The more information becomes public about L’Affaire Ukrainienne, the wider and deeper the controversy becomes. Late on Oct. 3, Congress released perhaps the most damning information yet: excerpts from a trove of encrypted text messages provided by former Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker as part of his closed testimony earlier that day before those House committees leading the impeachment inquiry. The messages show coordination by Volker and other State Department officials with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, on the U.S. posture toward Ukraine, specifically relating to certain investigations Giuliani was urging the Ukrainians to undertake. Combined with Volker’s prepared testimony, the texts provide the clearest narrative to date as to how efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government unfolded, from the perspective of someone who was intimately involved in them.
While supporters of the president have objected that the excerpted messages are selective and misleading, it is worth taking a close look at the story they tell. The texts cast serious doubt on assertions that the Trump administration’s actions toward Ukraine were motivated by a genuine concern over corruption, as opposed to a very specific focus on investigations of political benefit to the president. Moreover, they help explain how senior diplomats and the broader apparatus of the State Department became intimately involved in these efforts, despite concerns voiced by certain career officials.
The excerpted texts begin on July 19, with Volker introducing Giuliani to Andrey Yermak, one of Zelensky’s senior advisers. According to Volker’s prepared testimony before Congress, this was the culmination of a concerted effort on his part to connect the two, on the belief that direct engagement with Zelensky’s people would help combat the hostile anti-Ukraine narrative that Giuliani had impressed upon President Trump—one centered on the belief that Ukrainian officials had sought to release incriminating information regarding Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and otherwise tilt the scales against Trump in the 2016 election. (There is no evidence that Ukrainian officials interfered in the election.) Volker follows up with U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland by text later the same day, noting that he had connected Giuliani with Yermak and seeking to schedule a call between the three of them for the next day. Sondland notes that he had briefed Zelensky in advance of a call the next day with President Trump. Zelensky, he indicates, “got it.” Volker responds, “Good. ... Most impt is for Zelensky to say he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any[.]” According to Volker, this was a reference to an investigation relating exclusively to possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, not allegations of corruption against the Bidens.
Both Sondland and Volker reconnect on July 21 on a thread with Bill Taylor—the current charge d’affaires in Kiev, who was brought in to head the U.S. Embassy following the removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who Giuliani had accused of facilitating Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. “Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” Taylor writes. “Absolutely,” Sondland responds, “but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”
The next day, Sondland and Volker follow up on their efforts to push for a Trump-Zelensky call. Volker notes that the call between Giuliani and Yermak had gone “great[,]” that the two had agreed to meet up in Madrid a few weeks later, and that Giuliani was now advocating for the president to make a call to Zelensky. Volker and Sondland agree to reach out to then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, National Security Council (NSC) staffer Tim Morrison and “Mick” (likely Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney) to encourage all three to push in a similar direction.
The next text we see is from Volker to Yermak, in advance of the now-scheduled July 25 Trump-Zelensky call. Volker writes, “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinced [T]rump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.” Yermak responds after the Trump-Zelensky call takes place, noting: “Phone call went well. President Trump proposed to choose any convenient dates. President Zelensky chose 20,21,22 September for the White House Visit. ... Please remind Mr. Mayor to share the Madrid’s [sic] dates[.]” Volker claims in his prepared testimony that he received only general readouts of the Trump-Zelensky call and was not aware that Trump had specifically raised the Bidens in addition to possible Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election. Instead, he says, he became aware of this fact when the White House released the telephone memorandum on Sept. 25.
At some point shortly after the July 25 call, certain White House officials reportedly became aware that an anonymous CIA employee had raised concerns about the propriety of the Trump-Zelensky conversation. It’s not clear whether Sondland and Volker were aware of this at the time. But if they were, it doesn’t appear to have slowed down their efforts.
According to Volker’s prepared remarks, a few weeks after the Trump-Zelensky call, Giuliani and Yermak met in Madrid at Volker’s encouragement. Volker claims to have received positive readouts of their conversation from both parties. He encouraged Giuliani to support a Zelensky visit to the White House. Giuliani responded that he thought Zelensky should issue a statement about fighting corruption, something he claimed to have discussed with Yermak. Volker was supportive, as he saw this as consistent with long-standing U.S. policy efforts to oppose corruption in the Ukraine.
The texts next show Sondland and Volker connecting on Aug. 9, with Sondland informing Volker that Morrison at the NSC was prepared to “get dates”—presumably for a possible White House visit—“as soon as Yermak confirms.” “How did you sway him?” Volker asks, implying that Morrison may have been opposed to a White House meeting. “Not sure [I] did[,]” Sondland writes, “I think potus really wants the deliverable[.]” The nature of the deliverable isn’t clear—but subsequent texts suggest that it has to do with the investigations being advocated for by Giuliani. “To avoid misundestandigs [sic], might be helpful to ask [Yermak] for a draft statement (embargoed) so that we can see exactly what they propose to cover,” Sondland proposes, to which Volker agrees. The two then reach out to Giuliani for guidance to, in Volker’s words, “make sure I advise Z correctly as to what he should be saying[.]”
The next day, Aug. 10, Volker raises this statement with Yermak. Yermak agrees that “it’s possible” but pushes for a confirmed White House visit date for Zelensky first. “Once we have a date,” Yermak makes clear, “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[.]” Volker confirms that this is the sort of statement he and Sondland had proposed, responding: “Sounds great!” A few days later, on Aug. 13, Sondland and Volker trade texts ironing out the text of a draft statement to be presented to Yermak. Volker proposes:
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 the recurrence of this problem in the future.
Sondland responds, “Perfect. Lets [sic] send to Andrey after our call[.]” According to Volker’s prepared testimony, including Burisma and 2016 had been suggested by Yermak following his call with Giuliani. “In referencing Burisma,” Volker testified, “it was clear he was only talking about whether any Ukrainians had acted inappropriately[,]” not the Bidens.
But the Ukrainians appear to have had reservations. According to Volker’s testimony, he received a draft from Yermak on Aug. 16 that omitted any reference to Burisma or 2016. Volker claims that he shared this with Giuliani, who believed the statement should expressly reference both. Volker and Sondland appear to have acted on demand. On Aug. 17, Sondland texts Volker to ask, “Do we still want Ze to give us an unequivocal draft with 2016 and Boresma [sic]?” “That’s the clear message so far[,]” Volker confirms. Volker testified, however, that Yermak had informed him in subsequent conversations that the Ukrainians did not want to mention Burisma and 2016 so explicitly, in part because of concerns that it could be perceived as interfering in the 2016 election. As a result, they shelved the idea of issuing a statement—a decision Volker later testified he agreed with.
The Trump administration’s postures toward Ukraine soon came under increased media scrutiny. On Aug. 21, the New York Times reported on Giuliani’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainians to open an investigation into the Bidens. Giuliani, in turn, confirmed his meetings with Ukrainian officials and asserted that he was acting in full coordination with the State Department, identifying Volker by name. On Aug. 28, Politico also reported that Trump was personally holding up security assistance to Ukraine over the objections of his advisers, leading Yermak to write Volker asking for an urgent call.
Sondland and Volker don’t discuss these developments in their texts. Nor does Volker address them at length in his testimony, except to note that he strongly supported the provision of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine and was confident the hold would be resolved in favor of moving forward (as it eventually was). But from this point forward, Sondland at least appears to become more cognizant of what they are putting in writing.
On Aug. 30, Taylor texts Sondland and Volker to inform them that an intended Trump visit to Warsaw, where the president had been set to meet with Zelensky, has been canceled. Sondland and Volker agree to reach out to other Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to ensure that a Sept. 1 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Zelensky remains scheduled so that Pence could “tee up” a White House visit for Zelensky. The next day, Taylor asks for further direction: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland replies: “Call me.”
The Sept. 1 meeting with Pence—whose national security adviser had listened in on the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call—went forward as planned. There Pence reportedly informed Zelensky that security assistance was being withheld barring further progress on fighting corruption, though Pence’s advisers later claimed that he was not aware that Trump had specifically requested an investigation into the Bidens.
On Sept. 5, the Washington Post’s editorial board directly accused the Trump administration of withholding security assistance as part of an effort to pressure the Ukrainians to investigate alleged corruption on the part of the Bidens and to probe other supposed incidents of anti-Trump interference in the 2016 presidential election. But this does not appear to have given Sondland and Volker pause. On Sept. 8, they reconvene with Taylor to fill each other in on recent conversations with Trump and Zelensky. Taylor takes the opportunity to describe his “nightmare scenario[,]” namely that the Ukrainians “give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)” While Taylor doesn’t specify what he means by “the interview,” a text exchange from the next day suggests that it was linked to Trump’s demands of Zelensky: Taylor texts Sondland, “Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon. ... As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
That same day, several House committees initiated an investigation into Trump’s actions toward Ukraine. Whether Sondland and Volker were aware of this is unclear. But Sondland’s response to Taylor parrots what would soon become the White House’s main argument in defense of the president’s conduct:
Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. 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[.] I suggest we stop the back and forth by text[.] If you still have concerns I recommend you give [State Department Executive Secretary] Lisa Kenna or S [meaning Secretary Pompeo] a call to discuss [with] them directly.
Notably, the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that at another point Sondland told Republican Sen. Ron Johnson that the delivery of aid to Ukraine was being tied to Trump’s desire for Ukrainian assistance with his demands regarding the Bidens and Crowdstrike.
Nevertheless, Sondland’s closing suggestion to Taylor amounts to a not-too-subtle reprimand of Taylor, suggesting that he’s out of line with Pompeo, who Taylor is supposed to represent—and who has the authority to remove Taylor if he fails in that duty. For a career official like Taylor, the message would likely have been clear: Get with the program or suffer the consequences.
The day of this text exchange, the intelligence community inspector general shared a letter with the House Intelligence Committee informing the committee of the whistleblower complaint. This began the chain of events that led to the complaint becoming public—and led the country to where it is today.
Implications for the Impeachment Inquiry
We wrote earlier that the Trump-Zelensky call memo itself strongly implies the existence of a quid pro quo. The Volker texts strongly support the conclusion that there was one, with U.S. officials at various points suggesting that a potential White House visit, support for arms sales and eventually U.S. security assistance were all contingent on making progress toward the president’s demands. In his prepared testimony, Volker is adamant that he understood these demands to relate only to an investigation into possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, not any investigation into the Bidens or other effort to boost Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. How credible this is remains unclear. At a minimum, it appears to have been exceedingly naive on Volker’s part, given Giuliani’s insistence that any Ukrainian statement expressly reference Hunter Biden’s former company, Burisma, and not any other company or subject of investigation. Yermak and Zelensky certainly appear to have connected the dots in ultimately refusing to issue a statement making these references for fear of interjecting themselves into the 2020 election. And Taylor was quite clear that he understood the Trump administration to be “withhold[ing] security assistance for help with a political campaign” before being admonished by Sondland.
For congressional investigators, the texts point to some clear avenues for further inquiry. At a minimum, Congress now has the opportunity to issue another wave of subpoenas for more State Department and White House officials who appear to have been more closely involved in the pressure campaign on Ukraine than previously known—including Morrison, Executive Secretary Kenna and especially Taylor. The investigation may also expand to include other senior officials whom the texts portray as involved, including the secretary of state and vice president.
This is all useful and valuable work, but it does not drastically change the core question before Congress: whether using the office of the presidency of the United States to pressure the head of a foreign government to investigate a domestic political opponent ahead of an election is, or is not, gross misconduct—misconduct that clearly corrupts the political and governmental process by threatening the independence of U.S. elections.
In their cover letter to committee members, Chairmen Eliot Engel, Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings indicate that they are making these texts public because “[t]he President and his aides are engaging in a campaign of misinformation and misdirection in an attempt to normalize the act of soliciting foreign powers to interfere in our elections.” They also argue that Trump’s comments that same day—in which the president publicly invited both Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens—are “unethical, unpatriotic, and wrong.” And they close with this:
Our investigation will continue in the coming days. But we hope every Member of the House will join us in condemning in the strongest terms the President’s now open defiance of our core values as American citizens to guard against foreign interference in our democratic process.
This last sentence underlines the conundrum faced by Congress. The question we posed one week ago on Lawfare is equally apt today: When faced with a president who is breaking a whole host of political and moral norms on a daily basis, how long can Congress keep investigating before it finally renders judgment and forces a vote?
On the one hand, Volker’s texts, combined with the president’s very open and public invitations to Ukraine and China, may provide the answer: Not very long. After all, while the president has railed against the whistleblower, Congress and the press, he has yet to provide a substantive defense to the conduct on view in both the texts and his public statements.
On the other hand, with every day that passes without substantial condemnation from the president’s own party, congressional Republicans signal they do not agree this is profound misconduct by the president. Will more process and investigation in the House provide time and space to make the case to Republicans that Trump’s actions are beyond the pale? Or will it provide time for Trump’s supporters to justify the president’s behavior? The ultimate outcome of this process may very well depend on whether Democrats in the House are able to convince Americans that the president’s actions—undisputed and undenied—constitute an abuse of power.