The call and those requests, though, didn’t happen in a vacuum. For months, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani had been agitating for an investigation into Biden in particular. Text messages released Friday show how officials, including E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, discussed preparations for the call and then its aftermath.
On Tuesday, an interview conducted with Sondland on July 26 by an English-language Ukrainian television network resurfaced. It includes details that take on new resonance in light of what we now know about the Trump-Zelensky call and its genesis.
“I had a wonderful hour-long meeting with President Zelensky that followed on the heels of his telephone call yesterday with President Trump,” Sondland told interviewer Kari Odermann. Asked whether he got a sense of what Trump and Zelensky talked about, Sondland said he had.
“I actually spoke with President Trump just a few minutes before he placed the call,” Sondland said. “And not only did the president call to congratulate President Zelensky but also to begin the collaboration of charting the pathway forward with the U.S.’s support of Ukraine and a White House visit that’s upcoming for President Zelensky.”
NBC News reported Tuesday that such a call would be typical for the Trump-Sondland relationship, as Sondland was “part of a small cadre of ambassadors who enjoy direct and frequent access to Trump.”
The timing is important. As far as descriptors go, “a few minutes” isn’t terribly clear. But a call between Sondland and Trump shortly before the Trump-Zelensky call could be significant, given one of those newly released text messages.
At 8:36 a.m., Volker texted a Zelensky aide named Andrey Yermak.
“Heard from White House,” Volker wrote. “Assuming President [Zelensky] 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!”
That “get to the bottom” likely refers to the theory underpinning Trump’s interest in investigating Biden: a debunked claim that Biden had pressured Ukraine to fire its general prosecutor to shield his own son. The Volker text message offered an explicit quid pro quo — Zelensky says he’ll investigate 2016 and he’ll get a White House visit. Sondland’s reference to speaking to Trump around the same time hints at the possibility of a more direct line from Volker’s offer through Sondland to Trump.
In the July 26 interview, Sondland emphasized his close working relationship with Volker and Perry on Ukraine issues. He described the three as the “three amigos” and said that they had “been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine-U.S. relationship between our contacts at the highest levels of the U.S. government and now the highest levels of the Ukrainian government.” The text messages released Friday largely involve Volker, Sondland and the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, William B. “Bill” Taylor.
A complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower mentions meetings between Sondland, Volker and Ukrainian officials on July 26.
“Based on multiple readouts of these meetings recounted to me by various U.S. officials,” it reads, “Ambassadors Volker and Sondland reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky.”
We’ve known for some time that the prospect of a White House visit was a powerful lure for the Ukrainian president. After Sondland told the interviewer that a possible visit was in the works, she reacted positively.
“That’s great news because we’re all curious about this,” she said. “There hasn’t been a date set for this. Sometime in late summer? Tell us more about that, please.”
Sondland doesn’t put a hard date on a visit, saying that he hoped it would happen within weeks, not months. The text messages indicate that Yermak, the Zelensky aide, proposed late September. By early August, though, the messages shift to another effort to leverage the meeting: Predicating a White House visit on a public statement from Ukraine about opening those investigations.
Odermann then mentioned to Sondland that a Ukrainian readout of the Trump-Zelensky call included a mention of fighting corruption.
“We’re very optimistic that President Zelensky and his team are taking it seriously,” Sondland replied. He noted that conversations about corruption predated his tenure as ambassador but that nothing had happened.
“President Zelensky was very mindful of that,” he added. “That’s really one of the things he ran on. And we’re very confident that he takes these changes seriously. He’s going to implement them in record time. And the U.S. is going to be right there with him supporting him.”
By late August, Yermak had reached out to Volker with concerns about the administration’s withholding aid that had been scheduled to go to Ukraine. A few days later, Taylor texted Sondland to raise concerns about linking that aid to Trump’s desired investigations. Sondland suggested they talk by phone — a shift which, as Sondland likely knew, would eliminate a written record of the conversation.
The next day, Taylor — not one of the three amigos — raised the concern again.
“As I said on the phone,” he wrote at 12:47 a.m. on Sept. 9, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Five hours later, Sondland replied.
“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” he said. “The President has been crystal 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 …”
The New York Times reported last week that Sondland spoke with Trump before sending that message.