Republicans made this claim numerous times on the first day, and you’ll hear it countless more times in the coming days. But the already documented facts show this is steaming nonsense.
The claim is based on quotes from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been desperate to maintain good relations with a U.S. president who already withheld military aid from an ally at a moment of extreme vulnerability under Russian attack.
The GOP claim is supposed to undercut the notion that Trump extorted Ukraine to help validate conspiracy theories and lies absolving Russia of sabotaging the 2016 election and smearing potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.
In other words, the assertion is central to showing that Trump didn’t act corruptly in making these demands. How could Trump have used a White House meeting and frozen military aid to extort Ukraine, when he wasn’t even pressuring Zelensky in the first place?
But the timeline of events shows beyond any doubt that officials acting at Trump’s direction did repeatedly pressure Ukraine, and that Ukrainian officials themselves felt pressured and alarmed by what was happening. And upcoming testimony will likely reveal this more forcefully.
To the timeline:
May 1: Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani states publicly he plans a pressure campaign to get those investigations, which would be “very helpful” to Trump.
June 21: Giuliani directly slams Zelensky for failing to launch those investigations.
July 10: Tensions erupt in a White House meeting after Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a ringleader of the scheme, presses Ukrainian officials — top Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak and senior defense official Oleksandr Danyliuk — to undertake those investigations.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified that Ukraine saw this meeting as “critically important” to solidifying U.S. support. Already a crucial Ukraine goal is entangled with Trump’s demands.
July 20: Sondland tells William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, that he personally encouraged Zelensky to make it very clear to Trump that he was committed to the investigations Trump wanted, according to Taylor. That’s pressure.
So a top Ukrainian official clearly signaled Ukraine felt strong-armed. It felt pressure.
July 25: Just before the call, Ambassador Kurt Volker directly texts Yermak that if Zelensky persuades Trump that Ukraine will investigate the 2016 theory, then they can set a date for a White House meeting.
So Ukraine was told that only after it commits to doing Trump’s bidding will it get something it badly craves. That’s pressure.
First week of August: Ukrainian officials learn that military aid had been suspended.
Aug. 9: Volker texts Giuliani for guidance on what Ukraine’s statement must say. Trump had told Zelensky that Giuliani was his point man. So Giuliani was being asked to articulate what Ukraine must do to please Trump.
Aug. 10: In a text exchange Yermak keeps asking Volker for a date for the White House meeting, and says once that’s set, Ukraine will announce the investigations.
This shows Ukraine fully understood that getting the meeting — and the health of the Ukraine-U.S. relationship — was directly contingent on doing Trump’s political bidding. It felt pressure.
Sept. 1: Sondland directly tells Yermak that the military aid won’t come without the statement Trump wants, per Sondland’s admission. That’s pressure.
Sept 2: Former White House foreign policy adviser Tim Morrison tells Taylor the Ukrainians are troubled by the unexplained frozen aid, according to Taylor. Morrison has confirmed Taylor accurately characterized their conversations.
Sept 8: Sondland tells Taylor that Sondland had a conversation with Zelensky and Yermak in which he said that if Zelensky doesn’t “clear things up” in public (i.e., issue the statement Trump wants), we’ll be at a “stalemate.” After this, Zelensky agrees to make the statement.
Zelensky agreed to something he didn’t want to do. Under pressure.
The statement didn’t happen, because Trump subsequently unfroze the aid, but only after a bipartisan outcry, the launch of a House investigation, and the filing of a whistleblower complaint. The extortion plot was aborted — because they got caught.
How Trump corruptly communicates
This “no pressure” talking point goes directly to the core of Trump’s corruption. As former Trump fixer Michael Cohen explained, Trump communicates in mob-speak: He tells his consiglieri in a winking tone that he doesn’t want something done that he actually does want done, and they grasp his directive perfectly.
We’ve seen this in the Ukraine scandal. As Taylor tells us, Sondland told the Ukrainians both that they must do Trump’s bidding but also that this wasn’t a quid pro quo. Wink, wink.
This is almost certainly how Trump himself communicated the matter to Sondland. Bad-faith Republican spinners can pretend Trump actually meant this wasn’t a quid pro quo, but in so doing, they’re just participants in Trump’s corruption.
At any rate, when they testify next week, Vindman, Morrison and perhaps even Sondland — all of whom figure heavily in the above timeline — can tell us just how pressured Ukraine really felt.