During the call, Trump requests that Zelensky initiate two investigations. One was focused on an unfounded theory that Ukraine was somehow involved in misrepresenting Russia’s role in hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016. The other was focused on former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Both of these investigations would be useful to Trump, allowing the president to undercut the Russia probe or a potential 2020 opponent.
After Zelensky acquiesces to those investigations — and investigations broadly — Trump tells him that he’s welcome at the White House any time.
By itself, the rough transcript raises questions. Subsequent testimony, though, makes clear the broader context of Trump’s requests and his focus in that conversation. Over the course of July 25 and 26, numerous conversations and messages that have been revealed in subsequent testimony strongly suggest that Trump’s focus was on his own political benefit.
On July 26, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was interviewed by a television network linked to the Ukrainian government. In that interview, Sondland revealed something important.
“I actually spoke with President Trump just a few minutes before he placed the call,” Sondland told the interviewer. Asked by House impeachment investigators whether he had spoken with Trump, Sondland suggested that the call was “a nothing call.”
“I said we’re headed to Kyiv to go see Zelensky and he was like, no, great, whatever,” Sondland testified. “That was sort of the end of the call. We never discussed anything substantive.”
To the Ukrainian interviewer, Sondland suggested that the call happened before Trump and Zelensky spoke, sometime in the morning of July 25.
At 7:54 a.m., Sondland tried to call U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Unable to reach him, he sent a text message: “Call as soon as possible.”
Volker was in Ukraine at the time, and he’d had lunch with Andriy Yermak, a senior aide to Zelensky.
At 8:36 a.m. — about 3:30 p.m. in Ukraine — Volker sent a text message to Yermak. After thanking him for lunch, he passed along a message.
“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!”
The visit to the White House was an ongoing concern of Zelensky’s. Various witnesses testified that this was something of specific value to Zelensky, both showing the legitimacy of his still-young presidency and presenting a united front against Russia.
Asked by impeachment investigators whom he had spoken with at the White House, Volker replied that “the best of my recollection is I heard from Gordon who spoke to someone at the White House. I don’t believe I heard directly from the White House.” Sondland told investigators he didn’t remember passing along any such message.
At 9:03 a.m., Trump and Zelensky spoke. Zelensky responded to Trump’s request for an investigation into the DNC hacking by effusively insisting that investigations would follow.
“We are great friends, and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership,” Zelensky said. “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.”
Later, Trump thanked Zelensky
“I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation,” Zelensky later added. He went on to talk about Ukraine buying U.S. energy products.
“Good,” Trump replied. “Well, thank you very much, and I appreciate that. I will tell Rudy” — Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani — “and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House feel free to call. Give us a date, and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.”
The call ended about 9:30 a.m. At 10:15 a.m., Yermak texted Volker.
“Phone call went well,” he wrote. “President Trump proposed to choose any convenient dates. President Zelenskiy chose 20, 21, 22 September for the White House Visit. Thank you again for your help! Please remind Mr. Mayor to share the Madrid’s dates.”
That last point was a reference to Giuliani, whom Volker had put Yermak in touch with. Giuliani and Yermak met in Madrid in early August.
Volker replied to Yermak: “Great — thanks and will do!”
At some point after the call, Volker also updated Sondland.
“Hi Gordon. Had a great lunch with Yermak and then passed your message to him,” the message read. “He will see you tomorrow, think everything in place.”
“I don’t know where I would have gotten that message,” Sondland told investigators when presented with that message. “I never got that from President Trump.”
Acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr., Volker and Sondland met the next day with Zelensky and, separately, members of his staff. Sondland later told that Ukrainian television network about the Zelensky meeting and was asked when Zelensky and Trump might meet — reinforcing the importance to Ukraine of the interaction.
“The date is only subject to scheduling,” Sondland told the interviewer.
The meeting with Zelensky was also attended by David Holmes, a staffer at the embassy in Ukraine who took notes of the encounter. According to the opening statement of testimony Holmes gave to House investigators on Nov. 15, Zelensky said that Trump had “three times” raised “sensitive issues” in the prior day’s call. In a break with standard practice, no transcript of the call had been distributed to the team in Ukraine, so Holmes didn’t know what Zelensky meant.
“President Zelensky told Ambassador Volker and me that he was happy with the call but did not elaborate,” Taylor testified Wednesday. “President Zelensky then asked about the face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office as promised in the May 29 letter from President Trump. We could give him no firm answer.”
Volker and Taylor left the Zelensky meeting to travel to eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists had seized territory. While they were there, Sondland then met with Yermak. Holmes was tasked to take notes but, upon arriving at the meeting, was turned away by Yermak’s assistant, who told him the meeting would be private.
After the Yermak meeting, Sondland, Holmes and two other staffers went to lunch. (Before discussing Ukraine, Holmes notes, the group “discussed topics such as marketing strategies for [Sondland’s] hotel business.”) Sondland then indicated that he would call Trump. He was connected to the president and the conversation was loud enough that Holmes could hear Trump speaking.
Sondland told Trump that Zelensky loved him.
“So he’s gonna do the investigations?” Trump asked.
Sondland reportedly said that Zelensky would — and that he would do “anything you ask him to.”
After getting off the phone, Holmes asked Sondland if Trump cared about Ukraine. Trump, he was told, only cared about “big stuff” — like the “Biden investigation.”
This timeline encompassing only two days makes clear why Trump wants Americans to focus on the transcript alone. Expanding the window of consideration outward only slightly reveals significant additional context suggesting that Trump was focused on investigating Biden and that a meeting at the White House depended on it.
That, of course, gets to the heart of the impeachment inquiry.