the Ukrainians, “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver investigations into the 2016 elections, the Bidens, and Burisma.” At that point, Vindman testified that he noted to Sondland that he didn’t think those requests were appropriate and that the request to investigate the Bidens had “nothing to do with national security.” At some point during the conversation, Vindman recalled, Sondland relayed that the details of the deliverable had been worked out with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
When asked about how Sondland came to be aware that the investigations were the price for the meeting with the president, Vindman stated, “So I heard him say that this had been coordinated with White House Chief of Staff Mr. Mick Mulvaney…. He just said that he had had a conversation with Mr. Mulvaney, and this is what was required in order to get a meeting.” Hill then entered the room, said Vindman, and the Ukrainians exited. Hill reiterated to Sondland that his statements were inappropriate. Sondland told her, according to Hill. “We have an agreement that they’ll have a meeting.” Sondland was “getting very annoyed” because “he already had an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting between the Presidents on the basis of these investigations.” Hill testified that he mentioned “Mr. Giuliani” before she cut him off.
Hill immediately reported back to Bolton, who told her to tell NSC legal counsel John Eisenberg that Bolton was “not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this, and you go tell him what you’ve heard and what I’ve said.” Hill briefly met with Eisenberg later that day and again the following day. She relayed the details of the meeting to Eisenberg along with her concerns that the Ukrainians had been inside “the secure spaces of the White House” because of the unusual room in which Sondland had arranged for the breakout group to meet—arrangements that Hill reports were made through Mulvaney’s office. According to Hill, Eisenberg shared Hill’s account of the meeting with White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. Vindman also reported the incident to Eisenberg separately.
The Conditionality Spreads
But a White House meeting turned out not to be the only thing—or even the most important thing—that the White House conditioned on the Ukrainian willingness to launch political “investigations.” Indeed, the story got a lot worse in the coming days. Specifically, eight days after the July 10 meeting, Hill testified that the NSC staff was informed that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had placed a hold on military aid to Ukraine. Hill explained that she and her colleagues “were told that it actually came as a direction from the Chief of Staff’s office”—that is, Mulvaney.
Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, testified that the United States’ security assistance to Ukraine is “vital to helping the Ukrainians [to] be able to defend themselves,” and that it is important to the U.S. national interest because “It’s in our interest to deter Russian aggression elsewhere around the world.” She testified that she first learned of OMB’s hold on the State Department’s portion of the security assistance for Ukraine from a readout her deputy gave her of a routine interagency Ukraine policy meeting on July 18. But OMB provided no information as to why the assistance was on hold. Cooper later attended a higher-level meeting on July 23 and testified that “again there was just this issue of the White House chief of staff has conveyed that the President has concerns about Ukraine and Ukraine security assistance.” The next day, at another meeting, OMB representative Mike Duffey said that both State and Department of Defense assistance to Ukraine was being held.
Taylor testified that he saw that the irregular channel’s objectives had begun to clash with those of the regular channel on July 18, when a staffer from OMB announced in a meeting that the White House had placed a hold on security assistance funds to Ukraine. The hold on military assistance was the subject of the July 19 call Taylor had with Vindman and Hill—a call that was on Hill’s last day on the job. In discussion with the committee, Taylor repeated that a hold on security aid for no clear reason undercut long-standing U.S. policy to support Ukraine in its attempt to defend itself against Russia.
On July 21, Zelensky’s party won parliamentary elections in a landslide. The NSC proposed that Trump call Zelensky to congratulate him. Vindman testified that he drafted background and talking points for the president to use during the phone call, materials which went up through Bolton to the executive secretariat to the president. There was nothing about the 2016 elections, Burisma or the Bidens in the draft talking points, Vindman testified.
The now-infamous Trump-Zelensky call took place on July 25. We will not rehash its details here; the Lawfare team wrote about the call in some depth when the White House released the memo detailing it on Sept. 25. One point, however, is worth noting specifically: Yovanovitch testified that the foreign aid that was held up did not include the Javelin anti-tank missiles referenced by Zelensky in the phone call. Zelensky in the call with Trump was talking about the purchase of the Javelins, whereas the aid that was held up was appropriated security assistance. The purchase of the Javelins with Ukrainian national funds was a change from prior years. Cooper testified that in the past, Javelins for Ukraine had been financed with assistance funds.
Of the 11 individuals whose deposition transcripts have been released, Vindman is the only witness who actually heard the call. He listened from the Situation Room in the White House, along with Tim Morrison—Hill’s replacement—representatives from Vice President Pence’s office and an NSC press representative. Vindman testified that he was disturbed by the call because he was “concerned about the fact that there was a call to have a foreign power investigate a U.S. citizen,” and that investigations into the Bidens would be a partisan play that would jeopardize bipartisan support for Ukraine.
Part of his concern about pushing for investigations, Vindman testified, was that countries will do what they perceive to be in their national security interests. He reasoned that if the Ukrainians perceived an investigation into the Bidens as vital to their national security, they might “tip the scales” of the investigation in order to protect their own interests. He stressed that U.S. military aid accounts for about ten percent of Ukraine’s military budget, and that the Ukrainians spend five to six percent of their GDP on the military because of the ongoing conflict with Russia. “I understand the Ukrainians [and] their national security needs,” said Vindman toward the end of his testimony; they would have seen the aid as “another point of pressure.” Following the call, Vindman reported his concerns to NSC legal counsel John Eisenberg.
Later, Vindman reviewed the draft call memo produced by White House staff and made two edits to make the memo consistent with the specific notes he had taken during the call. One edit concerned a specific reference to Burisma by Zelensky. During the call, Vindman testified, Zelensky said he was going to appoint a new prosecutor general, stating, “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to [Burisma] that you mentioned.” The final call memo produced by the White House, however, reads “the company” instead of “Burisma.” Vindman later added that this was particularly significant because, in a general discussion about corruption, Zelensky would “not necessarily know anything” about Burisma. So the fact that Zelensky mentioned Burisma suggested that he had been “prepped” to speak about it during the call—in other words, that he was aware that an investigation into the company was of interest to Trump.
Some of Zelensky’s preparation on the matter, it would seem, came from Volker and Sondland. According to text messages released by the committees, Volker texted Sondland before the call, “Most important is for Zelensky to say he will help investigation and address any specific personnel issues if there are any.” Taylor testified that on July 20, he exchanged text messages with Sondland and Volker, both of whom said that it was crucial for Zelensky to tell Trump that he would help with the “investigations.” The same day, Taylor spoke with Danylyuk, who said that Zelensky did not want to be “used as a pawn in a U.S. reelection campaign.” Taylor said he informed Sondland and Volker of Danylyuk’s message.
Following the July 25 call, a discussion began among Volker, Sondland, Giuliani and Yermak about a public statement Zelensky could make in order to obtain the security assistance. Volker testified that Yermak sent Volker a proposed draft, and that Volker discussed the statement with Sondland and Giuliani. According to Volker, Giuliani said that without specific references to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election, he did not find the statement “convincing.” In response to Giuliani's comments, Volker testified that he wrote a draft of the statement that included the references—but when he discussed the draft with Yermak, the Ukrainian aide suggested that they should be excluded. Volker said that he then advised Yermak to avoid saying anything that would look like it would play into domestic U.S. politics.
Taylor testified that on Aug. 16, he learned that Yermak had asked for the U.S. to submit an official request for investigation into Burisma’s alleged violations of Ukrainian law. The security assistance had still not been released, so Taylor contacted the State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a top Pompeo aide, to ask whether U.S. policy towards Ukraine was shifting. Brechbuhl said he did not know of a formal policy change and would look into it. On Aug. 27, Taylor took his concerns about the withholding of aid to Bolton, who recommended that Taylor write a first-person cable to Pompeo directly. Taylor wrote and transmitted the cable on Aug. 29.
The same day, the news broke publicly that security assistance being withheld from Ukraine, and Taylor received a call from Yermak, inquiring as to the reason. Taylor had no answer. Again, both in the opening statement and in response to committee questions, Taylor stressed that he had not yet understood that the hold on security assistance was related to the irregular channel’s push for Zelensky to conduct investigations.
Taylor testified that on Sept. 1, Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Morrison was on the trip and told Taylor that Sondland, who was also on the trip, spoke with Yermak and told him that Ukraine would not receive security assistance money until Zelensky committed to pursue the two investigations.
Taylor stated that this readout from Morrison about the Warsaw trip was the first time he heard that security assistance—not just the White House meeting—had become conditioned on the investigations. In a phone call later that day with Sondland, Taylor learned that Trump wanted Zelensky to make a public announcement about the investigation. During this call, Taylor testified, Sondland said that “everything” was dependent on such a public announcement. Taylor’s testimony includes this exchange:
Chairman: [D]id you mean that if they didn't do this, the investigations, they weren't going to get that, the meeting and the military assistance?
Taylor: That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the President committed to pursue the investigation.
Chairman: So if they don't do this, they are not going to get that was your understanding?
Taylor: Yes, sir.
On Sept. 8, Taylor learned from Sondland that Sondland had spoken with Zelensky and Yermak, telling them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, they would be at a “stalemate” if Zelensky did not make a public statement. Taylor said that he understood “stalemate” to mean that Ukraine would not receive the military assistance it needed. According to Taylor, Sondland said the call ended with Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement to CNN.
Following the call, Taylor texted Sondland with his concerns. He wrote, “My nightmare is that the Ukrainians give the interview and don't get the security assistance. The Russians love it. And I quit.” In his testimony, Taylor emphasized how Zelensky would face political backlash and humiliation for being forced to order the investigations—a backlash Russia would “love” and benefit from. Taylor also said that this scenario would constitute a change in the strong U.S. support for Ukraine upon which he had conditioned his return to government, and he would therefore resign. On Sept. 9, Taylor texted Sondland and Volker, emphasizing again the importance of the message U.S. security assistance sends to Ukraine and Russia. He also added, that “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded five hours later, saying that Taylor had misunderstood Trump’s intentions, and that Trump had been clear: “no quid pro quos of any kind.”
On Sept. 11, the security assistance was released. Cooper testified that notice of the release of the funds “really came quite out of the blue.” Taylor delivered the news to Zelensky and the Ukrainian foreign minister. Taylor remained worried that Zelensky would still announce the investigations and be pulled into U.S. domestic politics. He then confirmed through Danylyuk that Zelensky would not make the announcement.
For his part, Sondland testified that did not know the content of the July 25 call until the White House released the transcript on Sept. 25, 2019. He denied any knowledge of the requests in the call, and said that the “deliverable” he referenced in his text messages to Volker and Taylor—which one of us wrote about here—was a public commitment by the Ukrainian government to anti-corruption, not to investigating the Bidens or Democrats. Later, however, after reviewing the testimony of Taylor and Morrison, Sondland submitted an addendum to his testimony indicating that he told Ukrainian official Yermak in early September that the aid would likely not be unfrozen without a public anti-corruption statement but that there remained a question about from whom the statement needed to come. His addendum says he learned “soon thereafter” that the statement needed to be from Zelensky himself.
On the issue of the hold on nearly $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine, Vindman testified that there was interagency consensus that the aid was important to the interests of the United States. He was not aware why the hold was placed and was eventually told it was “to ensure that the assistance aligned with administrative priorities.” Vindman said that he believes the Ukrainians became aware of the hold sometime in the beginning or middle of August—well before the Aug. 29 story in Politico. He testified that he began receiving soft inquiries from the Ukrainian embassy, asking him whether he had heard about any developments with the assistance or whether there were any issues with the appropriated funding. He did not recall how he responded to these inquiries, but testified that he likely said that the review was ongoing. Vindman noted that he was not actually aware of any substantive review of the assistance.
There are pieces of the story that are still missing. The precise contours of the president’s personal role are still unknown, largely because Bolton and Mulvaney have not testified. But the admittedly incomplete story revealed to date is a damning one. The president, proceeding on the basis of conspiracy theories and falsehoods fed to him by his personal lawyer and consistent in his elevation of his own personal and political interests over the national interest, did not just specifically request wildly inappropriate investigations of his political opponents. His administration also conditioned acts of the American state on the delivery of such investigations—itself a euphemism for political smears. Along the way, the policy process was wholly corrupted, and the people responsible for managing it were smeared and dishonored.
That is the story these transcripts tell—at great length and in excruciatingly painful detail.