Several witnesses in the House impeachment probe said that the campaign by President Trump and Rudy Giuliani to secure Ukrainian investigations into Trump’s domestic rivals stressed that those investigations must be announced publicly.
“Whatever the Ukrainians were going to promise in any context, he wanted it public,” U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland recalled of the Trump demands, which were being passed along to him and other diplomats through Giuliani.
The emphasis on getting Ukraine to make a show of launching the requested investigations is a major piece of evidence backing the allegations that Trump had hijacked U.S. foreign policy to smear his political opponents going into the 2020 election. It also undermines the talking point by Trump’s allies that the President was merely motivated by a sincere desire to root out corruption in the country.
Sondland’s testimony is corroborated by contemporaneous texts that U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker handed over to Congress, as well as by the opening remarks from other witnesses who have testified in the impeachment probe. The full transcripts Sondland’s and Volker’s depositions, as well as Volker’s texts, were released on Tuesday.
Sondland described Giuliani’s demands evolving on a “continuum” that grew “more insidious as [the] timeline went on.” Trump first ordered Sondland and others to work with Giuliani on what Trump called the “problem” of Ukraine at a White House meeting in May. Days later Trump sent a letter inviting Ukraine’s newly-elected President to the White House without any conditions. But when the White House balked at scheduling that proposed meeting, the U.S. diplomats scrambled to coach the Ukrainians on what Trump, through his personal attorney Giuliani, was demanding.
At first, Sondland testified, what was being requested was an “innocuous press statement” from the Zelensky administration that said it was “pursuing corruption” in a general sense, Sondland testified.
“Then the press statement began to have ornaments hung on it,” Sondland said.
That next phase, Sondland said, included a “negotiation” for a “press statement” that included “Burisma and the 2016 election.” Burisma is a Ukrainian energy company with links to Joe Biden; Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board when Biden was Vice President. Giuliani’s demands for a 2016 investigation included a probe into the “DNC server,” Sondland said, apparently referring to Trump-friendly conspiracy theories about the 2016 hack of Democratic emails.
“Giuliani kept saying it needs to be some kind of a public utterance,” Sondland said.
The end of the continuum, Sondland said, was the Trump-ordered hold on military aid to Ukraine. With the lack of alternative explanations, Sondland assumed the hold would not be lifted until Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky did a television interview announcing the investigations.
At one point, the hope was that Zelensky would go on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, Sondland said, because that’s “something President Trump would obviously see.”
As part of those negotiations with Giuliani about a press statement, the Ukrainian officials sent the U.S. diplomats a draft of a statement that was about investigating corruption generally. That version was sent to Volker by Andrey Yermak, an advisor to Zelensky:
The diplomats shared it with Giuliani, who “did not find that convincing” because it did not specify investigations into 2016 and Burisma, Volker testified.
Volker and Sondland discussed adding references to 2016 and Burisma to the proposed Ukrainian statement and then consulted with Yermak about the amended version.
“I advised him that making those specific references was not a good idea, that a generic statement about fighting corruption and, you know, if anyone had tried
to interfere in U.S. domestic politics, it’s unacceptable, we have to make sure that never happens again, that’s fine,” Volker testified. “But making those specific references, I said, is not a good idea”.
Yermak also told Volker that Zelensky would be willing to do a press briefing to announce, among other things, the Burisma and 2016 probes, once a date for a White House visit was confirmed.
As part of the negotiations, Yermak and the diplomats discussed Ukraine’s prosecutor general making the statement, rather than President Zelensky.
Sondland, in an amendment this week that drastically changed his testimony, acknowledged that he discussed the idea with Yermak on Sept. 1.
“Soon thereafter, I came to understand that, in fact, the public statement would need to come directly from President Zelensky himself,” Sondland said. “I do not specifically recall how I learned this, but I believe that the information may have come either from Mr. Giuliani or from Ambassador Volker, who may have discussed this with Mr. Giuliani.”
The push for a public statement was coming not just from Giuliani but from Trump himself, according to testimony to Congress by Bill Taylor, a career diplomat put in charge of the Kyiv embassy in May.
Taylor’s opening statement recalled a conversation he had with Sondland on Sept. 9, in which Sondland allegedly recounted a conversation he had with Trump.
Trump denied a quid pro quo, but wanted Zelensky to “clear things up and do it in public,” Sondland allegedly told Taylor.
Tim Morrison, a NSC official also described to Taylor a conversation between Trump and Sondland that Sondland had recalled to him.
“But President Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference,” Taylor said of Morrison’s account of the Sondland-Trump call. Morrison’s opening remarks backed Taylor’s account.
Sondland, in his amendment to his testimony, said he couldn’t recall have any conversations with Trump between Sept. 6-9, as the other witnesses had suggested. He said the White House had refused to provide for him phone records or notes that would perhaps refresh his memory.