1. What’s this all about?
In a July 25 telephone call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “look into” allegations of wrongdoing by former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 competitor. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” Trump said as he steered the conversation toward the topic, according to an approximate transcript of the call that Trump subsequently ordered released. The call’s existence may not have been widely known but for the actions of a U.S. intelligence official who filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging that Trump, in that call and through other actions, was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The whistle-blower’s identity has not been made public.
2. Was Trump’s request improper?
At the least, seeking a foreign government’s help to undercut a political opponent runs counter to norms of American politics. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison said impeachment was a necessary power in case an American leader “might betray his trust to foreign powers.” George Washington, in his farewell address, cautioned against “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” Three Russian businesses and 13 foreign nationals have been charged with interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a case that prompted the Trump administration to warn that the U.S. “will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections.” A request such as Trump’s to Zelenskiy could be considered not just improper but illegal, according to the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Ellen Weintraub, who cited the federal law prohibiting the solicitation or acceptance of anything “of value” from a foreign national in connection with an election.
Trump appears to believe that Hunter Biden, with the backing of his father, “raided and scammed” other countries for millions of dollars. There’s no evidence of that, though the younger Biden has been accused of trading on his family name. Trump also appears to subscribe to a conspiracy theory that holds that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the hacking of U.S. Democrats in the 2016 election.
4. What explains the focus on Biden’s son?
Hunter Biden was named in 2014 to the board of Burisma Holdings, one of Ukraine’s largest private natural gas companies. He held that post until earlier this year, earning an estimated $50,000 a month. (He now says that in hindsight, serving on Burisma’s board may have been “poor judgment.”) In 2016, Joe Biden, as the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine, pressed successfully for the ouster of Viktor Shokin as Ukraine’s prosecutor general. At the heart of the allegation by Trump and his attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is that Biden did so to derail an investigation into Burisma.
5. Did Biden try to stop an investigation?
To the contrary. All available evidence suggests that the problem with Shokin, in the eyes of U.S. leaders, their Western allies, the International Monetary Fund and many Ukrainians was that Shokin was being too lax, not too aggressive, about corruption. Burisma said in 2017 that “all legal proceedings and pending criminal allegations” against it were closed, and there’s no known evidence that any investigation ever involved Hunter Biden.
6. Did Trump offer Ukraine something in return?
The law doesn’t require the existence of a quid pro quo -- an exchange of something of value in return for, in this case, Ukraine’s help -- but proving one might strengthen the case for impeachment. House investigators are exploring two things of value that Trump could be viewed as having dangled before Zelenskiy to add leverage to his request. One was the release of funding. A week or more before the call, Trump had directed the withholding of $391 million in military and security aid that Congress had approved to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. (The money was ultimately disbursed to Ukraine on Sept. 11.) The other was an invitation to visit the White House, something that Zelenskiy, a political novice sworn in as president in May, very much wanted. Even some officials within Trump’s administration worried that the circumstances constituted a quid pro quo.
7. Who saw a quid pro quo?
A U.S. Army officer who works for the White House National Security Council, Alexander Vindman, said he listened in on the Trump-Zelenskiy call and was so disturbed by the content that he reported his concerns to the NSC’s legal counsel. William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told impeachment investigators that he had been “very concerned” to learn that Trump was withholding U.S. security aid to Ukraine unless Zelenskiy publicly committed to opening the investigations Trump was seeking. (“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in a text message to colleagues on Sept. 9.) Gordon Sondland, appointed by Trump as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, disclosed that he’d informed an adviser to Zelenskiy that Ukraine likely wouldn’t receive American military aid unless it publicly committed to the investigations Trump wanted.
8. What else is being investigated?
Much of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were handled not through the U.S. State Department but through a back channel run by Giuliani as Trump’s personal attorney. That unusual approach to foreign policy troubled some members of the administration. Fiona Hill, formerly a Russia expert on Trump’s National Security Council, testified that former National Security Adviser John Bolton, alarmed by Giuliani’s efforts to push Ukraine for political help, labeled Giuliani a “hand grenade” who would blow everything up, according to the New York Times. Marie Yovanovitch, who was stripped of her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, blamed her ouster on a “concerted campaign” by Trump and Giuliani, and she warned that the State Department is being “attacked and hollowed out from within.” Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, told investigators he resigned out of frustration with how the Trump administration wrestled Ukraine policy away from career diplomats.
9. Are these impeachable offenses?
That’s up to Congress. The U.S. Constitution says the president “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” As Congress has defined it through the years, the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” includes exceeding or abusing the powers of the presidency, or misusing the office for improper purpose or gain. Any articles of impeachment (formal written charges) advanced by House Democrats would most likely be Ukraine-related, though it’s possible that charges based on other allegations against Trump could be considered as well.
He’s defended his call with Zelenskiy as “totally appropriate” and “perfect” and rejected any suggestion of a quid pro quo. He’s attacked the Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry and called their process -- which began with hearings held behind closed doors -- unfair and partisan. He went so far as to call the inquiry “a lynching,” an analogy deemed inappropriate even by some fellow Republicans. Trump and Giuliani have insisted that Trump’s sole motivation in holding up financial aid to Ukraine, and in pressuring Zelenskiy on the call, was to make sure corruption was being addressed in a country that gets aid from the U.S. “We have an obligation to investigate corruption,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “And that’s what it was.”
11. Where is this headed?
All it would take is a simple majority vote by the House, where Democrats hold 234 of the 435 seats, on any article of impeachment to send it to the Senate for consideration. There, after a trial led by the chief justice of the U.S., it would take a vote of two-thirds of senators present to order Trump removed from office -- an extremely high bar, especially since Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats. Should Trump be impeached in the House but acquitted in the Senate -- as President Bill Clinton was in 1998-1999 -- the matter would presumably become a top issue in the 2020 election, as Trump seeks a second term.
To contact the reporters on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at email@example.com;Billy House in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at email@example.com, Larry Liebert, Andy Reinhardt