The two quid pro quos at the heart of the impeachment inquiry
In fact, there were two.
Voluminous testimony and key documents released as part of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry make clear that the Trump administration’s attempts to get Ukraine to launch investigations in exchange for something in return proceeded in two stages.
The first was the offer of a White House meeting in exchange for investigations. The Ukrainians were repeatedly told that Trump would agree to host new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a meeting if Ukraine pursued the investigations Trump wanted.
This was the focus of extensive discussion from at least June through August, with Trump administration officials pushing the Ukrainians to publicly commit to two investigations: into Burisma (the Ukrainian gas company Hunter Biden sat on the board of) and into purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. But the Ukrainians did not agree.
There was also a second: The Trump administration would stop blocking hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine if the Ukrainians committed to those investigations.
Trump himself ordered the aid blocked back in mid-July, and he seemed to connect the general topic of military aid to investigations on his late July call with Zelensky. But it wasn’t until August that the Ukrainians learned the aid was being held up.
After that, the quid pro quo became explicit: One administration official, Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, began telling the Ukrainians that Ukraine would only get the aid if they publicly announced those investigations. Sondland said the same thing to several of his American colleagues — and he claimed several times that this was coming from Trump himself. (Arguably, this is less a quid pro quo than extortion.)
The Ukrainians seemed to have agreed to cave to this demand — but then, on September 11, the Trump administration lifted their hold on the military aid. It is unclear why they did so, but various recent developments may have made them concerned the scandal would soon become public — as it soon did.
In response to this damning fact pattern, the president’s defenders have put forward various misleading arguments — either that there was no quid pro quo, or maybe that there was one but Trump didn’t know about it, or maybe that there was one but the Ukrainians didn’t know about it. Here is what the facts actually show.
Quid pro quo No. 1: A White House meeting for investigations
The first quid pro quo, which was discussed from at least June through August of this year if not earlier, was: If Ukraine agreed to the investigations Trump wanted, President Zelensky would get a White House meeting with Trump.
This may seem like a minor concession, but in fact, many foreign leaders badly want to be able to say they’ve met with the United States president. It bolsters their own legitimacy. Such a meeting would be particularly useful for a Ukrainian president embroiled in a conflict with Russia; it would signify, both inside his country and outside it, that he has strong US backing.
“Talk to Rudy”
The roots of this demand are in a meeting at the White House on May 23, 2019. Several US officials, including Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, had just returned from attending Zelensky’s inauguration and they had this meeting to brief Trump. These officials urged Trump to set up a call or meeting with Zelensky, but Trump was resistant. At the meeting, he gave them an instruction: “Talk to Rudy.” (Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has been at the center of Trump’s pressure campaign.)
About a month later, diplomat Bill Taylor testified he heard the first mention of a meeting-for-investigations quid pro quo. Per Taylor, Ambassador Sondland told him on the phone on June 27 “that President Zelensky needed to make clear to President Trump that he, President Zelensky, was not standing in the way of ‘investigations.’”
The Ukrainians are told
Things became more explicit on July 10, 2019, when US and Ukrainian officials met at the White House. At that meeting, NSC staffer Fiona Hill testified, the Ukrainians asked about a meeting between Zelensky and Trump and Sondland told them there was an “agreement” with White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney that the meeting would happen “if these investigations in the energy sector start.”
After that, National Security Adviser John Bolton abruptly ended the meeting, but Sondland brought some attendees into a different room for further discussion. According to NSC staffer Alexander Vindman’s testimony, Sondland there asked the Ukrainians specifically for an “investigation of the Bidens.” (Hill does not remember an explicit reference to the Bidens, but she came in late to this part of the meeting, and says Sondland’s meaning was clear anyway. Sondland denies saying any of this.)
Over the next two weeks, discussions proceeded about setting up a phone call between Zelensky and Trump. On July 19, Volker wrote in a text message to Sondland that he “had breakfast with Rudy” and, when the call with Trump happens, “Most [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation.”
Then, on the day of the call, July 25, Volker texted Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak beforehand, again making the quid pro quo very clear:
What Trump said on the phone call
On the now-infamous July 25 call itself, Trump repeatedly told Zelensky to talk to Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr about the investigations he wanted into what happened in 2016 but also into the Biden family and Burisma.
I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call. Give us a date and we’ll work that out.
Negotiating a statement
Then, over the following weeks, Volker, Sondland, and Giuliani all pressed the Ukrainians to issue some sort of a public statement committing to the investigations. (“I think potus really wants the deliverable,” Sondland texted Volker on August 9.)
Yermak said it would be “possible” to make this statement but that it would make more sense to do it “after we receive a confirmation of date” (for Zelensky’s White House visit).
They went on to exchange various drafts of the potential statement, with Volker and Sondland insisting, at Giuliani’s instruction, that the statement had to mention 2016 and Burisma specifically. The Americans even sent Ukrainians specific draft language on this.
But the Ukrainians were reluctant to agree and the talks broke off — until the stakes were raised.
Quid pro quo No. 2: Military aid for investigations
The second and even more serious quid pro quo involved nearly $400 million in military aid Congress had approved for Ukraine for use in its conflict with Russia. And this one is more menacing – it’s a threat to take something away that the Ukrainians thought they badly needed.
The timeline of when this came into play is a bit more complicated. Trump ordered the aid frozen in July and seemed to make comments connecting military aid and investigations on his July 25 call with Zelensky. But at that point, the Ukrainians didn’t yet know Trump was blocking the aid. Once the Ukrainians did learn that in August, though, Sondland told them the aid would depend on the investigations.
The aid is frozen — but the Ukrainians don’t yet know
Back on July 18, 2019, an Office of Management and Budget staffer told other Trump administration officials on a call that a hold had been placed on hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance for Ukraine. The staffer explained that this was being done because of an instruction from Trump to Mulvaney (according to Taylor, who was on the call).
The reason for the aid holdup was a mystery internally, and various State Department officials testified that they struggled to find out what was going on. Much later, once the scandal was public, Mulvaney said that one reason for the aid holdup was “whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice” into the 2016 election. (He then attempted to say he didn’t really mean that.)
In any case, Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky occurred a week after the aid was blocked but before the Ukrainians knew about it. On the call, Zelensky mentioned buying “more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump immediately responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though,” and urged Zelensky to talk to Barr about “what happened” in 2016. Many have interpreted this as Trump making an implicit link between military aid and investigations.
However, though Sondland, Volker, and Taylor were all aware of the aid freeze, the issue did not initially come up in their own quid pro quo discussions with Ukrainian officials through July and most of August. In part, that seems to have been because the Ukrainians weren’t aware of the aid freeze. Some Ukrainian officials learned about it in early August, according to the New York Times, but the news wasn’t public until Politico reported it on August 28.
That’s when the Ukrainians began to panic. Yermak, the adviser to president Zelensky, texted Volker a link to the story soon after it went up, and wrote, “Need to talk to you.”
Sondland starts telling everyone that the aid holdup is about investigations
Days later, both American and Ukrainian delegations arrived in Warsaw for a World War II anniversary celebration. Trump was originally supposed to go but canceled, citing a hurricane threat in the US, so Vice President Mike Pence went instead, as did President Zelensky.
According to the accounts of several witnesses, it was over this weekend that Sondland began telling people — including the Ukrainians — that the military aid wouldn’t come unless Ukraine publicly committed to investigations.
- Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said publicly that Sondland told him this during an August 30 phone conversation.
- NSC aide Tim Morrison testified that, on September 1, he saw Sondland tell Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak that the aid wouldn’t come unless Ukraine publicly committed to investigations. (Sondland initially claimed not to recall doing this but now admits that he did this.)
- Taylor testified that, on September 1, after he sent an alarmed text to Sondland, Sondland told him by phone “that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.” Sondland added, per Taylor, that “everything” (including the aid) was dependent on that commitment, and that Trump wanted Zelensky “in a public box.” (Sondland still can’t recall doing this.)
Note that, per Taylor, Sondland claimed to have discussed this issue with Trump personally.
The pressure on the Ukrainians intensifies
Over the next week, Sondland would again claim to be carrying out Trump’s instructions and would again talk to the Ukrainians to make sure they got the message.
- Taylor testified that, on September 7, Morrison told him of a conversation that day between Trump and Sondland. Trump told Sondland that he was not asking for a “quid pro quo” — but he again insisted that Zelensky had to publicly commit to the investigations. Morrison said he told the NSC’s lawyers about this call, which he said gave him a “sinking feeling.”
- Taylor also testified that, on September 8, Sondland told him that Trump remained adamant about the public statement from Zelensky. Sondland said he had conveyed that to Yermak and President Zelensky, telling them that they’d be at a “stalemate” if there was no public statement from Zelensky on the investigations. So Zelensky agreed to make one during an upcoming CNN interview.
So, in Taylor’s account, Sondland is telling the Ukrainians about investigations-for-military-aid, he’s saying this came from Trump personally, and the Ukrainians finally bowed to the pressure. (Again, Sondland claims not to recall any of this.)
Finally, on September 9, Taylor texted Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland did not respond immediately but instead called Trump. Sondland claims they had a brief call in which Trump said he didn’t want a quid pro quo.
The aid is suddenly released
Two days later — on September 11 — the Trump administration told lawmakers they would release the blocked military aid for Ukraine after all.
Why they did so remains unclear. But at that point, it was looking increasingly likely that news of the scandal would break publicly. Two days earlier, the same day Taylor had put his concerns in writing, an inspector general had written to inform House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff that a whistleblower complaint was being withheld from Congress. Schiff and two other House committee chairs opened an investigation into Giuliani and his dealings with Ukraine that day as well. One day later, on September 10, Bolton exited the White House on bad terms.
And Taylor, for one, still got the sense that the Ukrainians planned to make good on their end of the bargain. He met with Zelensky and Yermak on September 13 and told them that it was good they refused to make that public statement about the investigations. But, he testified, “the body language was such that it looked to me like he was still thinking they were going to make that statement.”
Later that day, Schiff went public with the news that a whistleblower complaint had been withheld from his committee — and over the ensuing week, the scandal over Trump demanding investigations would finally break into public view.
Overall, the fact pattern is clear: The Trump administration spent months trying to pressure the Ukrainians into committing to the investigations Trump wanted, first by offering the carrot of a White House meeting and then by threatening the stick of withheld military aid.