“You have to ask yourself: What did President Zelensky actually do to get the aid? The answer is nothing. He did nothing. He didn’t open any investigations. He didn’t call Attorney General Bill Barr. He didn’t do any of the things that House Democrats say that he was being forced and coerced and threatened to do. He didn’t do anything because he didn’t have to.”
“For the millions of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following. Number one, Ukraine received the aid. Number two, there was in fact no investigation into Biden.”
The “nothing to see here” defense was a recurring theme in the hearing. Republicans argued that Ukrainian officials never opened the investigations President Trump requested into the Bidens or supposed Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, yet Trump released the nearly $400 million aid package for Ukraine anyway.
But this is a selective retelling of events. Missing is any mention of key developments between July 18, when the White House told agencies to freeze Ukraine’s aid package, and Sept. 11, when the White House released the funds.
“Most impt [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation,” the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, wrote in a text message to U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on July 19, the day after the White House suspended the aid package. Volker’s text was sent amid preparations for Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.
The day after that, July 20, Sondland told the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., that he encouraged Zelensky to tell Trump that the Ukrainians would “leave no stone unturned” in the “investigations,” according to Taylor. The same day, Oleksandr Danyliuk, Ukraine’s national security adviser, told Taylor that Zelensky did not wish to be a pawn in a U.S. election campaign, Taylor said.
At least four national security officials were so alarmed by the Trump administration’s attempts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes that they raised concerns with a White House lawyer both before and immediately after Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, The Washington Post reported.
“Word of the aid freeze had gotten to high-level Ukrainian officials by the first week in August,” the New York Times reported. According to the Times, Trump’s personal attorney met in Madrid on Aug. 2 with a top aide to Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, and encouraged the Ukrainians to investigate the two issues Trump had raised: Biden and election interference.
On Aug. 9, Sondland and Volker traded text messages about a possible statement Ukraine would issue about the investigations, with Sondland writing that Trump “really wants the deliverable.” They both consulted Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani about the statement.
On Aug. 10, Yermak told the U.S. officials via text: “I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things. Which we discussed yesterday. But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date. We inform about date of visit and about our expectations and our guarantees for future visit.” This was an apparent reference to finalizing a date for Zelensky’s visit to the White House.
Then, on Aug. 12, a whistleblower filed a complaint regarding Trump’s requests of Zelensky and related developments to the U.S. intelligence community inspector general.
Politico was first to report on Aug. 29 that the Trump administration had frozen Ukraine’s congressionally appropriated aid from the Defense Department, a $250 million package designated for counter-artillery radar, sniper rifles, secure communication equipment, tactical vehicles, military training and other programs. The White House separately froze $141 million in Ukraine aid from the State Department, it was later revealed.
On Sept. 1, Sondland told Yermak in a meeting in Warsaw that the military aid would not be released until Zelensky promised to pursue the Burisma investigation relating to the Bidens. In a call with Taylor the same day, Sondland said “everything” — meaning the U.S. aid funds and a meeting Zelensky wanted with Trump in the White House, according to Taylor — hinged on announcing the investigations Trump wanted.
On Sept. 2, Danyliuk told White House National Security Council official Tim Morrison that he was concerned U.S. officials weren’t giving answers about the withheld military aid, according to Taylor, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagordyuk raised similar concerns to Taylor.
On Sept. 5, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) met with Zelensky in Ukraine. His first question was about the held-up security funds, according to Taylor, who hosted the meeting.
The wrangling continued for several more days. Then, the U.S. intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, on Sept. 9 notified Congress of the whistleblower’s complaint, though he didn’t say what was in it. Zelensky eventually decided to announce an investigation in a Sept. 13 interview with CNN, but amid mounting pressure in Washington, the White House released the security funds on Sept. 11, and the CNN interview was nixed.
“Ambassador Taylor testified that President Trump was the first president to see that Ukraine was afforded Javelin antitank weapons. This was a very strong message that Americans are willing to provide more than blankets. This was the Obama administration’s approach.”
— Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)
Nunes repeated a talking point often made by Trump (and which is listed in our database of Trump’s false and misleading claims) — that Obama only provided “blankets” to Ukrainian security forces. The suggestion is that Obama did not provide security aid to Ukraine, but this is wrong.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Obama administration supplied Ukraine with $600 million in security assistance, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report. A 2015 Defense Department news release said Obama had pledged 230 Humvees, along with unarmed aerial vehicles, counter-mortar radars, night vision devices and medical supplies.
Obama also signed into law the establishment of the Defense-managed Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which has built on that initial aid. From fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2019, Congress appropriated $850 million, the CRS said in another report, with another $250 million slated for 2020. (The fiscal 2019 appropriation is what Trump blocked over the summer, witnesses have said, to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden.)
Obama was wary of supplying lethal aid to Ukraine, for fear of antagonizing Russia when Ukrainian security forces were weak (and also European allies who were wary of an escalation). It was not an isolated concern. Fiona Hill, who joined the Trump administration as the top Russia adviser on the National Security Council, in 2015 co-wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post warning against supplying lethal weapons because it could lead to a regional war. In her deposition to impeachment investigators, she said circumstances had changed by 2017.
“When I got into the government, the administration, I became actually more convinced that there was a thorough plan, that our colleagues at the Pentagon had really thought all of this through,” Hill said. “They had a proper plan for the long-term sustainability of the Ukrainian military, and that the intent was that the Ukrainian defense sector would be able to get itself back into shape again over time.”
In other words, the GOP talking point does not take into account the differences between the state of the Ukrainian military under Obama vs. Trump. (As Hill wryly noted, “Everybody changes their mind, you know, and kind of learns things.”)
Even so, while the Trump administration supplied the Javelin antitank weapons long sought by Ukraine, the weapons came with the restriction that they cannot be used in the ongoing conflict with the Russian-led separatists — precisely because of the escalation issues that had concerned the Obama administration.
“The special U.S. envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has said that the Javelins are being stored in a secure facility far from the front line,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in June. “Ukrainian and U.S. sources with knowledge of the storage locations have told RFE/RL that the missiles and launchers have been separated into smaller groups and are held in strategic locations around the country, possibly in underground bunkers, where they can be moved quickly to areas that border Russia or the eastern front line.”
Because of the restrictions, “Ukrainian soldiers at the front have improvised: They prop up the dummies of straw and extra uniforms that appear to hold the missiles, as a ruse, an army spokesman said,” the New York Times reported. “The fake missiles are conjured from logs and empty ammunition boxes, roughly mimicking the silhouette of a Javelin.”
“The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling. … What is the full extent of Ukrainian election meddling against the Trump campaign?”
Nunes revived debunked theories about election-year meddling by Ukraine in 2016, even as former Trump administration officials have conceded it is nothing but a distraction.
Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s first homeland security adviser, said the president had been told by his staff that Ukraine conspiracy theories had been “completely debunked.”
“It is a fiction that the Ukrainian Government was launching an effort to upend our election, upend our election to mess with our Democratic systems,” Hill told investigators. She added at another point: “I’m extremely concerned that this is a rabbit hole that we’re all going to go down in between now and the 2020 election, and it will be to all of our detriment.”
At the time, she was being questioned about a Politico article that appeared in early 2017, which for some Republicans has turned into some sort of Rosetta Stone for an alternative version of what happened in 2016. Hill, in her interview, was unimpressed by the thrust of the article, dismissing it as “an assertion, the conclusion that the authors of this article are making.”
The article reported that a Ukrainian American Democratic operative, Alexandra Chalupa, began looking into Paul Manafort’s ties to Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych, who served as president from 2010 until his ouster in 2014. At the time, Manafort was chairman of the Trump campaign.
Chalupa was hired as a consultant to the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign to help mobilize ethnic communities. She left the DNC in July 2016, the DNC said.
She continued her research into Manafort on her own, sometimes with the help of Ukrainian Embassy officials, and she said she sometimes shared her findings with officials at the DNC and Clinton’s campaign. But former Clinton campaign officials said they never received information from Chalupa, and the exact role of embassy officials is unclear.
Even if Chalupa may have worked with some embassy officials, there’s no evidence that the DNC used information gathered by Chalupa or that the Ukrainians coordinated opposition research with the DNC. She vigorously denied the article’s framing when it appeared and recently told Politico she would love to testify as part of the investigation, asserting this is a smear campaign that “originated with the Kremlin.”
The Politico article was published nearly two years ago, but Republicans still cite from it, even though no fresh information has been found to substantiate its suggestion that the Ukrainian government sought to help Hillary Clinton. Manafort, of course, was later convicted of financial crimes related to his activities in Ukraine.
“I am very confident based on all of the analysis that has been done and, again, I don’t want to start getting into intelligence matters, that the Ukrainian Government did not interfere in our election in 2016,” Hill insisted in her interview when yet another GOP lawmaker asked her about the Politico article.
“We’re not in a court, gentlemen, and if we were, the Sixth Amendment would apply and so would rules on hearsay and opinion, and most of your two testimonies would not be admissible whatsoever.”
— Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio)
It’s hard to imagine that Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, his boss at the State Department in Washington, would be left out of a theoretical court case focused on U.S. policy in Ukraine.
But the most damning parts of their testimonies relay what they heard from others, and secondhand statements are generally barred as evidence in court proceedings.
Turner’s claim is suspect nonetheless (and not just because he said Sept. 26, after reading the rough transcript of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky: “I want to say to the president: This is not okay. That conversation is not okay.”).
The federal courts’ rules of evidence allow hearsay testimony in more than two-dozen limited circumstances. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) noted at the hearing that “countless people have been convicted on hearsay because the courts have routinely allowed and created needed exceptions.”
For example, there's an exception to the hearsay rule for “a statement describing or explaining an event or condition, made while or immediately after the declarant perceived it.” Taylor took notes of his conversations in real time and his records show quotation marks where he's relaying others' words verbatim, according to his testimony. There's another exception to the hearsay rule for “a record of an act, event, condition, opinion, or diagnosis if the record was made at or near the time by — or from information transmitted by — someone with knowledge."
The courts in some cases accept incriminating remarks in hearsay testimony. Such a “statement against interest” would have to be “supported by corroborating circumstances that clearly indicate its trustworthiness, if it is offered in a criminal case as one that tends to expose the declarant to criminal liability,” according to another exception in the rules.
In some cases, hearsay testimony “offered as evidence of a material fact” is allowed in court if it's the best evidence reasonably available.
Regardless, Sondland, who spoke to Trump directly, has corrected his testimony to clarify that he asked Ukrainian officials for a public announcement of the investigations Trump wanted before Ukraine’s security aid would be released.
“Our witness on Friday, she testified in her deposition corruption is not just prevalent in Ukraine, it’s the system. So our president said, ‘Time out. Time out. Let’s check out this new guy. Let’s see if Zelensky is the real deal.’ … When it came time to check out this new guy, President Trump said, ‘Let’s just see, let’s just see if he’s legit.’ So for 55 days, we checked him out. … Guess what did happen in those 55 days? U.S. senators, Ambassador Bolton, Vice President Pence all became convinced that Zelensky was in fact worth the risk. He was in fact legit and the real deal and a real change, and guess what? They told the president he’s a reformer, release the money. And that’s exactly what President Trump did.”
This smacks of revisionism. There’s no record of Trump saying that Ukraine’s assistance package was held up because he wanted to gauge Zelensky’s commitment to fighting corruption.
Trump has only ever raised concerns about two specific issues in Ukraine. Both stand to benefit him politically. The president asked Zelensky to look into baseless allegations against Biden and a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian election interference meant to hurt his chances in 2016 and bolster Clinton.
Bolton was so concerned about the freeze on Ukraine aid, he directed aides to notify the National Security Council’s lawyer about their concerns and unsuccessfully tried to schedule a meeting with Trump and officials at the Defense and State departments and the CIA during the summer to persuade the president to release the Ukrainian assistance package, according to the testimony of several U.S. officials.
The Defense Department since 2017 has been required by law to certify annually that Ukraine has made sufficient progress on anti-corruption efforts to merit U.S. security assistance funds. Congress approved the funds for Ukraine in the fall of 2018. The Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, John C. Rood, sent a letter May 23 to congressional committees certifying that “the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.”
The White House has not said whether it conducted a separate review of corruption in Ukraine, and if so, how it differed from the Pentagon’s. Experts doubt a formal review was done.
“My sense is that all of the senior leaders of the U.S. national security departments and agencies were all unified in their — in their view that this assistance was essential, that we could work with the government of Ukraine to tackle corruption, and they were trying to find ways to engage the president on this,” Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, testified to the House impeachment inquiry committee.
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