The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Holding Ukraine hostage: How the president and his allies, chasing 2020 ammunition, fanned a political storm

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic speak with reporters aboard Air Force One on May 14, 2019, in Louisiana. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

By mid-May, the U.S. relationship with Ukraine was unraveling: The U.S. ambassador had been recalled home for no apparent reason, the country’s new president was anxious about U.S. support, and President Trump’s personal lawyer was hawking Kiev conspiracy theories.

Amid this turbulence, an unexpected figure stepped forward to assert that he was now in charge of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had no apparent standing to seize this critical portfolio, nor any apparent qualifications as a diplomat beyond the $1 million he’d given to Trump’s inauguration.

But when some in the White House and State Department sought to block his power grab, current and former U.S. officials said, he rebuffed their demands to know who had granted him such authority with two words:

“The president.”

Over the next four months, Sondland worked closely with Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, to reorient America’s relationship with Kiev around the president’s political interests.

Newly released texts exchanged by Sondland, Volker and other U.S. officials during this period read like a government-sanctioned shakedown. Again and again, they make clear that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would not get military aid or the Oval Office invitation he coveted until he committed to investigations that Trump hoped would deliver damaging information on former vice president Joe Biden and undermine the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Rather than official State Department email, the text exchanges between the diplomats took place over WhatsApp, a U.S. official said.

Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said Oct. 4 he was unaware of any evidence of wrongdoing by the son of former vice president Joe Biden. (Video: Reuters)

Only if Zelensky can convince Trump that he will “ ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016” will he be granted a meeting with the president, Volker tells one of Zelensky’s top advisers in late July in a text that alludes to Trump’s belief that Ukraine sought to sabotage him in the presidential election. In a separate message weeks later, Sondland emphasizes that the president “really wants the deliverable.”

Read the text messages between U.S. officials on Ukraine

The exchanges reveal the direct participation of State Department officials sworn to serve the country in events that increasingly bear the markings of a multipronged political conspiracy.

At the same time Sondland and Volker were using diplomatic channels to press Trump’s demands, the president and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, were using other channels to deliver the same message. At the center of the scandal is a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that was exposed by a government whistleblower and triggered an impeachment inquiry.

On the receiving end of these demands was a country turning to the United States for help with legitimate desperation. Over the past five years, Ukraine has endured incursions by Russian paramilitary forces, the loss of the Crimean Peninsula after its seizure by Moscow, and a deadly and ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists — not to mention its own internal political and economic problems, and corruption.

Against this backdrop, Ukrainian officials cited in the texts released by House committees late Thursday come across as feeling abused by their American counterparts. Zelensky “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” a U.S. official, dispatched to Kiev after former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was removed on May 7, said in a text.

Five myths about Ukraine

Sondland brushed aside his counterpart’s apprehension. “We need to get the conversation started and the relationship built,” he wrote back, “irrespective of the pretext.”

Although brief and cryptic, that exchange captures a more pervasive divide within the Trump administration between career national security officials disturbed by what they perceived as a dangerous decoupling of U.S. foreign policy from core national interests, and political appointees who became complicit in the president’s use of American influence to advance his electoral interests.

This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials, as well as documents released in recent days by congressional committees involved in the impeachment inquiry against the president. The officials interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the subject as well as fear of retaliation. Sondland did not respond to requests for comments.

Re-litigating 2016

Trump’s preoccupation with Ukraine traces back to the 2016 U.S. presidential race, when a financial ledger surfaced in Kiev linking Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to millions of dollars in secret payments from a pro-Russian, Ukrainian political party he advised. The disclosures forced Manafort to resign his campaign position and fueled suspicions that Trump’s candidacy was being assisted by interference from Moscow.

Trump came to see the ensuing investigations of his campaign’s possible ties to Russia as part of an effort to delegitimize his presidency. In his July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump complained about the Russia probe and recycled discredited conspiracy theories, including that Russia had not really hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee, and that the proof of that supposed hoax — the DNC hard drives — had been smuggled into Ukraine for hiding.

There is no evidence to substantiate any of these allegations.

In call to Ukraine’s president, Trump revived a favorite conspiracy theory about the DNC hack

“A lot of it started with Ukraine,” Trump said at a point in the conversation where he also alluded to aid and arms promised to Ukraine while telling Zelensky, “I would like you to do us a favor.” Among other things, Trump explicitly asked Zelensky to initiate an investigation of Biden and his son.

Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, became similarly entangled in webs of unfounded accusations. By the time the Russia investigation concluded without uncovering clear evidence that Trump’s campaign had conspired with Moscow, Giuliani and Trump had both turned their attention to Ukraine as a potential ally that could both help validate their theories and provide ammunition against political adversaries.

To advance this shared agenda, Trump began exploiting the powers of the executive branch.

Trump enlisted Attorney General William P. Barr to launch investigations into the origins of the Russia probe, searching for proof that the work of the FBI and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III were politically tainted. As part of that effort, The Washington Post revealed this week, Barr traveled to Britain and Italy, hoping their security services could expose improprieties by American intelligence agencies.

Trump also began circumventing his own National Security Council at the White House and deploying trusted allies to pursue political dirt and re-litigate the history of the 2016 election. His target was a country that Manafort had long said was out to get Trump in 2016: Ukraine.

Sondland, 61, appears to have never held a position in government before being named U.S. ambassador to the European Union in June 2018. He amassed much of his wealth by acquiring and managing luxury hotels in cities including Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Sondland sought to distance himself from Trump in 2016, backing out of a Seattle fundraiser for the GOP candidate over what a company spokesman described as concerns with Trump’s “anti-immigrant” policies.

But Sondland didn’t stay away for long, later routing $1 million to the president-elect’s inaugural fund through a collection of shell companies that obscured his involvement.

In Brussels, Sondland garnered a reputation for his truculent manner and fondness for the trappings of privilege. He peppered closed-door negotiations with four-letter words. He carried a wireless buzzer into meetings at the U.S. Mission that enabled him to silently summon support staff to refill his teacup.

Sondland seemed to chafe at the constraints of his assignment. He traveled for meetings in Israel, Romania and other countries with little or no coordination with other officials. He acquired a reputation for being indiscreet, and was chastised for using his personal phone for state business, officials said.

Sondland also shuttled repeatedly back to Washington, often seeking face time with Trump. When he couldn’t gain entry to the Oval Office, officials said, he would meet instead with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, preferring someone closer to Trump’s inner circle than national security officials responsible for Europe.

“He always seemed to be in D.C.,” a former White House official said. “People would say, ‘Does he spend any time in Brussels?’ ”

Trump's man

Sondland’s approach to the job was seen more as a source of irritation than trouble until May, when he moved to stake his claim to the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.

After Zelensky’s election, White House officials began making plans for who would take part in the U.S. delegation to attend Zelensky’s inauguration.

National security adviser John Bolton removed Sondland’s name from the list, only to see it reinserted, a clear indication that Bolton had been overruled by the Oval Office.

Photos of the event show a beaming Sondland alongside Zelensky, as well as other U.S. officials including Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

In the ensuing months, Sondland maneuvered to cement a position of influence in the relationship between Trump and the new Ukrainian president. In early June, Sondland threw a lavish Independence Day reception — a month ahead of the U.S. holiday — at a cavernous antique car museum in central Brussels.

An enormous U.S. flag was projected onto a wall. Jay Leno — whom Sondland billed as a personal friend — delivered a standup routine whose U.S.-focused patter fell flat on the ears of European officials. At a private dinner afterward, Sondland hosted an eclectic mix of guests. Among those at the candlelit table were Zelensky, Leno and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Within weeks, Sondland and Volker were deep into their efforts to consummate a secret political pact between Trump and Zelensky. Texts show the extent to which they explicitly pursued a transaction tying U.S. military aid and a future visit to the White House to a hard commitment from Ukraine to revive a corruption probe of a company, Burisma, that had employed Hunter Biden, the vice president’s son, as a board member making between $50,000 and $100,000 a month, according to people familiar with the matter.

A July 19 exchange between Sondland and Volker shows them discussing the status of their efforts to secure clear cooperation from Zelensky before the approaching Trump-Zelensky phone call.

Sondland said that he had spoken “directly to Zelensky and gave him a full briefing. He’s got it.” Volker replied that he had met over breakfast with Giuliani to apprise him of their progress, and the two later went on to discuss what Zelensky would need to do to secure the Oval Office meeting.

“Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues — if there are any,” Volker wrote.

Officials in Washington and Kiev were increasingly alarmed by developments that were out in the open, including the mysterious suspension of aid and Giuliani’s penchant for revealing his schemes in appearances on cable television.

Behind the scenes, other red flags surfaced. In a White House meeting in early July, Sondland surprised a room of U.S. officials and members of a small Ukrainian delegation when he diverged from U.S. talking points approved in advance by Bolton and others. As part of the conversation, U.S. officials recited their desire for Ukraine to continue seeking to rid its government and state-run companies of corruption.

But Sondland interjected that the United States also had other targets in mind for Kiev that went beyond its active, ongoing investigations. He didn’t cite Burisma or Biden by name, but the implication of his words struck others in the room as troubling and obvious, particularly given Giuliani’s public comments.

“What was shocking was that he said it in front of so many people,” said one official familiar with the meeting.

Such concerns in Washington were by then already tributaries in a stream of information flowing to a CIA employee who shared their dismay and would soon begin compiling an extraordinary whistleblower complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general.

In Kiev, William B. “Bill” Taylor, who had served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and had agreed to return on an emergency basis after Yovanovitch’s removal, was raising alarms.

Taylor, who was recruited by Volker, had been hesitant to even take the job.

“I’m still trying to navigate this new world,” Volker texted him this spring.

“I’m not sure that’s a world I want to set foot in,” Taylor replied.

On July 21, he voiced his concern about Ukraine being treated as a pawn in America’s “domestic, reelection politics,” only to have his concerns dismissed by Sondland, who suggested that Taylor was failing to recognize how bending to Trump’s demands was the only path to improving the countries’ fraught relationship.

The next day, one of Zelensky’s top advisers, Andrey Yermak, spoke by phone with Giuliani. Coached by the tandem of Sondland and Volker, Yermak appears to have given Giuliani the reassurances he needed to secure Zelensky’s phone call with Trump.

When that call happened three days later, some White House officials who had suspicions but were not read-in to the hidden agenda were so alarmed by Trump’s conduct, and the pressure he applied to Zelensky for a political “favor,” that they stuffed a transcript of the call onto a computer system reserved for some of the government’s most highly classified secrets.

The full, rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, annotated

Among those engaged in the shadow diplomacy, however, the call was regarded as a breakthrough. Yermak told Volker that the “call went well,” and that Zelensky got his promised invitation to the White House, but no specific date. “Great,” Volker wrote back, noting that he would now set in motion a preliminary meeting in Madrid between Yermak and Giuliani.

Giuliani told Yermak that the Ukrainian president needed to make a public promise to pursue the corruption investigations, according to Volker’s testimony. Sondland and Volker set about revising the wording of a statement proposed by the Ukrainians that Zelensky could issue upon announcing his trip to Washington. When the two diplomats sent the statement to Giuliani, he was dismayed that it wasn’t more specific, and according to Volker, he demanded that the Ukrainians insert specific references to the 2016 election and Burisma, the gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.

In an Aug. 10 text message, Volker tells Yermak that once the statement is ironed out, they can then “use that” to get the date for the meeting between Trump and Zelensky.

Yermak’s response makes the bargain clear. “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,” he writes.

“Sounds great!” Volker replies.

Ultimately, Volker testified Thursday on Capitol Hill, the statement was shelved, because the Ukrainians didn’t feel comfortable making explicit reference to the Burisma and election interference investigations.

But by that point, Volker and Sondland were themselves unwitting to developments in Washington that would in time expose their months-long enterprise and trigger an impeachment inquiry against the president.

On Aug. 12 — the day before Volker and Sondland traded triumphant texts about the statement they wanted issued by Zelensky — the CIA whistleblower submitted his nine-page document to the inspector general of the intelligence community. Over the next several weeks, events proceeded along two separate tracks that finally converged this week in the secure hearing room of the House Intelligence Committee.

On Sept. 1, Taylor raised his concerns again. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” That same day, at a meeting in Warsaw, the Ukrainians were hearing the same message from Vice President Pence when he told Zelensky that the United States was still concerned that Ukraine was not doing enough on corruption.

Sondland refused to engage Taylor on the matter by text, telling him to “Call me.”

A week later, on Sept. 8, Taylor issued a more forceful warning, saying that he would not be part of coercing a public pledge from Zelensky and withholding aid that Ukraine desperately needed. “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” he said. If that were to unfold, he said, “The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”

One day later, on Sept. 9, Taylor confronted Sondland one last time by text, saying, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland, perhaps anticipating how this exchange would play out if it came into the possession of investigators or were released to the public, replied in an earnest tone: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”

Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Julie Tate and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Washington contributed to this report.