Authors’ note: This article is developed out of prior writing on Lawfare, including our own work and a series of deposition summaries written by Lawfare editors and contributors Charlotte Butash, Kelsey Clinton, Mikhaila Fogel, Vishnu Kannan, Patrick McDonnell, Jacob Schulz, Chinmayi Sharma Masha Simonova, Lucia Radder and Samantha Fry and edited by us. Many passages are taken verbatim, with the authors’ permission, from those summaries.
In the Ukraine affair, there is no Robert Mueller. There is no Kenneth Starr. If the House is going to get a detailed report on the conduct of President Trump with respect to Ukraine and the Biden family, it’s going to have to write that report itself.
The House has authorized its intelligence committee to do just that. Under House Resolution 660, the Intelligence Committee “is directed to issue a report setting forth its findings and any recommendations and appending any information and materials the [it] may deem appropriate with respect to [its] investigation.”
And the House investigators have, remarkably rapidly, conducted a serious, probing investigation. Seventeen witnesses have spoken to the impeachment committees, and 12 of those testified in the impeachment investigation hearings. Fifteen deposition transcripts have been released publicly by the House Intelligence Committee, totaling 3,907 pages of sworn testimony. Lawfare has published separately summaries of each of the deposition transcripts, and we have also published video of each of the public testimonies.
But the task of isolating the relevant portions of the record is a task separate from amassing the record. Finding in this mountain of material the portions from which we can actually evaluate President Trump’s conduct fairly and rigorously requires interpreting data and creating narrative out of facts.
In this post, we have attempted to synthesize a kind of Starr Report out of all of this material—a cohesive narrative based on the collection of testimonies. We have drawn, often verbatim, on the summaries. Using our own prior effort to synthesize the deposition material as a starting text, we have added material from the transcripts of the public testimonies and incorporated video clips of especially significant exchanges and factual recitations. The goal is to give a sense of the aggregate record: what factual claims the record will and will not support and how those claims relate to one another.
Taken together, and woven together, all of this testimony tells a story—which will serve as the narrative backbone for the articles of impeachment the House Judiciary Committee will now prepare and on which members will vote. In this post, we try to distill from thousands of pages of the record what that story really is.
To be precise, while the voluminous testimony is still an incomplete record that is missing nearly the entirety of the documentary material produced in the White House and the relevant agencies and the testimony of key witnesses like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, it actually tells a number of different 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 the House will necessarily focus—concerns how the president’s personal lawyer influenced Donald Trump’s views on Ukraine and how Trump put him in charge of pursuing the president’s personal and political goals in that country outside 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 correctly regard as impeachable.
The story these witnesses tell has countless details, many of them fascinating, but it has four major components relevant to assessing the president’s conduct.
First, the testimony shows 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 Amb. Marie 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 testimony shows the development of what Amb. William Taylor described as “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 witnesses describe 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 witnesses 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. In the live testimony, far more than in the depositions that preceded it, it becomes clear that the development of this conditionality was driven by Trump himself.
Finally, the witnesses 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’s demanding that an embattled, struggling democracy politically smear a possible 2020 opponent as a condition for U.S. support.
A number of external public events are relevant to understanding the events described in the testimony. 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 previous year. 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, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The third is a New York Times story on May 9, 2019 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 who were deposed by House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry and who testified publicly 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 canceled 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 testimony reveals 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 and 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 reasons that are not entirely clear, 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 with whom she communicated 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, 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.
David Holmes’s testimony sheds some light on why Lutsenko may have been targeting Yovanovitch. Holmes said that the official policy focused on supporting Ukrainian democratic reform and resistance to Russian aggression “became overshadowed by a political agenda being promoted by Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House.” The change began with the emergence of press reports critical of Yovanovitch and “machinations by Mr. Lutsenko to discredit her.” In mid-March 2019, Holmes testified, an embassy colleague learned from a Ukrainian contact that Lutsenko had complained that Yovanovitch had “destroyed him” with her “refusal to support him until he followed through with his reform commitments and ceased using his position for personal gain.”
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 Ukrainian anti-corruption officials 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 spring 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. Around this same time, Giuliani appears to have passed a dossier containing documents relating this false narrative to Pompeo, including copies of the articles from The Hill and notes from interviews Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman had conducted with Shokin and Lutsenko in January 2019—all of which were enclosed in Trump Hotel stationary with a handwritten return address of “The White House.” According to records secured by the group American Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act request, Giuliani also spoke with Pompeo twice by phone.
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.
And yet, from the live impeachment hearings, it seemed that the president was not done with Yovanovitch. During her testimony on Nov. 15, the president tweeted:
Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2019
Chairman Adam Schiff gave Yovanovitch an opportunity to respond during her public testimony:
SCHIFF: Ambassador Yovanovitch, as we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter, and I’d like to give you a chance to respond. I’ll read part of one of his tweets. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia. How did that go?” He goes on to say later in the tweets, “It is a U.S. president’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
First of all, Ambassador Yovanovitch, the Senate has a chance to confirm or deny an ambassador, do they not?
YOVANOVITCH: Yes, advise and consent.
SCHIFF: But would you like to respond to the president’s attack, that everywhere you went turned bad?
YOVANOVITCH: Well, I—I mean, I don’t—I don’t think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia and not in other places. I actually think that where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better, you know, for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I’ve served in.
Ukraine, for example, where there are huge challenges, including, you know, the issue that we are discussing today, of—of corruption, huge challenges, but they’ve made a lot of progress since 2014, including in the years that I was there. And I think in part—I mean, the Ukrainian people get the most—the most credit for that. But a part of that credit goes to the work of the United States and—and to me as the ambassador in—in the unite—in Ukraine.
SCHIFF: Ambassador, you’ve shown the courage to come forward today and testify notwithstanding the fact you are urged by the White House or State Department not to, notwithstanding the fact that, as you testified earlier, the president implicitly threatened you in that call record. And now the president in real-time is attacking you. What effect do you think that has on other witnesses’ willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?
YOVANOVITCH: Well, it’s very intimidating.
It is possible that the president created, in real time, an additional potential basis for an article of impeachment by acting to intimidate a witness in real time. The president also tweeted about other witnesses, like Foreign Service officer and senior advisor to Vice President Pence Jennifer Williams, before their testimonies. The committee similarly gave her a chance to respond:
HIMES: Did that make, did that tweet make an impression on you when you read it?
WILLIAMS: It certainly surprised me. I was not expecting to—to be called out by name.
HIMES: It surprised me, too, and it looked an awful lot like witness intimidation and tampering, and in effect—in an effort to try to get you to perhaps shape your testimony today.
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, but when he realized that no action would be taken, he resigned.
An “Irregular Channel” or a “Domestic Political Errand”?
If the witness testimony 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 it shows a great deal more than that. The second major element of the story is the development of what Amb. William Taylor called 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.
Nearly all of the witnesses 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.
Indeed, in his live testimony, Sondland was clear that he considered the channel of diplomacy he and Giuliani were involved in to be regular and official—President Trump was directing it, after all. And everyone who mattered at the State Department was kept in the loop:
First, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine, so we followed the president’s orders.
Second, although we disagreed with the need to involve Mr. Giuliani, at the time, we did not believe that his role was improper. As I previously testified, if I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or his associations with individuals, some of whom are now under criminal indictment, I personally would not have acquiesced to his participation. Still, given what we knew at the time, what we were asked to do, did not appear to be wrong.
Third, let me say precisely because we did not think that we were engaging in improper behavior we made every effort to ensure that the relevant decision-makers at the National Security Council and the State Department knew the important details of our efforts. The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false.
I have now identified certain State Department emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These emails show that the leadership at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23rd, 2019 until the security aid was released on September 11th, 2019. I will quote from some of those messages with you shortly.
Fiona Hill’s public testimony backs up Sondland’s perception in a critical respect. In response to a question by the minority counsel, Stephen Castor, Hill testified:
Well, I think you might recall in my deposition on October 14 that I said that very unfortunately I had a bit of a blowup with Ambassador Sondland, and I had a couple of testy encounters with him. One of those was in June 18 when I actually said to him, who put you in charge of Ukraine? And I mean, I’ll admit I was a bit rude, and that’s when he told me the president, which shut me up. And this other meeting, it was about 15, 20 minutes, exactly as he depicted it was. I was actually, to be honest, angry with him, and you know, I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people.
And what I was angry about was that he wasn’t coordinating with us. Now I’ve actually realized, having listened to his deposition, that he was absolutely right, that he wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing. So I was upset with him that he wasn’t fully telling us about all of the meetings that he was having, and he said to me, but I’m briefing the president. I’m briefing Chief of Staff Mulvaney. I’m briefing Secretary Pompeo. And I’ve talked to Ambassador Bolton. Who else do I have to deal with?
And the point is we have a robust interagency process that deals with Ukraine, that includes Mr. Holmes. It includes Ambassador Taylor as the charge in Ukraine. It includes a whole load of other people, but it struck me when—yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland’s emails and who was on these emails, and he said these are the people who need to know, that he was absolutely right because he was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.
So he was correct. And I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating, and I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up, and here we are. And after I left to my next meeting, our director for the European Union talked to him much further for a full half-hour or more later, trying to ask him about how we could coordinate better, or how others could coordinate better after I had left the office. And his feeling was that the National Security Council was always trying to block him. What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics.
And that was precisely what I was trying to do, but Ambassador Sondland is not wrong that he had been given a different remit than we had been. And it was at that moment that I started to realize how those things had diverged. And I realize, in fact, that I wasn’t really being fair to Ambassador Sondland because he was carrying out what he thought he had been instructed to carry out, and we were doing something that we thought was just as, or perhaps even more important, but it wasn’t in the same channel.
In other words, what William Taylor conceived of as an “irregular” channel was actually also a channel fully directed and authorized by the president of the United States. It just was not aimed at a foreign policy or national security concern but, rather, as Hill pithily put it, a “domestic political errand.”
On May 23, Trump met with Sondland, Volker, 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. According to Williams’s testimony, Vice President Pence had originally been scheduled to attend on behalf of the United States, but he had been directed not to do so by President Trump shortly after Giuliani had complained that Ukrainian officials had forced him to cancel meetings there. Instead, they sent the lower ranking delegation led by Perry. Sondland later testified that he, Perry and Volker—the so-called “Three Amigos”—were impressed by Zelensky and “disappointed” by Trump’s skepticism about Ukraine, as well as by Trump’s “direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani” about Ukraine policy.
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 Three Amigos 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.” In Sondland’s public testimony, Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman elicited from him a specific statement that this instruction conveyed that Giuliani’s demands were, in fact, the president’s demands:
GOLDMAN: And you said President Trump had directed you to talk, you and a cup—the others to talk to Rudy Giuliani at the Oval Office on May 23, is that right?
SONDLAND: If we wanted to get anything done with Ukraine, it was apparent to us we needed to talk to Rudy.
GOLDMAN: Right. You understood that Mr. Giuliani spoke for the President, correct?
SONDLAND: That is correct.
In short, the president personally empowered Giuliani through this second channel, and the authority with which Giuliani acted was consequently 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, in the meeting described by Hill in the passage quoted above, Sondland told Hill that he was in charge of Ukraine policy on orders of the president.
But the normal diplomatic and policymaking channels were 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 seemed largely aligned. One shared goal was to arrange the visit by Zelensky to the White House. But the alignment did not hold, and the “domestic political errand” began to clash with the traditional foreign policy process.
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 Ukrainian 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 28 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 2 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—though Sondland later testified that he did not recall the meeting as being as heated and contentious as the others did. 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 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 Sondland 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.
Even though this conditionality was a surprise to those in the NSC, Sondland’s live testimony made clear that it was no mystery to him, and there was indeed a quid pro quo trade on an offer of a White House meeting for the announcement of investigations:
[A]s I testified previously—as I testified previously, Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server, and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.
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, Hill testified that eight days after the July 10 meeting, 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’s 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 “[i]t’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 Michael Duffey said that both State and Department of Defense assistance to Ukraine was being held.
Taylor testified that he saw that what he regarded as 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 took place 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 that 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. The Lawfare team wrote about the call in some depth when the White House released the memo detailing it on Sept. 25. The conversation in question took place one day after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees regarding the results of his investigation. The relevant part of the conversation starts a few minutes in, after an exchange of pleasantries in which Trump congratulates Zelensky on his party’s recent win in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Trump moves from there to a discussion of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, framing it in terms of reciprocity: “The United States has been very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.”
After lauding the United States for its support for Ukraine, Zelensky shifts the conversation to business: “I would like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
The “Javelins” that Zelensky is referring to are U.S. anti-tank missiles, a type of weapon that the Trump administration began providing to Ukraine along with other forms of lethal equipment in 2017. Just a few weeks before Trump and Zelensky spoke, Ukraine had put in a request to purchase additional arms and military equipment from the United States, which was still pending review by U.S. officials by the time of the call. Notably, 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.
But Trump then pivots to a new topic (emphasis added):
I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.
Here Trump is referring to the 2016 election conspiracy theory about which Giuliani had been pressing for an investigation. He appears to be asking for Zelensky’s help, and proposes enlisting Attorney General William Barr, to track down the DNC server that allegedly ended up in Ukraine. Hill later warned in the opening statement of her live testimony that this conspiracy theory is a “fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” And she also had this exchange with Democratic counsel Goldman, in which she acknowledged that the president had adopted the conspiracy theory put forth by the Russian security services:
GOLDMAN: Now I want to take a look at a couple of excerpts from this July 25 call with you. And the first one occurs right after President Zelensky thanked President Trump for the United States’ support in the area of defense, and President Trump immediately then says, I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike. I guess you have one of your wealthy people, the server, they say Ukraine has it.
Now Dr. Hill, is this a reference to this debunked conspiracy theory about Ukraine interference in the 2016 election that you discussed at the—in your opening statement, as well as with Chairman Schiff?
HILL: The reference to CrowdStrike and the server, yes, that’s correct.
GOLDMAN: And it is your understanding that there is no basis for these allegations. Is that correct?
HILL: That’s correct.
GOLDMAN: Now isn’t it also true that some of President Trump’s most senior advisers had informed him that this theory of Ukraine interference in the 2016 election was false?
HILL: That’s correct.
GOLDMAN: So is it your understanding then that President Trump disregarded the advice of his senior officials about this theory and instead listened to Rudy Giuliani’s views?
HILL: That appears to be the case, yes.
Zelensky responds to Trump’s invocation of the conspiracy theory by emphasizing the importance of U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation and the broader strategic partnership, assuring Trump that the American president “ha[s] nobody but friends” in Zelensky’s administration. He mentions a recent meeting between Giuliani and Yermak, noting that “we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine,” before closing by assuring Trump that “all the investigations will be done openly and candidly.”
Trump then uses this as an opportunity to pivot to another topic of particular concern: “Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved.” Trump goes on to discuss Yovanovitch: “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that.”
He then turns to his request that Zelensky have the Ukrainian prosecutor general revisit the subject of the Bidens’ role in Shokin’s removal. Here and at multiple other points throughout the conversation, he references Barr, as well as Giuliani, as a point of contact for Zelensky on the matter. (The Justice Department has stated that Barr “has not communicated with Ukraine” or discussed the matter with Giuliani, and that Trump did not ask Barr to contact the Ukrainian government.) Trump says, “The other thing. There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
Zelensky responds by assuring Trump that he is appointing a new prosecutor who will “look into the situation.” Trump goes on: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out. I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor so good luck with everything.”
After Zelensky promises Trump that he will “take care of” the investigation, Trump comments that Yovanovitch is “going to go through some things.”
Of the individuals who testified, Vindman, Williams and Timothy Morrison—Hill’s replacement—actually heard the call. They listened from the Situation Room in the White House, along with Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg (Vice President Pence’s national security adviser and Jennifer Williams’s boss) and, according to Vindman’s deposition testimony, an NSC press representative. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also listened on from the State Department.
Vindman had testified in his deposition 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.
In her public testimony, Williams reiterated her deposition testimony about what she thought of the call:
During my closed-door deposition, members of the committee asked about my personal views and whether I had any concerns about that July 25 call. As I testified then, I found that July 25 phone call unusual because, in contrast to other Presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter. After the July 25 call, I provided an update in the vice president’s daily briefing book indicating that President Trump had a call that day with President Zelensky. A hard copy of the memorandum transcribing the call was also included in the book. I do not know whether the Vice President reviewed my update or the transcript. I did not discuss the July 25 call with Vice President or any of my colleagues in the office of the Vice President or the NSC.
In questioning by Rep. Sean Maloney, she reiterated the point yet again and made clear that the “domestic political matter” in question involved the investigation of the Bidens:
MALONEY: … Miss Williams, you heard the call with your own ears, right?
WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.
MALONEY: Not secondhand, not hearsay, you heard the President speak. You heard his voice on the call.
MALONEY: And your conclusion was what he said about investigating the Bidens was your words unusual and inappropriate I believe am I—am I right?
WILLIAMS: That was my testimony.
Part of Vindman’s concern about pushing for investigations, he testified in his deposition, was that countries will do what they perceive to be in their national security interests. Vindman 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 10 percent of Ukraine’s military budget and that the Ukrainians spend 5-6 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, both Morrison and Vindman reported concerns to NSC legal counsel John Eisenberg. This ultimately led Eisenberg to limit access to the call memo relaying the substance of the conversation by directing that it be placed on a more secure system, though Morrison testified that this may have been the result of a miscommunication with other staff. Vindman also spoke to a member of the intelligence community that, on advice of counsel, he declined to identify in his public hearing.
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 specifically 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 Andrey Yermak, a top aide to Zelensky, 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.
The day after the call with Zelensky, Taylor revealed in the open hearings, the president had a second conversation—this one with Sondland—that illustrates his concerns, prompting the committee to call a new witness:
Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26th. While Ambassador Volker and I—Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak. Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv.
The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. Ambassador Sondland told President Trump the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden which Giuliani was pressing for.
U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer David Holmes was deposed by the committee shortly thereafter and then testified publicly on Nov. 22. In his opening statement, he said that on July 26 he attended meetings at the presidential administration building in Kyiv with Taylor, Volker and Sondland, and that he took notes during those meetings. The delegation met with President Zelensky and several other senior officials, and Zelensky said that, during the July 25 call, President Trump had “three times raised some very sensitive issues” that Zelensky would have to follow up on when he and Trump met in person. After the meeting, Sondland met with Yermak:
As I was leaving the meeting with President Zelensky, I was told to join the meeting with Ambassador Sondland and Mr. Yermak to take notes. I had not expected to join that meeting and was a flight of stairs behind Ambassador Sondland as he headed to meet with Mr. Yermak. When I reached Mr. Yermak’s office, Ambassador Sondland had already gone into the meeting. I explained to Mr. Yermak’s assistant that I was supposed to join the meeting as the embassy’s representative and strongly urged her to let me in, but she told me that Ambassador Sondland and Mr. Yermak had insisted that the meeting be one-on-one with no note-taker.
I then waited in the anteroom until the meeting ended, along with a member of Ambassador Sondland’s staff and a member of the U.S. Embassy Kyiv staff. When the meeting ended, the two staffers and I accompanied Ambassador Sondland out of the presidential administration building. Ambassador Sondland then said that he wanted to go to lunch, and I told Ambassador Sondland that I would be happy to join him and the two staffers for lunch if he wanted to brief me out on his meeting with Mr. Yermak or discuss other issues. Ambassador Sondland said that I should join.
The four of us went to a nearby restaurant and sat on an outdoor terrace. I sat directly across from Ambassador Sondland, and the two staffers sat off to our sides. At first, the lunch was largely social. Ambassador Sondland selected a bottle of wine that he shared among the four of us, and we discussed topics such as marketing strategies for his hotel business.
During the lunch, Ambassador Sondland said that he was going to call President Trump to give him an update. Ambassador Sondland placed a call on his mobile phone. I heard him announce himself several times along the lines of, Gordon Sondland holding for the president. It appeared that he was being transferred through several layers of switchboards and assistants, and I then noticed Ambassador Sondland’s demeanor changed, and understood that he had been connected to President Trump.
While Ambassador Sondland’s phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the president’s voice through the ear piece of the phone. The president’s voice was loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.
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’s going to do it, adding that President Zelensky will do anything you ask him to do.
This testimony provides a firsthand account of President Trump following up on Zelensky’s intentions regarding the investigations about which Trump had spoken on the phone the day before. Holmes went on:
After the call ended, Ambassador Sondland remarked that the president was in a bad mood, as Ambassador Sondland stated was often the case early in the morning. 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 expletive about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give an expletive about Ukraine. I asked why not. Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about big stuff. I noted there was big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.
This testimony offers contemporaneous evidence of the understanding of a major player, Gordon Sondland, in real time of the president’s intentions. It illustrates Sondland’s clear understanding that Trump’s priority was not Ukraine but, rather, the public announcement of investigations that would benefit him politically. Indeed, Sondland would later testify that he “never heard … anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” only “that they had to be announced in some form … .”
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 toward 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. He never received a response, but was later told that Pompeo had taken it with him on a White House meeting.
At the same time, however, Pompeo was having conversations on Ukraine policy and the demand for investigations with participants in the “irregular channel.” During his public testimony, Sondland even provided e-mails showing as much. On Aug. 11, Sondland e-mailed Brechbuhl and Pompeo’s executive secretary, Lisa Kenna, to indicate they had “negotiated a statement from [Zelenksy]” that “will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation[,]” as Zelenksky “plan[ned] to have a big pressure on the openness subject (including specifics)” the following week. Kenna replied, “I’ll pass to S,” meaning Pompeo. The next week, they had even more revealing exchange. As Sondland testified:
GOLDMAN: I’m going to move ahead to August 22, and you wrote an email to Secretary Pompeo, directly to Secretary Pompeo cc-ing Lisa Kenna with the subject of “Zelensky.” And could you please read what you wrote to Secretary Pompeo?
SONDLAND: Mike, should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for POTUS to meet Zelensky? I would ask Zelensky to look them in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place mid-September, Zelensky should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to POTUS and to the U.S. Hopefully that will break the log jam.
GOLDMAN: And Secretary Pompeo responds to you three minutes later. “Yes.” Now I want to unpack this a little bit. You said that in the middle, “Once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place.” What did you mean by that?
SONDLAND: The new prosecutor that was going to be working for President Zelensky. The old prosecutor, I believe his term was up or he was being let go, he was the Poroshenko prosecutor and Zelensky wanted to wait until his person was in place.
GOLDMAN: So once that new prosecutor was in place, then Z, President Zelensky, “Should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to POTUS.” What did you mean by those issues of importance to POTUS?
SONDLAND: Again, the 2016 election and Burisma investigation.
. . .
GOLDMAN: Then it says, “Hopefully that will break the log jam.” Now, by this point, you were aware that security assistance had been on hold for about five weeks. Is that right?
SONDLAND: I became aware on the 18th of July.
GOLDMAN: And you understood that there was a lot of activity within the State Department and elsewhere to try to get that hold lifted. Is that right?
SONDLAND: That’s right.
GOLDMAN: Just about everybody in the interagency, meaning the national security apparatus, wanted to lift the hold and wanted the aid to go to Ukraine?
GOLDMAN: So what did you mean here when you said logjam?
SONDLAND: Well, as I said to Chairman Schiff, I meant inclusively anything that was holding up moving forward on the meeting and the Ukraine-U.S. relationship.
GOLDMAN: And what was holding that up?
SONDLAND: At that point, it was the statements about Burisma and the 2016 elections.
GOLDMAN: But what was being held up?
SONDLAND: Well, the aid was being held up, obviously
On Aug. 28, the news broke publicly that security assistance was being withheld from Ukraine, and Taylor received a call from Yermak, inquiring as to the reason. Taylor had no answer for him. Again, both in the opening statement and in response to committee questions during his deposition, Taylor stressed that he had not yet understood that the hold on security assistance was related to the alternative channel’s push for Zelensky to conduct investigations.
Taylor testified that on Sept. 1, Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Sondland, who was on the trip, later testified that he had told Pence in a preparatory meeting that it was important to secure the investigations from Ukraine in order to ensure the release of the military aid, to which Pence nodded. That said, Pence did not raise the investigations with the Ukrainians, even after Zelensky raised the assistance. Later, Morrison, who was also on the trip, told Taylor that Sondland spoke with Yermak and told him that Ukraine would not receive security assistance money until Zelensky committed to pursuing the two investigations. Sondland later confirmed that he had told Yermak that the security assistance might also be contingent on the 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.
Taylor testified that it was his understanding that Ambassador Sondland had a direct line of communication into President Trump. In a phone call with Sondland later in the day on Sept. 1, Taylor learned that Trump wanted Zelensky to make a public announcement about the investigations in order to put Zelensky “in a public box.” Taylor testified that he understood this to mean that President Trump, through Ambassador Sondland, was asking for president Zelensky to very publicly commit to these investigations, and that a private commitment to investigate was not sufficient.
During this call, Taylor testified, Sondland said that “everything” was dependent on such a public announcement. Taylor’s testimony includes this exchange:
SCHIFF: [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.
SCHIFF: So if they don’t do this, they are not going to get that was your understanding?
TAYLOR: Yes, sir.
Taylor testified that he asked Sondland to push back on Trump’s demand and to see if he may agree to have someone other than Zelensky make the announcement, which Sondland agreed to do. On September 7, Morrison told Taylor of another conversation between Sondland and Taylor that had given him a “sinking feeling” as Trump seemed insistent on a public announcement of investigations by Zelensky. Taylor himself discussed the conversation with Sondland on September 8. In his public testimony, Sondland confirmed that he saw no reason to contest either of their accounts of that call:
GOLDMAN: Now you had a conversation on September 7, according to both Ambassador Taylor and Tim Morrison, with Tim Morrison, where you told Mr. Morrison that President Trump told you that he was not asking for a quid pro quo, but that he did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say that he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself. You don’t have any reason to dispute both Ambassador Taylor’s and Mr. Morrison’s testimony about that conversation, do you?
GOLDMAN: On September 8, you then had a conversation directly with Ambassador Taylor about this same phone call where Ambassador Taylor said that you confirmed that you spoke to President Trump, as he had suggested earlier to you, and that President Trump was adamant that President Zelensky himself, meaning not the prosecutor general, had to, “Clear things up and do it in public.” You don’t have any reason to think that Ambassador Taylor’s testimony based on his contemporaneous notes was-
SONDLAND: I don’t know if I got that from President Trump or I got it from Giuliani. That’s the part I’m not clear on.
GOLDMAN: Well, Ambassador Taylor is quite clear that you said President Trump, Mr. Morrison is also quite clear that you said President Trump. You don’t have any reason to dispute their very specific recollections, do you?
SONDLAND: No, if they have notes and they recall that, I don’t have any reason to dispute it. I just personally can’t remember where I got it from.
In his live testimony, Sondland said that he could not recall directly hearing from the president that the military aid was being withheld in order to obtain the announcement about investigations the president wanted from Zelensky:
[I]n July and August 2019, we learned that the White House had also suspended security aid to Ukraine. I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid. I was adamantly suppose—adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression. I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended but I never received a clear answer; still haven’t to this day.
In the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 elections and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded. I shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid with Senator Ron Johnson, and I also shared my concerns with the Ukrainians.
Apparently everyone else involved in the matter likewise understood the aid was tied to the announcement of the investigations. On the Sept. 8 telephone call with Sondland, Taylor learned 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 announcing the probes. 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 deposition, 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 by text to Taylor five hours later, saying that Taylor had misunderstood Trump’s intentions, and that Trump had been clear: “no quid pro quos of any kind.”
The public hearings shed more light on what happened in those five hours. Sondland testified that in response to Taylor’s text he phoned the president—purportedly to inquire further about this “alarming” allegation—and asked broadly what Trump wanted from Ukraine:
CASTOR: Okay. But on September 9, at least at your deposition you were extremely clear. You called the president. You said he was feeling cranky that day, right?
SONDLAND: He seemed very cranky to me.
CASTOR: And you said in no uncertain terms—and this is on the heel of—heels of the Bill Taylor text, right?
CASTOR: And why don’t you tell us, what did the president say to you on September 9 that you remember?
SONDLAND: Well, words to the effect—I decided to ask the president the question in an open-ended fashion because there were so many different scenarios floating around as to what was going on with Ukraine. So rather than ask the president nine different questions, is it this, is it this, is it that, I just said, what do you want from Ukraine? I may have even used a four letter word. And he said I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I just want Zelensky to do the right thing, to do what he ran on, or words to that effect.
And that gave me the impetus to respond to Ambassador Taylor with a text that I sent. As I said to Mr. Goldman, it was not an artfully written text. I should have been more specific, put it in quotes, something like that. But basically I wanted Mr. Taylor, Ambassador Taylor, to pick up the ball and take it from there. I had gone as far as I could go.
CASTOR: And you believed the president, correct?
SONDLAND: You know what, I'm not going to characterize whether I believed or didn’t believe. I was just trying to convey what he said on the phone.
The president’s defenders, indeed Trump himself, have made much of the president’s apparent disclaimer of wanting anything from Ukraine:
The Sept. 9 call, however, is far from exculpatory. It came four days after a Washington Post editorial declared that,
Not only has Mr. Trump refused to grant the Ukrainian leader a White House visit, but also he has suspended the delivery of $250 million in U.S. military aid to a country still fighting Russian aggression in its eastern provinces.
Some suspect Mr. Trump is once again catering to Mr. Putin, who is dedicated to undermining Ukrainian democracy and independence. But we’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.
By this point, the White House was already well aware that a whistleblower in the intelligence community had expressed similar concerns regarding the president’s conduct on the July 25 call. The same day that Sondland called Trump, the Intelligence Community inspector general wrote a letter to the House Intelligence Committee informing the committee that he had made a determination that a whistleblower complaint constituted an “urgent concern” warranting a report to Congress, but that the Acting Director of National Intelligence had directed him not to send it along on the grounds that the Justice Department did not agree. Trump was aware by the time of his call with Sondland that the substance of the whistleblower’s complaint was known to some members of the public and the fact of its existence was now known by Congress. In other words, he was disclaiming a quid pro quo only after having been caught demanding one.
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. 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 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 who needed to make the statement. 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.” In her public testimony, Cooper indicated that her subordinates had reason to believe that the Ukrainian Embassy might have become aware of the hold as early as July 25, the date of the Trump-Zelensky call. Vindman said that he believed the Ukrainians became aware of the hold sometime in the beginning or middle of August—well before the Aug. 28 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 aware of any substantive review of the assistance.
In his public testimony, Sondland—in an exchange with Schiff—describes quite unambiguously a corrupt demand on Trump’s part for something personally valuable (investigations of political opponents) in return for being influenced in the performance of two official acts (granting a White House meeting and releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance) in a fashion that at least raises a serious question under the federal bribery statute. One can see, in the exchange, Schiff probing Sondland as to the elements of the bribery offense—which is quite evidently on Schiff’s mind as he asks these questions:
SCHIFF: Let me get to the top line here, Ambassador Sondland.
SCHIFF: You’ve testified that the White House meeting that President Zelensky desperately wanted [was] very important to President Zelensky, was it not?
SCHIFF: You testified that that meeting was conditioned, was a quid pro quo, for what the president wanted, these two investigations. Is that right?
SCHIFF: And that everybody knew it.
SCHIFF: Now that White House meeting was going to be an official meeting between the two presidents, correct?
SCHIFF: It would be an Oval Office meeting, hopefully?
SONDLAND: A working meeting, yes.
SCHIFF: A working meeting. So an official act.
SCHIFF: And in order to perform that official act, Donald Trump wanted these two investigations that would help his re-election campaign, correct?
SONDLAND: I can’t characterize why he wanted them. All I can tell you is this is what we heard from Mr. Giuliani.
SCHIFF: But he had to get those two investigations if that official act was going to take place, correct?
SONDLAND: He had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.
SCHIFF: Okay, President Zelensky had to announce the two investigations the president wanted, make a public announcement, correct?
SCHIFF: And those were of great value to the president; he was quite insistent upon them and his attorney was insistent upon them?
SONDLAND: I don't want to characterize whether they were valued, not valued. Again, through Mr. Giuliani, we were led to believe that that’s what he wanted.
SCHIFF: Well, and you said Mr. Giuliani was acting at the president’s demand, correct?
SONDLAND: Right, when the president says talk to my personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, we followed his direction.
SCHIFF: And so that official act of that meeting was being conditioned on the performance of these things the president wanted as expressed both directly and through his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Correct?
SONDLAND: As expressed through Rudy Giuliani. Correct.
SCHIFF: And you’ve also testified is that your understanding, it became your clear understanding that the military assistance was also being withheld pending Zelensky announcing these investigations. Correct?
SONDLAND: That was my presumption, my personal presumption based on the facts at the time. Nothing was moving.
SCHIFF: And in fact, you had a discussion, communication with the secretary of state in which you said that [the] logjam over aid could be lifted if Zelensky announced these investigations, right?
SONDLAND: I did not, I don’t recall saying the logjam over aid. I recall saying the logjam.
SCHIFF: That’s what you meant, right, ambassador?
SONDLAND: I meant that whatever was holding up the meeting whatever was holding up our deal with Ukraine, I was trying to break. Again, I was presuming.
SCHIFF: Well, here’s what you said in your testimony a moment ago, page 18: “But my goal at the time was to do what was necessary to get the aid released, to break the logjam.” Okay, that’s still your testimony, right?
SCHIFF: So the military aid is also an official act, am I right?
SCHIFF: This was not President Trump’s personal bank account he’s writing a check from. This is $400 million of U.S. taxpayer money, is it not?
SCHIFF: There was a logjam in which the president would not write that U.S. check, you believed, until Ukraine announced these two investigations the president wanted. Correct?
SONDLAND: That was my belief.
As noted earlier, the question of when the Ukrainians knew that there was a problem with the security assistance got a lot of attention during the hearings, and new factual information in Cooper’s public testimony revealed that the Ukrainians were inquiring about the security assistance at a much earlier date than any of the deposition transcripts had revealed.
This new information is significant because it would seem to contradict an argument that critics of the proceedings had been making: that there was no quid pro quo because the Ukrainians did not know that a hold had been placed on the assistance until a short time before it was released. That said, it’s not clear how relevant this distinction truly is. No one disputes that Ukraine is extremely reliant on U.S. security assistance, over which Trump has substantial control. So by threatening future assistance, Trump could still be proposing a quid pro quo exchange even if he had not yet cut off the security assistance or the Ukrainians were not aware he had done so.
Cooper’s testimony also highlighted the general understanding among those involved regarding the connection between the hold on the security assistance and the announcement of “investigations” by the Ukrainians:
SCHIFF: In August, you testified at your deposition that you met with Kurt Volker. I believe it was in August 20. The hold on security assistance was still in place. You testified that Ambassador Volker told you that if he could get Zelensky to make a public statement: “That would somehow disavow any interference in U.S. elections and would commit to the prosecution of any individuals involved in election interference. It might lift the hold on security assistance.” Is that correct?
COOPER: Sir, I believe that I testified that it was my inference that that would lift the hold on Ukraine security assistance.
SCHIFF: And that was your inference because at the time you were talking about the hold on security assistance?
COOPER: That’s correct. The first part of our conversation was about the hold on security assistance.
SCHIFF: And it was during that portion of the conversation that he brought up the effort to get this public statement?
COOPER: It was during that conversation. I’m not sure I would say it’s during that part of the conversation.
SCHIFF: What else did you discuss in the conversation?
COOPER: The only two topics that I recall are the urgency of lifting the hold on security assistance and then him relaying this separate diplomatic effort that I had previously been unaware of.
Finally, of course, Mulvaney himself publicly spilled the beans about the quid pro quo nature of the transaction, though he later tried to deny he had done so. At a White House press conference on Oct. 17, Mulvaney had the following exchange with reporters, in which he candidly acknowledged that one of the reasons aid was held up was over these investigative matters:
Q: Can you clarify—and I’ve been trying to get an answer to this: Was the President serious when he said that he would also like to see China investigate the Bidens? And you were directly involved in the decision to withhold funding from Ukraine. Can you explain to us now definitively why? Why was funding withheld?
MULVANEY: … He’s like, “Look, this is a corrupt place. I don’t want to send them a bunch of money and have them waste it, have them spend it, have them use it to line their own pockets. Plus, I’m not sure that the other European countries are helping them out either.”
So that was—those were the driving factors. Did he also mention to me in pass[ing] the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.
Q: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding to Ukraine?
MULVANEY: The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.
Q: And withholding the funding?
MULVANEY: Yeah. Which ultimately, then, flowed.
Q: But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is: funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.
MULVANEY: We do that all the time with foreign policy. We were holding up money at the same time for—what was it?—the Northern Triangle countries. We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries so that they would change their policies on immigration.
If you read the news reports and you believe them—what did [McKinley] say yesterday? Well, [he] said yesterday that he was really upset with the political influence in foreign policy. That was one of the reasons he was so upset about this. And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.
On Nov. 25, Chairman Schiff issued a letter to his colleagues indicating that he has begun to draft an impeachment report, and press reports indicate that Schiff’s report to the Judiciary Committee could come as soon as Dec. 2. Schiff has made clear that he thinks the facts in the record show that “the evidence is already overwhelming,” even though the administration has yet to turn over relevant documentary evidence. Schiff has also said that the committee’s investigation will continue and may include additional depositions and hearings and may require addendums to the report the committee submits to the Judiciary Committee. Moreover, it is difficult to say with certainty what the next phase of the impeachment inquiry will look like, precisely, in the Judiciary Committee, though the text of House Resolution 660 offers some guidance, including the potential for participation by the president’s counsel.
In any event, it seems clear that consideration of articles of impeachment would be warranted based on the facts gathered in the Intelligence Committee.
Parts of the testimony could form the basis for potentially two different articles of impeachment based on bribery. The president made a corrupt demand for something personally valuable (investigations of political opponents) in return for being influenced in the performance of two official acts (granting a White House meeting and releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance).
Undisputed facts could also form the basis for an article of impeachment based on the president’s abuse of his foreign policy authorities to attempt to induce a foreign head of state to violate the civil liberties of a U.S. citizen by opening a meritless legal investigation. Yet another could be based on abuse of presidential authority to induce a foreign head of state to interfere in U.S. elections by making a public announcement about such an investigation into the Bidens.
Another potential article could capture obstruction of Congress’s investigation through the withholding of documents and the refusal to permit witness testimony, and the simple refusal to engage oversight mechanisms at all. This record is, after all, far from complete, and it’s incomplete on purpose.
A final set of concerns this record raises involves witness tampering and intimidation, including Trump’s real-time tweeting about Marie Yovanovitch. This activity would likely supplement the larger obstruction of justice concerns raised by the Mueller report, which the Judiciary Committee has been examining separately.
The Intelligence Committee has now done its role of gathering relevant facts related to the Ukraine matter. Now it is up to the Judiciary Committee to apply those facts—and any others that emerge—to the question of articles of impeachment.