Setting aside the immediate problem with that request — namely, that the transcript is an incomplete approximation of the call — Trump’s suggestion suffers from another problem, too. Taking the rough transcript by itself removes all of the context that surrounds the call, what Zelensky knew coming into the conversation and what Trump and his team had been doing to force Zelensky to launch new investigations that could be politically useful to the president. Saying “read the transcript” is a bit like asking people to judge Watergate by reading the arrest report from the hotel break-in.
Particularly because there’s one little-noticed effort to pressure Zelensky sitting just outside the boundaries of that call, an effort that relates directly to what Zelensky offered and that occurred immediately before the call took place.
At 8:36 a.m. Washington time, then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker sent a message to Andrey Yermak, a senior aide to Zelensky who had been communicating with Volker and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
“Good lunch - thanks,” Volker wrote. (He was in Ukraine at the time.) “Heard from White House — 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.”
That text message, first revealed last month when Volker’s messages were turned over to investigators, is pretty explicit: Launch an investigation into 2016 — that is, into a conspiracy theory meant to undermine Russia’s culpability for interfering in the 2016 election — and Zelensky gets the White House meeting he’d been seeking. This was a variant on the quid pro quo to which the acting White House chief of staff briefly admitted last month.
What isn't clear about the message is the first part, that “heard from White House.” Who in the White House? What did they say?
Last month, we dug up an interview with Sondland from July 26 — the day after the call — that offered an intriguing new detail. Sondland was asked if he had gotten a sense of what the two presidents discussed.
“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."
Mostly diplomatic filler language, except that first part: That Sondland and Trump had spoken right before the call. In other words, right about at the time when Volker was texting Yermak. Suggesting that perhaps the “White House,” which had offered instruction to Volker for Zelensky’s aide, was an indirect reference to Trump.
Tuesday’s release of testimony from Volker and Sondland offered some new details about the specific timeline of those conversations.
Volker was asked directly about his intriguing text message.
“Who did you hear from at the White House about this?” Volker was asked.
“The best of my recollection is I heard from Gordon, who spoke to someone at the White House,” Volker replied. “I don’t believe I heard directly from the White House.”
“Is it fair to say you were sending a message to Mr. Yermak that he should convey to President Zelensky that he needed to convince President Trump that Zelensky would investigate slash, quote, get to the bottom of what happened in 2016, and then after that President Trump would be willing to, quote, nail down date for visit to Washington?” Volker was then asked.
“Yes, that is correct,” Volker replied. He went on to note that he was familiar with an allegation related to 2016 about Ukraine trying to influence the election, something that he didn’t think had any validity.
The important part, of course, is that Volker says that instruction to guide Yermak toward an investigations-for-meeting swap came from Sondland, “who spoke to someone at the White House.”
Sondland was not able to remember the details of what happened as precisely, in keeping with his other testimony. But he was presented with a timeline that is highly suggestive.
Sondland was shown some sort of log of communications between himself and Volker.
“You see the first entry, July 25 at 7:54,” he was asked. “It looks like you tried to called Ambassador Volker and then you wrote him, ‘Call as soon as possible.’ ”
“Do you recall what you were trying to reach Ambassador Volker about?” Sondland was asked.
“I don’t know was that — was this on the 25th?” Sondland replied. “Yeah, I don’t know if that might have been the day I made the call to President Trump when I was on my way to Kyiv and again, it was a — kind of a nothing call. He didn’t really — he wasn’t really interested in — and then I found out he had made the call later that day. I don’t even think he told me he was making the call. Maybe he didn’t know that it had been scheduled.”
Trump and Zelensky spoke at 9 a.m. Volker texted Yermak at 8:36 a.m. At 7:54 a.m., Sondland tried to contact Volker — and when asked about his request that Volker call “as soon as possible,” began speculating about his call with Trump. To investigators he said that a call with Trump as he was on his way to Kyiv “might have been” on July 25. In his conversation with that Ukrainian interviewer, he was much more confident that he and Trump not only spoke on the 25th but also that it had happened “a few minutes” before Trump placed the call.
Sondland claims that he doesn’t even think Trump mentioned calling Zelensky — but, again, this was in response to a question about why he urgently wanted to speak with Volker. Sondland also originally testified that he hadn’t put pressure on Ukraine, later amending his testimony once evidence emerged that he had.
He was asked if he and Volker were “trying to, so to speak, prime the Ukrainians” for the call with the investigations-for-meeting request.
“The only request I think we had heard at that point that I recall was that they wanted a strong public statement about anti-corruption,” Sondland replied. “That’s what I had recalled knowing. And if we would have primed him, it would have been to that — to that degree.”
“You never told Ambassador Volker that he needed to tell Andrey Yermak to relay this message to President Zelensky?” Sondland was asked a bit later.
“I don’t believe so,” he replied. “I think — I think Volker was talking to Mr. [Rudolph W.] Giuliani,” Trump’s personal attorney. “I don’t remember telling Volker anything like that.”
It’s worth noting that multiple witnesses told investigators that at a meeting with Ukrainian officials at the White House two weeks prior, Sondland had directly linked the need for new investigations with the possibility of a Trump-Zelensky meeting.
Yermak, at least, did what he was asked to do. The rough transcript of the call makes clear that Zelensky understood the need to acquiesce to new investigations.
“We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership,” Zelensky said after Trump raised the prospect of a 2016-related investigation, according to the rough transcript. “I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly. That I can assure you.”
Sondland was later asked about another message, sent to him by Volker shortly after the call.
“Hi Gordon,” it read, “had a great lunch with Yermak and then passed your message to him. He will see you tomorrow, think everything in place.”
Reading the transcript alone makes it sound as though Zelensky is simply acquiescing out of the blue. Reading a little further, we learn that Volker had prompted him to do so. Reading further still, we get very strong suggestions that Volker did so on behalf of Sondland — after Sondland spoke with Trump.