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Eight still-unanswered questions about the Trump-Ukraine scandal

President Trump walks off after speaking with reporters after arriving at Joint Base Andrews, Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

There’s suddenly an air of finality to the roiling story about an intelligence community whistleblower who filed a complaint against President Trump’s administration. While a week ago news organizations were scrambling to uncover the nature of the complaint, we now have the complaint in hand. We also have a rough transcript of a call at the center of the complaint, in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden. That, it would seem, is that.

Except, of course, it isn’t. There remain a number of important, unanswered questions about the entire situation, some of which stem from the released documents themselves. We’ve outlined several of the most important below.

Before getting to those, it’s useful to summarize what is known. We know that Trump and Zelensky spoke on July 25. For months earlier, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani had been trying to gin up evidence supporting his theory that Biden had called for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor in early 2016 to protect his son Hunter. That effort had included outreach to officials in Ukraine and was part of what Trump asked of Zelensky on the call.

On the call, Trump was direct, responding to Zelensky’s ingratiations with specific requests for actions from the Ukrainian government. Zelensky thanked Trump for aid the United States had provided, though the administration had halted another round of aid before the call.

After the call, according to the whistleblower, records of the call were moved to a highly secure storage system within the administration to keep them private. The whistleblower became aware of the conversation and filed a complaint focused broadly on the administration’s and Giuliani’s efforts to influence Ukraine in early August.

Was aid to Ukraine withheld as leverage over Zelensky?

Before the release of the whistleblower complaint, there were intriguing hints that Trump may have directly used American aid to Ukraine as leverage over Zelensky. Some observers suggested that there may have been an explicit quid pro quo suggested by Trump — investigate Biden and then get the cash — though that wasn’t generally the understanding in reported coverage.

It is still an outstanding question, though. Not the question of an explicit offer of quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky, since that’s not indicated in the available transcript. But it’s still not clear why the White House stopped the aid in the first place.

It’s safe to assume that the Ukrainian government is well aware of when it is expected to and when it does receive large aid payments from the United States. It’s not clear if there was a payment expected in the period before the call that never arrived. If there was, of course, it might prompt Zelensky to be more ingratiating than he would otherwise be inclined to be. It might also prompt Zelensky to inquire about the aid payment, which he didn’t.

One underappreciated point is that Trump was demonstrably aware of Giuliani’s debunked theory about the Bidens — that Joe Biden had threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine to oust a prosecutor threatening his son — long before the Zelensky call and before the aid to Ukraine was halted. He mentioned it in a Fox News interview on May 19; as of four days later, the aid was still on track.

In other words, Trump at that point believed that aid to Ukraine had been used as a point of leverage in the past.

To what extent was a presidential meeting used as leverage?

Reading the rough transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call, The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake picked out an intriguing subtext. Zelensky appears to have been quite eager to arrange a meeting between himself and Trump — a meeting that Trump had been slow to confirm. Even when the two met this week, Zelensky raised the issue, joking — with some tension — that Trump had invited him but forgotten to identify a date.

It’s a reminder that in interactions between the president of the United States and other foreign leaders, there are many levers that can be pulled. One of the critiques of Trump’s interactions with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is that Trump gave Kim the valuable gift of a personal meeting. Zelensky was not so lucky — to his apparent frustration.

In other words, Trump may have been leveraging the institutional power of the presidency to his personal benefit — undermining a possible 2020 opponent — in a way that didn’t involve money at all.

Which other communication was moved to the secure storage system?

The whistleblower’s complaint comes in two parts. The first is a letter outlining the allegations in general, written so that it contained no classified information. The second part contains classified addendums, supplementary information bolstering the unclassified letter.

In the unclassified letter, the whistleblower described what they’d been told about how the White House handled records of the call.

“[T]he transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature,” the whistleblower wrote. “One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”

In the classified appendix, the whistleblower added an important point: “According to White House officials I spoke with, this was ‘not the first time’ under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”

The question that emerges is obvious. What else got shunted to that highly secure system, and why?

How complete is the transcript?

The Post has been assiduous in describing the transcript of the July 25 call released by the White House as “rough” for the simple reason that it is. The transcript itself notes that it is not a verbatim reconstruction of the call. The document instead “records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and [National Security Council] policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place,” according to a footnote on the first page.

In other words, Trump and Zelensky may have discussed things or made comments not included in the rough transcript. Those things may simply have been minor things such as the use of different tenses or trivial asides. The differences may be more significant.

What was redacted from the whistleblower complaint?

There is one section of redactions in the released whistleblower complaint. A block of classified material linked to the letter’s fourth section — the section dealing with the “[c]ircumstances leading up to the 25 July Presidential phone call” — has been obscured, as has an apparently related footnote.

The redaction may be related to classified intelligence-gathering centered on Ukraine. That it was included in the complaint, though, suggests that it has relevance to the issue of Trump’s efforts to push Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. What that relevance might be is unknown.

How much was the State Department involved in deploying Giuliani?

Giuliani’s role in the Ukraine effort is a substantial one. He’s mentioned repeatedly in the whistleblower’s complaint as advocating for a probe of the Bidens. As Trump’s personal attorney, there’s an implication — not explicitly stated — that Giuliani is freelancing on Trump’s behalf.

Giuliani, though, claims that he was acting on behalf of the administration itself. On Thursday, he tweeted an image of a text-message exchange with Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, a State Department employee. In that exchange, Volker appears to be introducing Giuliani to Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak. Giuliani and Yermak met in Madrid in early August, a meeting that the whistleblower claims was “direct follow-up” to the Trump-Zelensky call. During the call, Zelensky told Trump that he’d welcome Giuliani to Ukraine.

“The whistleblower falsely alleges that I was operating on my own,” Giuliani said on Fox News’s “Ingraham Angle” Thursday night. “Well, I wasn’t operating on my own. I went to meet Mr. Zelensky’s aide at the request of the State Department. Fifteen memos make that clear. I didn’t know Mr. Yermak. … Volker said, ‘Would you meet with him? It’d be helpful to us. We really want you to do it.’”

What the whistleblower alleges isn’t that Giuliani is acting on his own so much as that Giuliani was freelancing on his message, sharing priorities with Ukrainian officials that were in conflict with the message coming from the administration. The implication is that it was an explicit manifestation of the long-standing metaphorical divide in the Trump White House: how Trump operates vs. the operation of the rest of the government.

But Giuliani’s claims raise the important question above. To what extent was the State Department involved in what Giuliani was doing? Was he reaching out to Ukrainian officials with the endorsement of State? Was he leveraging State to make connections that facilitated his narrower agenda?

The whistleblower acknowledges interactions between Volker and Giuliani. Beginning in mid-May, the whistleblower writes, “State Department officials, including Ambassadors Volker and [Ambassador to the European Union Gordon] Sondland, had spoken with Mr. Giuliani in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security.” Volker and Sondland also traveled to Kiev after the July 25 call, the whistleblower claims, to “[provide] advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky.”

Why is former prosecutor Viktor Shokin so adamant about Biden’s involvement in his firing?

At the center of the Giuliani-Trump effort is this claim that Biden threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine to force the ouster of then-general prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Subsequent reporting has indicated that there was no link between that effort, which was supported by others in the administration and by other international actors, and Hunter Biden’s role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company.

The Giuliani-Trump theory is that Shokin was investigating that company, Burisma, though there’s no evidence that such an investigation was active at the time, that Hunter Biden would be implicated in any way or that Biden’s motivation for calling for Shokin’s ouster was related to Burisma. Our fact-checkers have been over this repeatedly.

Nonetheless, Shokin insists that Burisma was the reason for his firing. In a sworn affidavit filed earlier this month and obtained by the Hill’s John Solomon — another central figure in the Giuliani-Trump-Ukraine universe — Shokin claims that his firing occurred “solely on the demands of the U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, because [he] refused to cease [his] probe into Burisma (in which Biden had significant interests)". He’s claimed something similar before.

It’s not clear if there is legal weight to the affidavit (if, that is, he faces perjury penalties if it is knowingly inaccurate) and it’s certainly true that he has an ax to grind with Biden (per his own admission). He is, however, the primary dissenter from the weight of evidence suggesting that Biden’s call for his firing was objective in nature.

Now what?

This is perhaps the most interesting question. It’s also the only one for which we’re guaranteed to eventually get an answer.