WASHINGTON — Like every presidential conversation with a foreign leader, this one had scripted talking points and a predigested news release recounting an exchange yet to take place. Aides in the White House Situation Room clustered around a speaker phone, pens and pads in hand to document what they heard.
At 9:03 a.m. on Thursday, July 25, they listened as President Trump picked up the phone in the White House residence and was connected to Volodymyr Zelensky, the newly elected president of Ukraine. Within minutes, two note-takers exchanged troubled looks.
Mr. Trump had not merely veered off his talking points. By the conversation’s end, he had asked Mr. Zelensky — a leader in dire need of American military aid to fight the Russian-led invasion on his eastern border — to “do us a favor” by investigating one of his political rivals and an unfounded conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
That 30-minute conversation has now emerged as a mortal threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency. This week, the House of Representatives begins public hearings that could lead to the impeachment of a president for only for the third time in American history. More than a half dozen Trump administration officials have called the phone conversation and the events surrounding it insidious and shocking. Five officials who dealt with Ukraine have resigned since September.
The unfolding story is in many ways a sequel to the events that led to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Once again, the plot involves foreign influence in an election and is centered in the post-Soviet sphere.
Only one day before Mr. Trump spoke to Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Mueller had testified to Congress about how the Russians had tried to help elect Mr. Trump by organizing the theft and release of emails damaging to his opponent. In that case, the Russians were the pursuers who sought contacts with Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Now the president and his minions were the aggressors, seeking help with the 2020 re-election effort. They asked the Ukrainians to investigate unfounded allegations about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., one of Mr. Trump’s leading Democratic rivals, as well as to chase a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had intervened in 2016.
The story is also another chapter in Mr. Trump’s war on the wheels of American governance, from the intelligence community to the diplomatic corps to Congress itself. In his zeal to win Mr. Zelensky’s compliance, the president ousted the American ambassador to Ukraine, froze congressionally approved military aid, shut out foreign-policy experts in the National Security Council and sidestepped the State Department to set up a back-channel to Kiev with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The Ukraine saga is yet another episode in which Russia is the potential beneficiary of White House decisions. Mr. Trump not only sought to muddy the picture of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, but also withheld nearly $400 million in military aid, a tenth of Ukraine’s defense budget, for its war with Russian-backed forces.
The Russians “would love the humiliation of Zelensky at the hands of the Americans,” William B. Taylor Jr., the top diplomat in Kiev who nearly quit in protest, testified to Congress.
This account of the effort to muscle the Ukrainians for Mr. Trump’s political gain is based on interviews with more than a dozen American and Ukrainian principals as well as thousands of pages of witnesses’ testimony in the House impeachment inquiry. More details and revelations are likely to surface in the hearings that begin Wednesday in the historic House Ways and Means Committee room on Capitol Hill.
But what is already striking is the intense pressure the Trump White House exerted on one of the weakest nations in Europe. Mr. Zelensky dodged the White House’s demands for months, but with one or more Ukrainians a week dying under Russian fire in the east, he finally ran out of options. In a CNN interview scheduled for Sept. 13, Mr. Zelensky aimed to satisfy Mr. Trump with an announcement about investigations.
Only at the last minute, after key members of Congress erupted in protest over Mr. Trump’s actions, did the White House release the aid. Mr. Zelensky canceled his appearance, and — for the moment, at least — Ukraine’s perils abated.
Mr. Trump’s, however, were only beginning.
Giuliani, a human ‘hand grenade’
Mr. Zelensky’s election in April garnered limited attention in the United States. But it thrilled American foreign policy experts who had watched Ukraine struggle for decades in the shadow of Russian economic and military threats, seesawing between democracy and authoritarianism.
Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian with no political experience, had campaigned against corruption and won a landslide victory. He quickly opened a special court to hear corruption cases and stripped legislators of immunity from criminal prosecution, two long-awaited reforms.
“There was much excitement in Kiev that this time things could be different — a new Ukraine might finally be breaking from its corrupt, post-Soviet past,” Mr. Taylor testified.
Mr. Zelensky hoped to cement a relationship with the American president. But even before he took office, his aides suspected that the route to Mr. Trump ran through Mr. Giuliani rather than the State Department or the National Security Council. The former New York mayor’s influence over administration policy toward Ukraine “was almost unmissable,” George P. Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, testified.
Mr. Giuliani and his allies had worked for months to force out Marie L. Yovanovitch, the American ambassador in Kiev, claiming, with no evidence, that she was disloyal to Mr. Trump.
Gordon D. Sondland, a Republican donor with no diplomatic experience whom Mr. Trump had appointed ambassador to the European Union, offered Ms. Yovanovitch some unwanted advice: She might save her job, he counseled, if she extolled Mr. Trump in Twitter messages.
“You know the president,” he told her, according to Ms. Yovanovitch’s testimony to Congress.
Ms. Yovanovitch’s superiors insisted that she was an exemplary public servant who had been falsely accused. She nonetheless was abruptly recalled to Washington in May, a decision Mr. Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, called dispiriting.
Ms. Yovanovitch testified that she did not know exactly why, but she believed that Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump saw her as an obstacle to their strategy for Ukraine.
Even before she was ousted, Mr. Giuliani and the president were leveling charges on Fox News against one of Mr. Trump’s main Democratic rivals, Joseph R. Biden Jr. As vice president, they claimed, Mr. Biden had forced Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor to fire a state prosecutor to quash an investigation of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, that had hired Mr. Biden’s son Hunter.
No evidence has emerged to support that charge or that points to any crime by Hunter Biden. As vice president, Mr. Biden was among many Western officials who considered the prosecutor corrupt and urged that he be fired.
Mr. Trump had also embraced a fringe theory, debunked by extensive evidence, that a central event in the 2016 campaign — the theft of private emails from Democratic computers and their release on the rogue website WikiLeaks — had not been carried out by Russia, as both American intelligence experts and a criminal inquiry had proven, but by Ukraine.
Mr. Giuliani saw the Ukraine intrigues as a perfect riposte to the criminal investigation by the special counsel, Mr. Mueller, that had cast such a shadow over Mr. Trump’s presidency. So did Mr. Trump, who told reporters that Ukrainians were behind the “hoax that was perpetrated on our country” — one of his favorite terms for the Mueller inquiry. If Mr. Trump could promote the Ukraine theory, he might be able to undercut the evidence that the Russians had tried to get him elected, and put to rest questions about his legitimacy.
Soon after Mr. Zelensky’s election, Mr. Giuliani’s allies relayed a message that the president’s lawyer wanted to meet with him. It was the beginning of a five-month high-wire act in which Mr. Zelensky tried to mollify Mr. Trump and his messengers, yet hang on to the support of members of Congress and diplomats who told him not to get mired in American politics.
Initially, the Ukrainian leader put Mr. Giuliani off, a move that went over badly. In a subsequent appearance on Fox News, Mr. Giuliani suggested that Mr. Zelensky had surrounded himself with “enemies of the president and in some cases enemies of the United States.”
In what some saw as a sign of Mr. Trump’s personal displeasure, a White House aide later said, Mr. Trump’s team also downgraded the American delegation to Mr. Zelensky’s May 20 inauguration, replacing Vice President Mike Pence as the group’s senior official with Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Three days later, fresh from Mr. Zelensky’s swearing-in, Mr. Sondland, the European Union ambassador, and Kurt D. Volker, an American special envoy to Ukraine, went to an Oval Office meeting. There they praised Mr. Zelenskyas a reformer who deserved American support.
The president would have none of it. “They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people,” Mr. Trump retorted, according to Mr. Volker. He added, “They tried to take me down.”
Mr. Trump was apparently referring to Ukraine’s disclosure in 2016 of tens of millions of dollars in secret payments to Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, who had worked as a consultant to one of Mr. Zelensky’s predecessors. Mr. Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign and is now in prison for crimes related to those payments.
In the Oval Office, the president told both men to coordinate future Ukraine-related initiatives with Mr. Giuliani. “He just kept saying: ‘Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy,” Mr. Sondland testified.
And they did, creating a foreign policy back channel that bewildered both Ukrainians and high-ranking administration officials.
Among those officials was John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s third national security adviser. Just days earlier, he had warned Fiona Hill, one of his top deputies: “Giuliani is a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
Mr. Sondland, a blustery hotelier who had parlayed a $1 million donation to Mr. Trump’s inaugural into his ambassadorship, assumed the role as principal go-between with the Ukrainians. He did not like taking instructions from Mr. Giuliani, he testified, but Mr. Giuliani made it clear he spoke for the president.
What Mr. Trump wanted, Mr. Giuliani told him, was a public declaration that Ukraine was investigating two matters: Burisma, the firm that had hired Hunter Biden, and whether Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election.
Mr. Bolton and State Department officials were largely cut out of discussions about how to achieve that. . But that changed on July 10.
More than a half dozen American and Ukrainian officials gathered that day in Mr. Bolton’s West Wing office, including Mr. Sondland, Mr. Volker, Mr. Bolton, Ms. Hill and Alexander S. Vindman, Mr. Bolton’s chief Ukraine specialist. The Ukrainians included Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Mr. Zelensky, and Alexander Danyliuk, Mr. Bolton’s counterpart in Kiev.
All went well until the Ukrainians raised one of Mr. Zelensky’s most important issues: An invitation to the White House that Mr. Trump had promised in a letter after Mr. Zelensky was elected.
Mr. Sondland blurted out that Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, had guaranteed the invitation as long as Ukraine announced the investigations. By then, Ms. Hill testified, she and others recognized “investigations” as code for Burisma, the Bidens and the 2016 election.
Mr. Bolton stiffened, witnesses said, and abruptly ended the meeting. He pulled Ms. Hill aside and told her to report what had transpired to John A. Eisenberg, the chief legal adviser to the National Security Council.
“Tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” he said, according to Ms. Hill’s testimony.
He dispatched her to catch up to the others in the White House basement, where Mr. Sondland had reconvened discussions with the Ukrainians. Ms. Hill listened long enough to hear the word “Burisma,” then declared the meeting over.
But if Mr. Bolton had hoped to blow up the back channel for Ukraine policy that day, he failed.
At 9:15 that morning, over coffee at the nearby Trump International Hotel, Mr. Yermak had asked Mr. Volker to connect him to Mr. Giuliani. “I feel the key for many things is Rudy,” Mr. Yermak texted the envoy later that day. He later met the president’s lawyer in Madrid.
Death on the Battlefield
By mid-July, it became evident that there was more than an Oval Office meeting at stake for Ukraine. The military assistance was in play, too.
Eight days after the debacle with the Ukrainians at the White House came another bombshell. A secure video conference call with national security officials was interrupted by the disembodied voice of an Office of Management and Budget staffer. At Mr. Mulvaney’s direction, the staffer said, the office had placed a hold on $391 million in military aid for Ukraine.
Mr. Taylor, the top American envoy to Ukraine, said he listened “in astonishment.”
For four years, Russia had fought to expand its grip on Ukrainian territory. About 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died. Every morning, Ukrainian soldiers stood in formation in front of the Defense Ministry to commemorate their dead.
Mr. Taylor traveled later that month to the front lines, where Ukrainian soldiers faced hostile Russian forces across a damaged bridge. He listened uncomfortably as a Ukrainian military commander, unaware that the White House had held up military aid, thanked him for America’s support.
It was against this backdrop that Mr. Trump’s July 25 conversation with Mr. Zelensky unfolded. The president told Mr. Zelensky that the United States had done much for his nation and raised the “favor” he wanted: the inquiries into the 2016 election and the Bidens.
What the Bidens had done “sounds horrible to me,” he said, according to a White House reconstructed transcript of the call. Mr. Trump added that Mr. Giuliani would be in touch. Mr. Zelensky assured Mr. Trump that a new prosecutor would investigate Burisma and noted that his aide, Mr. Yermak, had already talked to Mr. Giuliani. Apparently pleased, Mr. Trump later told reporters that the new Ukrainian leader was “a very reasonable guy.”
But Colonel Vindman, the national security expert on Ukraine who was taking notes on the conversation in the Situation Room, was staggered by the implications of Mr. Trump’s remarks. He headed for the office of Mr. Eisenberg, the National Security Council’s chief legal adviser, to question the propriety of the demand for investigations.
Mr. Eisenberg quickly shunted the official summary of the conversation to an electronic storage system normally used for the most sensitive classified information. Later, he instructed Colonel Vindman not to discuss the phone call with others.
Nonetheless, a Central Intelligence Agency officer detailed to the White House got wind of it. On Aug. 12, he filed a whistle-blower complaint, which slowly made its way to Congress.
After the July 25 phone call, Mr. Sondland, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Volker worked to draft an announcement for Mr. Zelensky that would satisfy Mr. Trump’s demands. Mr. Giuliani rejected one draft because it failed to mention the targets of the investigations. “If it doesn’t say Burisma and it doesn’t say 2016 what does it mean?” he asked Mr. Volker in a text.
But the Ukrainians were hesitating. Mr. Yermak, Mr. Zelensky’s aide, said the White House should set a date for Mr. Zelensky’s meeting with Mr. Trump before the Ukrainians released a statement.
Only after American officials explicitly told the Ukrainians that the military aid depended on that announcement did their resistance finally crumble.
Colonel Vindman, the national security aide, had drafted a memo for Mr. Bolton to give Mr. Trump in a meeting on Aug. 16. It said that the National Security Council, the Defense Department and the State Department all agreed that the aid should be released to Ukraine. But Mr. Trump rejected it, Colonel Vindman testified.
Timothy Morrison, a National Security Council regional expert, told Mr. Taylor: “The president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.”
Mr. Taylor protested in phone calls, text messages and in person. He complained to Mr. Bolton when the national security adviser came to Kiev to meet Mr. Zelensky in late August. On Mr. Bolton’s advice, he sent a rare first-person cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Aug. 29 describing the hold on the funds as “folly.”
On Sept. 1, an anxious Mr. Zelensky asked Vice President Mike Pence about the money during an event in Warsaw to commemorate the outbreak of World War II. Mr. Pence said only that he would raise it with Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Sondland, who also was at the event, took Mr. Yermak aside to deliver an explicit message: The Ukrainians should not expect the money if Mr. Zelensky did not publicly announce the investigations.
“It kept getting more insidious,” Mr. Sondland testified. Mr. Taylor, who took notes of his conversations, said the ambassador told him that “everything was on the line,” unless Mr. Zelensky put himself “in a public box.”
In Kiev, all but one of Mr. Zelenksy’s senior advisers argued that he had no choice but to give in. If left frozen, the military aid would expire at the end of the American government’s fiscal year on Sept 30. Mr. Zelensky scheduled a Sept. 13 interview on CNN to deliver an announcement designed to satisfy Mr. Trump.
But the ground was suddenly shifting in Washington. Members of Congress were reacting to the hold on the aid, first reported by Politico on Aug. 28, with surprise and anger.
Word of the whistle-blower complaint had also reached the top echelons of the National Security Council. As soon as Congress learned of it in early September, three House committees opened investigations.
In the meantime, Mr. Taylor was still pushing Mr. Sondland to lobby Mr. Trump to change his mind. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he texted the ambassador. Mr. Sondland called Mr. Trump on Sept. 7 to see if there was any wiggle room.
“What do you want from Ukraine?” Mr. Sondland testified that he asked Mr. Trump.
“‘I want nothing,’” he quoted Mr. Trump as replying. “‘I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.’”
“I recall that the president was really in a bad mood,” Mr. Sondland testified.
The White House reversed course and released the $391 million just two days before Mr. Zelensky’s CNN interview. Two weeks later, it also released a rough transcript of the July 25 call, hoping to defuse the formal impeachment inquiry now underway.
Instead, it accelerated it.
Mr. Volker called the transcript “explosive” and resigned just before he testified.
Mr. Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, told investigators that Mr. Trump had stood United States policy on its head. For decades, he said, the United States had demanded that leaders in Ukraine and other countries stop instigating politically motivated prosecutions of their opponents and uphold the rule of law.
For Mr. Trump to ask Ukraine to investigate his political rival for his political gain, he said, was “wrong.”
Ms. Hill testified that she was “shocked” and “very saddened” by the transcript of the calls and documents. Together, she said, they confirmed “my worst fears and nightmares” that private interests had subverted America’s national security concerns.
Her former boss, Mr. Bolton, who resigned in September, has said he would not testify unless a federal court rules that he can legally do so.
But in a letter to the court last week, his lawyer suggested more is to come. Mr. Bolton, he said, knows of many other White House meetings and discussions about Ukraine that have yet to become public.
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