Trump’s Ukraine call was damning, and the context makes it even worse
President Donald Trump apparently believes that the rough transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shall set him free, but he is wrong. Not only is the transcript itself damning, but it is also part of a larger campaign by the President and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure the Ukrainian government to pursue an investigation that could tarnish Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden.
As the House impeachment inquiry enters its public phase, the president and his allies in Congress have doubled down on his argument that his July phone call with Zelensky was “perfect” and the transcript released by the White House shows “nothing impeachable.” Since early October, Trump has tweeted or retweeted “read the transcript” at least sixteen times, claiming that “everything else” but the transcript “is made up garbage.” Trump is so convinced that impeachment should rise or fall solely on the basis of “a phone call that is a good call” that he has even suggested doing a live reading of it during a fireside chat on live television. His supporters have taken to donning “read the transcript” tee shirts at political rallies.
As CREW’s Noah Bookbinder pointed out when it was first released, the reconstructed “memorandum of telephone conversation” that Trump refers to as a transcript, does not come close to vindicating his conduct. In fact, it shows how in response to being asked about “next steps” and a desire to buy more weapons from the United States, Trump sought multiple favors from the leader of a foerign government for his own personal gain, including an investigation into Biden, one of his 2020 political rivals.
There is an even bigger problem, though: Trump’s call with Zelensky did not happen in a vacuum. The evidence gathered to date by House investigators demonstrates that Trump, with the assistance of Giuliani and senior U.S. officials, engaged in a protracted campaign to pressure Zelensky to pursue investigations that would benefit Trump. The pressure campaign had many components and the July 25 call was just one of them:
- Prior to the July 25 call, Trump directed U.S. officials advocating for a White House meeting with Zelensky to work with Giuliani and satisfy his concerns before a meeting.
- On multiple occasions, Giuliani and U.S. officials communicated that those concerns were the need for Ukraine to pursue investigations that would benefit Trump, namely investigations of alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and of Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and/or Burisma, a Ukrainian company who’s board Hunter Biden served on.
- Multiple officials testified that at a July 10 meeting in the White House a top U.S. diplomat told Ukrainian officials the acting White House Chief of Staff had blessed an agreement that a White House meeting would occur if Ukraine pursued specific investigations.
- At least a week prior to the July 25 phone call, Trump ordered that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) place a hold on congressionally approved security assistance to Ukraine.
- Giuliani and administration officials advocated for a phone call between Trump and Zelensky as a means to obtaining a meeting and suggested ways that Zelensky could satisfy Trump on the call by committing to pursue investigations Trump wanted.
- Because the July 25 call apparently did not adequately appease Trump, Giuliani and Trump administration officials later pressed for Zelensky to publicly commit to investigating “Burisma” and “2016”
- By early September, U.S. officials also communicated that security assistance, in addition to the White House meeting, would be withheld until Zelensky made this commitment.
- Only intervening events in the United States—public reporting of a whistleblower complaint relating to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign and the Trump administration’s belated release of security assistance—prevented Zelensky from following through.
The story is not complicated, even though we describe it in even greater detail below. President Trump’s call with Zelensky was not “perfect.” It was part of a protracted effort by the President, his personal attorney, and administration officials to use the power and prestige of the United States government to get Ukraine to pursue investigations for Trump’s personal and political advantage.
Trump Conditioned White House Meeting on Satisfying Giuliani
In early May 2019, the New York Times reported that Giuliani planned to travel to Kyiv in hopes of meeting with Zelensky, who had just won office, to encourage him and his government to pursue investigations related to alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election as well as an Ukrainian gas company that employed Biden’s son on its board. Giuliani, who told the Times his efforts related to Ukraine had Trump’s full support, said that he was asking the Ukrainians “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.” Around the same time that Giuliani was making his plans to travel to Ukraine, the State Department learned that Zelensky was seeking advice on how to navigate the pressure he was feeling from Trump and his allies to investigate Biden, according to the Associated Press.
On May 23, 2019, the U.S. delegation to President Zelensky’s inauguration in Ukraine, which included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, then-U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, met with President Trump and briefed him on their trip. According to Sondland, the delegation asked that a “working phone call” be arranged between Trump and Zelensky as well as an Oval Office visit for the new Ukrainian president, but Trump was “skeptical” of Ukraine and told the delegation to talk to Giuliani about his concerns.
Though Volker testified that he didn’t hear Trump’s statement that they should talk Giuliani “as an instruction,” Sondland characterized it in his initial testimony as “direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani.” Sondland said it was “apparent” to everyone that Giuliani was “the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine” and that he, Volker, and Perry faced a choice of either abandoning their goal of a White House meeting for Zelensky or doing as Trump directed and speaking to Giuliani to “address the President’s concerns.” When he testified publicly, Sondland said “we followed the President’s orders” in working with Giuliani. Perry refused to testify in the House impeachment inquiry, but told the Wall Street Journal that he reached out to Giuliani at Trump’s direction in order to address Trump’s concerns about Ukraine and to ease a path to a Trump-Zelensky meeting.
Trump did ultimately agree to sign a letter on May 29, 2019, congratulating Zelensky on his electoral win and inviting him to a future meeting at the White House, though no date was specified in the letter. According to Ambassador William B. Taylor, the Charge d’Affaires ad interim in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, by late-June 2019 both the “regular” channel for U.S. policy-making in Ukraine and the “irregular, informal” channel consisting of Giuliani, Sondland, Volker, and Perry were working towards the goal of facilitating a meeting between Trump and Zelensky at the White House.
Taylor soon learned from Volker and Sondland, however, that Trump “wanted to hear from Zelensky” before scheduling an Oval Office meeting. In a June 27 phone call, Taylor said that Sondland told him that Zelensky needed to make it clear to Trump that he wasn’t standing in the way of “investigations.” According to testimony by David Holmes, who has served as the Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv since August 2017, Taylor shared the “gist” of the Sondland call with him and he understood the reference to “investigations” to refer to “the Burisma/Biden investigations” that Giuliani and his associates had been discussing in the press since March 2019. Holmes testified that Taylor also briefed him on a June 28 phone call that included Taylor, Sondland, Volker, and Perry, in which “it was made clear that some action on a Burisma/Biden investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting.” In his initial deposition, Sondland testified that while he wasn’t saying the June 28 call “didn’t occur,” he did not remember it.
Volker was scheduled to meet with Zelensky during a conference on Ukrainian reform in Toronto, Canada on July 2. Volker told Taylor and others in a call before the conference that he planned to be explicit with Zelensky during their meeting about what the Ukrainian president needed to do to obtain the White House meeting. Part of what Volker said he would convey was that Trump wanted to see cooperation on investigations “to get to the bottom of things.”
Satisfying Trump in Phone Call Was a Means for Zelensky to Get a Meeting
Around this time, a phone call between the two presidents appears to have become the chosen vehicle for Zelensky to tell Trump what he wanted to hear in order to clear the way to an in-person meeting at the White House. Taylor testified that Volker told him that during a conversation with Zelensky and his chief of staff in Toronto Volker discussed how Zelensky “could prepare for the phone call with President Trump” and that investigations were part of the discussion. Volker testified that during his meeting with Zelensky in Toronto, he explained that “Giuliani continues to have a negative view of Ukraine based on assertions of actions that happened in 2016, and that this viewpoint is likely making its way to the President.”
On July 7, Taylor texted Volker, asking Volker if he had been working with then-Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko and Oleksandr Danyliuk, the then-head of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, on the phone call. “Did Prystaiko and [Zelensky] get it when you laid out what needs to happen on the call?” Taylor asked. “Can I tell the three of them — Prystaiko, Danyliuk and [Andriy] Bohdan — that we can schedule the phone call if [Zelensky] is ready to say that he is not interfering, one way or another, in any investigations?”
Three days later, on July 10, Danyliuk and Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak met with officials at the White House, including Perry, Sondland, Volker, and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. Fiona Hill, who was then the Senior Director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council staff and attended the meeting, testified that during the meeting the Ukrainians were “very anxious to set up a meeting” between Trump and Zelensky, but Bolton was “trying very hard not to commit to a meeting.”
According to Hill’s testimony, during the meeting, “Ambassador Sondland blurted out: Well, we have an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start,” leading Bolton to abruptly end the meeting. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who covers Ukraine for the National Security Council and attended the July 10 meeting, also testified that “the meeting proceeded well until the Ukrainians broached the subject of a meeting between the two Presidents” and “Ambassador Sondland started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the President.” Sondland said in his initial testimony that he did not recall saying words to the effect of there being an agreement for a White House meeting conditioned on Ukraine pursuing investigations. Volker said in his public testimony on November 19, 2019 that he remembered Sondland making “a generic comment about investigations,” which he characterized as “inappropriate.” Sondland later said in his public testimony that he recalled “mentioning the pre-requisite of investigations before any White House call or meeting,” but denied that there was “any yelling or screaming.”
According to Hill’s testimony, after Bolton ended the meeting, Sondland ushered some of the attendees, including the Ukrainians, into the Ward Room at the White House to continue talking. On Bolton’s orders, Hill followed them into the room, where she said she witnessed Ambassador Sondland, in front of the Ukrainians, “talking about how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations.” Vindman testified that in the Ward Room meeting, Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigation into the 2016 elections, the Bidens, and Burisma” and that Sondland said that “he had had a conversation with [acting White House Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney” and this is what was required in order to get a meeting.”
Three days after the White House meeting, Sondland emailed Tim Morrison of the National Security Council, writing that “the call between Zelensky and Potus should happen before 7/21” and that the “[s]ole purpose is for Zelensky to give Potus assurances of ‘new sheriff’ in town. Corruption ending, unbundling moving forward and any hampered investigations will be allowed to move forward transparently. Goal is for Potus to invite him to Oval.” Sondland added that “Volker, Perry, Bolton and I strongly recommend.” Morrison replied thanking him and said that he was “tracking” the issue.”
According to multiple witnesses who testified as part of the House impeachment inquiry, OMB communicated during an interagency meeting on July 18 that a hold was being placed on security assistance to Ukraine. Taylor testified that all the staffer said about the aid freeze was that “the directive had come from the President to the Chief of Staff to OMB.”
By July 19, a time for a phone call between Trump and Zelensky had nearly been locked down, and the U.S. diplomats were working on coaching Zelensky on how he should handle the call. Sondland texted Volker and Taylor, saying he had spoken directly to Zelensky “and gave him a full briefing. He’s got it.” Volker noted that he “had breakfast with Rudy [Giuliani] this morning — teeing up call w Yermak Monday. Must have helped. Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues — if there are any.” Taylor testified that the next day Sondland told him during a phone call that “he had recommended to President Zelenskyy that he use the phrase, ‘I will leave no stone unturned’ with regard to ‘investigations’” when Zelenskyy spoke with Trump.
That same day, Sondland emailed senior Trump administration officials, including Mulvaney, Perry, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, informing them he had just spoken to Zelensky and that he was “prepared to receive Potus’ call” and that Zelensky would “assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’” Mulvaney responded to the email chain, saying that he had “asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow.”
Before the call actually occurred, but after Zelensky was told he needed to tell Trump he would help with the investigations, at least one Ukrainian official expressed concern about Zelensky being “used as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign,” as Taylor put it in his testimony. Asked during his deposition why there was concern in Ukraine about Zelensky being used as a pawn in the 2020 election, Taylor said, “I think it was becoming clear to the Ukrainians that, in order to get this meeting that they wanted, they would have to commit to pursuing these investigations.” He added that he was “sure” the official who spoke to him “believed that opening those investigations, in particular on Burisma, would have involved Ukraine in the 2020 election campaign.” When Taylor texted Sondland on July 21 that “President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” Sondland replied, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext.”
On July 22, Volker texted Sondland that he had “[o]rchestrated a great phone call w Rudy and Yermak” and that they would get together in a couple of weeks when Giuliani traveled to Madrid. Volker then wrote that “[i]n the meantime, Rudy is now advocating for phone call.” “I can tell Bolton and you can tell Mick [Mulvaney] that Rudy agrees on a call, if that helps,” he added.
The call between the two presidents finally happened on the morning of July 25. Beforehand, Volker texted Yermak, telling him he “[h]eard from White House – assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.” Volker testified that to the best of his recollection he had heard this from Sondland “who spoke to someone at the White House.” Sondland, however, denied in his initial testimony that he had relayed this message to Volker for him to tell Yermak. “I think Volker was talking to Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. “I don’t remember telling Volker anything like that.”
July 25 Call Reflected U.S. Officials’ Advice to the Ukrainians on Appeasing Trump
As the reconstructed transcript released by the White House shows, the July 25 call between the two leaders reflected the messaging worked out beforehand. After Zelensky raised the issue of Ukraine buying more weapons from the U.S., Trump pivoted to his desire for Ukraine to pursue particular investigations, saying “I would like you to do us a favor though” before saying he would like Zelensky to “find out happened with this whole situation with Ukraine” and referencing a conspiracy theory related to the 2016 U.S. election. In response, Zelensky stuck to the messaging the U.S. diplomats had suggested to him, telling Trump that one of his aides had spoken to Giuliani and that he planned “to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly.” After Trump mentioned the Bidens, Zelensky said that “the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person” and that “[h]e or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.” The next day, Volker texted Giuliani to tell him “the President has a great phone call with the Ukrainian President yesterday” and that it contained “[e]xactly the right messages as we discussed.”
The Ukrainians quickly tried to follow up on the phone call by locking down a meeting. In a meeting the day after the call, according to Taylor’s testimony, Zelensky asked him and Volker “about the face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office as promised in the May 29 letter from President Trump.” Holmes testified that Zelensky also stated during a meeting that day with U.S. officials that during the call Trump had “three times” raised “some very sensitive issues,” and that he would have to follow up on those issues when they met “in person.”
Taylor noted in his testimony that after the meeting with Zelensky he and Volker traveled to the front lines in Donbas (the Ukrainian territory partly occupied by Russian-linked groups) to be briefed by Ukrainian military leaders. Sondland, who was flying out that afternoon, did not join them. Following a one-on-one meeting with Yermak, in which Sondland later testified “the issue of investigations was probably a part of the agenda,” Sondland went out to lunch with several State Department staffers, including Holmes. Holmes testified that Sondland called Trump during the lunch and Trump’s voice “was very loud and recognizable” and could be heard through the earpiece. After Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass,” Holmes heard Trump ask Sondland, “So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” “He’s gonna do it,” Sondland replied, adding that Zelensky would “do anything you ask him to.”
After the call ended, Holmes testified that he asked Sondland for his candid assessment of Trump’s views toward Ukraine and whether it was true Trump did not “give a s–t about Ukraine.” Sondland agreed with that assessment, saying Trump only cared about “big stuff,” which he clarified to mean “big stuff” that benefits Trump, like the “Biden investigation” that Giuliani was pushing.
In his public testimony, Sondland confirmed that the phone call occurred and that, according to records provided by the White House, it lasted five minutes. Sondland said that while he could not “remember the precise details,” he had “no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations,” adding that given Giuliani’s “demand that President Zelensky make a public statement about investigations, I knew that the topic of investigations was important to President Trump.” “Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the President’s concerns,” Sondland testified. He also said that he had no recollection of mentioning Biden or his son during or after the phone call with Trump.
On August 2, 2019, Giuliani and Yermak, who had spoken on the phone before the presidential call, met in Madrid. Volker said in his testimony that on phone calls after the meeting, Giuliani told him “he had stressed the importance of Ukraine conducting investigations into what happened in the past” and Yermak said he had told Giuliani that the Ukrainian government “would be conducting investigations” anyway as part of its program of rooting out corruption and implementing reforms. After the meeting, Yermak texted Volker saying the meeting “was very good” and “we asked for White House meeting during week start 16 Sept. Waiting for confirmation. May be you know the date?” A date was not yet set. In a text exchange on August 6, Taylor said that a conversation with Tim Morrison of the National Security Council “did not fill me with hope that they will agree on a date anytime soon unless, Tim said, ‘Gordon turns it around … like he did with the phone call.’”
With Meeting in Doubt, Push for a Public Statement Began
Once Giuliani was back in the U.S., Volker pressed him in a text to convey the “results of your meeting in Madrid to the boss so we get a firm date for a visit.” When Giuliani debriefed Volker and Sondland in a phone call, according to Volker, he told them “he believed the Ukrainian President needed to make a statement about fighting corruption, and that he had discussed this with Mr. Yermak.” Volker testified that he didn’t think that would be a problem and followed up with Yermak, who “said that they would indeed be prepared to make a statement.”
On August 9, Volker texted Giuliani, telling him that he had spoken to Yermak the night before and that Yermak had “mentioned [Zelensky] making a statement.” Volker then asked Giuliani if they could speak on the phone so that Volker could advise Zelensky “correctly as to what he should be saying.” Volker closed by saying he wanted “to make sure we get this done right.” Soon after Volker’s texts with Giuliani, he texted Yermak and Sondland to set up a call, saying, “we have all consulted here, including with Rudy.”
Later that day, after the call with Yermak was scheduled to occur, Sondland texted Volker, saying that Tim Morrison was “ready to get dates as soon as Yermak confirms.” In response, Volker asked “[h]ow did you sway him,” to which Sondland replied, “Not sure i did. I think potus really wants the deliverable.” Sondland then made it clear that the “deliverable” was a statement from the Ukrainians, writing, “To avoid misunderstandings, might be helpful to ask Andrey for a draft statement (embargoed) so that we can see exactly what they propose to cover. Even though Ze does a live presser they can still summarize in a brief statement.” Volker agreed.
The next day, Yermak told Volker that he thought “it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things,” but that he believed it would be more logical to make the statement after the Ukrainians had received a confirmed date for a visit. Volker told Yermak that he agreed with his approach and proposed, “Let’s iron out statement and use that to get date and then PreZ can go forward with it?” Yermak replied later that day, “Once we have a date, will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.” Volker replied, “Sounds great!”
On August 11, Volker informed Giuliani he had heard from Yermak and the Ukrainians were “writing the statement now and will send to us.” That same day, Sondland emailed State Department officials Ulrich Brechbuhl and Lisa Kenna, informing them that he and Volker had “negotiated a statement from [Zelensky] to be delivered for our review in a day or two. The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation. [Zelensky] plans to have a big presser on the openness subject (including specifics) next week.” Kenna replied that she would “pass to S,” which Sondland said meant Pompeo.
The next day, Yermak shared with Volker a draft of a proposed statement for President Zelensky to deliver, which said, “Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future.”
According to Volker’s testimony, after Yermak shared the draft statement with him, he conveyed it to Sondland and the two of them discussed it with Giuliani, “who said that in his view, the statement should include specific reference to ‘Burisma’ and ‘2016.’” Volker then edited the statement to include references to investigations “involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections” and sent it to Yermak with the “insert at the end for the 2 key items.” Volker also told Yermak that he and Sondland would “work on official request,” an apparent reference to Yermak requesting that the U.S. “submit an official request for an investigation into Burisma’s alleged violations of Ukrainian law, if that is what the United States desired,” as Taylor described in his testimony.
Taylor and Volker discussed Yermak’s request via text on August 16, with Taylor saying “this is not good. We need to stay clear.” Volker wanted to know if the U.S. had “ever asked for an investigation, or what it would take to do so.” Taylor said the legal attache at the embassy in Kyiv was on leave and suggested Volker speak to an official at the Justice Department.
The next day, Yermak asked Sondland about dates for a meeting, leading Sondland to ask Volker if he had any updates. Volker said he had “nothing” and that Taylor “had no info on requesting an investigation.” Sondland then asked, “Do we still want Ze to give us an unequivocal draft with 2016 and Boresma?” Volker replied, “That’s the clear message so far… … I’m hoping we can put something out there that causes him to respond with that.” Sondland replied, “Unless you think otherwise I will return Andreys call tomorrow and suggest they send us a clean draft.” After speaking to Yermak, Sondland texted Volker on August 19 that he had driven “the ‘larger issue’ home with Yermak. Not about just a meeting but the relationship per se.”
Sondland emailed Pompeo on August 22, asking if they should “block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for Potus to meet Zelensky?’ Sondland added that he “would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place ([in] mid-Sept[ember), that [Zelensky] should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US. Hopefully, that will break the logjam.” Pompeo replied simply, “Yes.”
On August 27, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Ukraine, bringing the news that Trump expected to meet with Zelensky in Warsaw on September 1, a trip that Trump ultimately did not make due to Hurricane Dorian. According to Holmes, during the visit Bolton spoke with Taylor and Morrison and indicated that “the hold on security assistance would not be lifted prior to the Warsaw meeting, where it would hang on whether President Zelenskyy was able to ‘favorably impress’ President Trump.”
By September, Security Assistance Was Also Dependent on Zelensky Making a Public Statement Confirming an Investigation of Burisma
Instead of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. According to Jennifer Williams, who serves as Pence’s special adviser on Europe and Russia, Zelensky’s first question during the meeting “was about the status of security assistance.” Williams testified that Pence responded by expressing “ongoing” U.S. support for Ukraine and conveying that he wanted to hear from Zelesnky “what the status of his reform efforts were that he could then convey back” to Trump. Taylor said he received a readout of the Pence-Zelensky meeting during a phone call with Morrison and that during the call Morrison also described “a conversation Ambassador Sondland had with Mr. Yermak at Warsaw” and, according to Taylor, Morrison told him “Ambassador Sondland told Mr. Yermak that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.” In his own testimony, Morrison said that he and Taylor “had no reason to believe that the release of the security sector assistance might be conditioned on a public statement reopening the Burisma investigation until my September 1, 2019 converation with Ambassador Sondland.” In his public testimony, Sondland said that in “a very brief pull-aside conversation” he told Yermak that he “believed that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”
“This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations,” Taylor wrote in his opening statement. He said that this revelation prompted him to text Sondland asking if “we [are] now saying that security assistance and [a] WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland asked Taylor to call him and told him during the subsequent phone conversation, according to Taylor’s testimony, that “President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.” Sondland told Taylor that Trump wanted Zelensky “in a public box” by making a public statement about ordering investigations. In his initial testimony, Sondland said he “probably” spoke to Taylor on the phone that day, but could only speculate about what they discussed because he didn’t “really recall exactly.”
Sondland, however, later amended his testimony after reviewing the opening statements made by Taylor and Morrison to say that by the beginning of September 2019 he began to presume “that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement.” He added that he now recalled “ a conversation on September 1, 2019, in Warsaw with Mr. Yermak” following the Pence-Zelensky meeting “where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” Sondland also said that while he had “no specific recollection of phone calls” with Taylor or Morrison during that time period, he had “no reason to question the substance of their recollection about my September 1 conversation with Mr. Yermak.”
Taylor testified that on September 7, Morrison described a phone conversation earlier that day between Sondland and Trump, in which despite claiming that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo,” Trump insisted that Zelensky “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskyy should want to do this himself.” Morrison confirmed Taylor’s account during his own testimony, saying that during the phone call Sondland told him he had just gotten off the phone with Trump and “as is related here in Ambassador Taylor’s statement, there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelensky must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it.”
The next day, according to Taylor, he spoke to Sondland on the phone, who said that he had spoken to Trump and that the president was “adamant that President Zelenskyy, himself, had to ‘clear things up and do it in public,’” which Trump claimed was not a “quid pro quo.” According to Taylor, Sondland said that he had spoken to Zelensky and Yermak and told them that if Zelensky did not “clear things up” in public, they would be at a “stalemate,” which Taylor understood to mean that Ukraine would not receive the security assistance. Sondland told Taylor that his conversation with the Ukrainian officials concluded with Zelensky agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN. The New York Times recently reported that the Ukrainians made plans for Zelensky to make the announcement desired by Trump in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on September 13, but the announcement was off when, under pressure from Congress, the White House released the security aid on September 11.
Only Media and Congressional Scrutiny Appears to Have Prevented Ukraine from Announcing the Investigations Trump Requested
Though, as the Times’ Andrew E. Kramer put it, the Ukrainians “by a stroke of luck, never had to follow through” on their planned acquiescence to Trump’s demand that Zelensky publicly announce an investigation that would involve Biden, the request that Trump made in his July 25 phone call with Zelensky was very nearly fulfilled. And, as the evidence gathered by the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry has made clear, Trump’s phone call was not the only factor in the Ukrainians decision-making.
Instead, it was just one high profile moment, which directly involved the president, in a nearly successful months long push to use the Ukrainians’ desire for a White House meeting and the country’s need for military assistance as leverage to satisfy Trump’s own desire for the Ukrainian government to publicly pursue investigations that would benefit him personally and politically.