The 2019 Ukraine Scandal
Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. It’s a conflict that is still ongoing and has so far claimed 13,000 Ukrainian lives. The year before the invasion, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by protests against his close ties to Putin. Yanukovych fled to Russia, and was later convicted of treason, for his violent crackdown on protesters and for inviting Russia to invade. The U.S. government, believing that Americans are safest in a world where national borders are stable, responded to the invasion by imposing sanctions on Russia and offering military aid to Ukraine.
In July 2016, at the Republican National Convention the Trump campaign insisted on removing explicit support for military aid to Ukraine from the party platform. This was the only change the Trump campaign made to that platform.
Yanukovych, who had invited the Russian invasion which the aid was meant to help repel, was elected President of Ukraine in the first place with the help of Paul Manafort, who was at the time of the Republican National Convention the chairman of the Trump campaign. Manafort was forced out of that role the next month after a handwritten ledgers came to light showing $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Manafort from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party. Manafort later pled guilty to money laundering in connection with these payments. In addition, a major financial backer of Yanukovych’s party, Dmitry Firtash, had once partnerted with Manafort’s firm on a hotel project. Firtash is wanted in the US on separate corruption charges.
Just two months after Yanukovych was ousted from Ukraine, Hunter Biden, the son of then-U.S.-Vice-President Joe Biden, joined the board of a Ukrainian oil and gas company called Burisma. Hunter Biden’s decision to join the company raised eyebrows: the owner was an ally of Yanukovych. Joe Biden and the U.S. government had supported the protests that ousted Yanukovych. Other politically connected and pro-Western figures were hired for the board at the same time, perhaps in an attempt to ingratiate the company with the West and with the new U.S.-friendly government of Ukraine.
That new government posed a threat to Burisma Holdings and its owner, who were accused of committing money laundering, illegal enrichment, and fraud before Yanukovych’s ouster. But despite popular support and international pressure to pursue investigations of Burisma’s owner and other Yanukovych cronies, the prosecutors general of the post-Yanukovych government let most cases drop. The Kyiv Post says: “As Yanukovych and his allies fled Ukraine in 2014, the new authorities launched investigations into their wrongdoings. Almost none of the investigations brought any results, and many were eventually closed.” This was disappointing to Western politicians, many of whom pressed, in 2015 and 2016, for the firing of the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was failing to pursue Yanukovych-era corruption cases such as the ones against Burisma. The Western politicians pressing for this included Joe Biden among other Obama Administration officials and Republican members of Congress in the U.S. These calls echoed those of anti-graft activists, non-profit government watchdogs, and top members of the ruling coalition in parliament in Ukraine.
In March 2019, Shokin’s replacement as prosecutor general of Ukraine implied in an interview with the Hill’s John Solomon that Biden had pressured the Ukrainian government to fire Shokin to protect Burisma Holdings. (He later walked back these claims, saying that “From the perspective of Ukrainian legislation, [Hunter Biden] did not violate anything.”)
Rudy Giuliani and Paul Manafort
In May of 2019, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — who had business ties and connections his own to Ukraine — was planning a trip to Ukraine to urge officials “to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump”: the “origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election” and the “involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.”
Rudy Giuliani consulted with Paul Manafort about these “matters of intense interest.” Manafort was by this time in prison for crimes related to his own activities in Ukraine during the Yanukovych years. (In a sort of mirror image of the accusation Guiliani was leveling about Hunter Biden, four cases involving Paul Manafort which had been under investigation by Ukrainian authorities had been dropped in 2018, with a member of the Ukrainian parliament saying: “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials. We shouldn’t spoil relations with the [Trump] administration.”)
And Rudy Giuliani was not acting alone. Two allies, working off the books also traveled to Ukraine seeking corroboration for these allegations. They later took jobs as lawyers defending Manafort’s one time business partner Dmitry Firtash.
The Phone Call
The Washington Post reports on what happened next:
“[A]head of a July 25 phone call that is now the subject of a whistleblower complaint and a congressional impeachment inquiry, [Trump] turned up the heat. Facing doubt about Zelensky’s willingness to work with Giuliani, Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine on July 18. Days later, Zelensky’s party swept Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, ushering in political newcomers and upping the uncertainty about whether Giuliani’s efforts would come undone.
In the meantime, Trump was withholding a date for a coveted bilateral summit with Zelensky. A congratulatory call with the comedian landed on the books — a chance for Trump to make his wishes clear.
“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,” Trump said after Zelensky raised the matter of military aid, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House.”
According to that transcript, Trump then asked: “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.” This is a reference to a conspiracy theory which blames Ukraine, not Russia, for hacking the DNC in 2016. He went on: “As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller.”
Trump then brought up the accusations leveled by Giuliani against Biden. “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.”
At the time of the phone call (July 25th, 2019), Ukraine had been expecting the Congressionally approved military aid to be delivered at any moment. The Trump administration initially told Congress it was releasing the aid to Ukraine on February 28. Again the disbursement of aid was announced on May 23, but the funds were again withheld. Trump did not mention the aid in the rough transcript of the phone call with Zelensky. Ukraine was still checking Its bank account for U.S. aid in late August. (Zelensky, who is still reliant on American aid for the future, now says he did not feel pressured, and that no one explained to him why $250 million in US military aid to his country was delayed.) Congress was also aware that the aid had not been sent and was looking for answers about the reason.
The Whistleblowers and the Text Messages
A C.I.A. officer detailed to the White House heard about the content of this call from the participants and filed a whistleblower report. The law called for this report to be turned over to the House Intelligence Committee, and it eventually was. In the interim however, rumors about the content caused committee members to demand the release of the rough transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky. A second intelligence official later confirmed the first whistleblower’s reports. And the House Foreign Affairs committee obtained copies of text messages from Ambassador Kurt Volker (the former Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations) who shared messages he had exchanged with Bill Taylor (the Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine) and Gordon Sondland (the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.) Some are quoted below:
[7/25/ 19, 8:36:45] Kurt Volker: Good lunch - thanks. Heard from White House--assuming President convinces trump he will investigate/"get to the bottom of what happened" in 2016, we will nail down date for Visit to Washington. Good luck! See you tomorrow- kurt
[9/1/ 19, 12:08:57] Bill Taylor: Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?
[9/1/19, 12:42:29] Gordon Sondland: Call me
[9/8/19, 12:37:28 Bill Taylor: The nightmare is they [Ukraine] give the interview and don't get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)
[9/9/19, 12:31:06 AM] Bill Taylor: The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario.
[9/9/19, 12:47:11 AM] Bill Taylor: As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.
[9/9/19, 5:19:35 AM] Gordon Sondland: Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been clear no quid pro quo's of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text If you still have concerns I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or a call to discuss them directly. Thanks.
Though Sondland insisted in that conversation that there “no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” he expressed something different to Republican Senator Ron Johnson. From the Wall Street Journal: “Under the arrangement, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Sondland told him, Ukraine would appoint a strong prosecutor general and move to ‘get to the bottom of what happened in 2016—if President Trump has that confidence, then he’ll release the military spending,’ recounted Mr. Johnson.”
Sondland and Volker worked on drafting a statement announcing that Ukraine would be investigating the Biden family, an announcement that Trump wanted to see before a meeting. A text message turned over by Volker from an aide to president Zelensky read “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.” (The announcement was never made.)
Connections to Putin
The attempts to blame Ukraine for hacking the DNC (to exonerate Russia), and the involvement of Manafort and connection to Firtash (each closely linked to Putin through Yanukovych), connect the Ukraine scandal to the Russia scandal. But more fundamentally, in withholding military aid and weapons from Ukraine, Trump was not just extorting political help from a foreign government. He was serving the purposes of Putin, against whom that aid, once awarded, would be used. Pavlo Klimkin, who served as foreign minister of Ukraine until June, told BuzzFeed News, “it was the wrong decision in the wrong time, because it weakened our position” as Zelensky was engaged in fresh negotiations with Russia over the war in eastern Ukraine and major prisoner exchanges. “Fundamentally, I believe it was very damaging,” he said.
Ultimately the Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress, and the executive branch does not have the authority to withhold those funds. Also, in asking a foreign government (rather than American law enforcement) to investigate an American politician, Trump was potentially also allowing a foreign government to obtain information which could be used as leverage against American leaders, and giving foreign governments powerful propaganda messages.
But the core of the scandal relates to the violation of the principle that law enforcement investigations should be independent and untainted by political interference. Investigations requiring international cooperation are governed by treaties describing a clear process for law enforcement collaboration independent of political considerations, a process which was not followed in this case.