During the two public hearings that have been part of the impeachment inquiry, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has offered a belated explanation, one that neatly ties up several loose ends about the administration’s behavior.
“The reason the aid was released, as we discussed on Wednesday, was because Vice President Pence, [then-national security adviser] Ambassador Bolton and U.S. senators all talked with [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, and they were convinced he was the real deal, as the ambassador has alluded to in her testimony,” Jordan said on Friday. “That’s why the money was released.”
Jordan’s argument expands Trump’s own assertions about his interactions with Ukraine. Trump’s true concern — though one unexpressed in his two calls with Zelensky in April and July — was corruption in the country, Jordan claims. It was only after that concern had been assuaged about Zelensky that the aid was released. Trump’s desire for investigations, including one targeting former vice president Joe Biden, was unrelated to the aid stoppage as Jordan presents it. In fact, that probe was itself a function of concern about corruption.
As a sound bite, the argument is neatly self-contained. Unfortunately for Jordan — and more broadly for Trump — the congressman’s presentation of what happened quickly collapses under scrutiny. A quick review of what happened explains why.
The aid was authorized in two parts, one last August and one in February. There were mandated checks focused on Ukraine’s corruption that had to be completed before the aid could be released. The Defense Department publicly announced the military aid in June after those checks were completed. The Office of Management and Budget, a White House department still run by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, was asked to release the funding.
On July 18, administration officials were informed in a conference call that the aid was being held at the direction of Trump and Mulvaney. Those listening to the call didn’t know why and weren’t offered an explanation.
A week later, Trump and Zelensky spoke on the phone, without the subject coming up. Instead, Trump’s team was actively tying the announcement of new investigations to a meeting Zelensky sought with Trump, an effort that began with an explicit connection drawn by Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland during a meeting with Ukrainian officials at the White House on July 10. The effort continued actively into early August, when Sondland and others worked with Andriy Yermak, an aide to Zelensky, on a statement announcing the probes.
In other words, the public launch of the desired probes appeared to be on track even without leveraging the aid.
On Aug. 12, with the aid still in limbo, an anonymous whistleblower within the intelligence community filed a complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, including a reference to the aid stoppage.
“On 18 July, an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official informed Departments and Agencies that the President ‘earlier that month’ had issued instructions to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Neither OMB nor the NSC staff knew why this instruction had been issued,” the whistleblower wrote. “During interagency meetings on 23 July and 26 July, OMB officials again stated explicitly that the instruction to suspend this assistance had come directly from the President, but they still were unaware of a policy rationale.”
Both the whistleblower and subsequent New York Times reporting have indicated that some Ukrainian officials were aware of the aid stoppage in early August, but specifics are unclear.
The whistleblower’s complaint went to the inspector general for the intelligence community, who deemed the complaint credible. That determination meant that the complaint should then go to Congress — but it was instead held by the director of national intelligence.
In late August, Bolton met with Zelensky. Aid reportedly was not discussed at that time.
Two days after that meeting, though, on Aug. 29, the aid stoppage became publicly known with an article published by Politico. Yermak contacted several administration officials to find out more.
On Aug. 30, in preparation for a trip to Ukraine, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) discussed the stoppage with Sondland. Sondland told Johnson it was being held to get Ukraine to announce the investigations desired by Trump. The next day, Johnson asked Trump about that claim and if he could tell Zelensky that aid was coming. Trump denied a “quid pro quo” but repeated that he was concerned about what happened in 2016 — a reference to one of the subjects of the desired investigations.
On Sept. 1, Sondland met with Yermak, directly tying the aid to the desired investigations, according to Sondland’s revised testimony given to House investigators. This likely didn’t surprise Yermak; he had been working for more than a month with Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker on an announcement about new investigations.
On the same day, Pence met with Zelensky. He later told reporters that Trump was worried about corruption.
By now, questions about the aid were rampant. The Post’s editorial team wrote an article on Sept. 5 for the first time alleging that the aid stoppage was linked to an investigation into Biden. That same day, Zelensky met with Sens. Johnson and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
“As soon as we sat down at the table in the presidential palace,” Murphy said, “he asked us what was going on with the aid, why was it being withheld.”
On Sept. 9, Democratic leaders in the House announced an investigation into Trump’s interactions with Ukraine and the role played by his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. On the same day, Congress was informed about the existence of the whistleblower complaint, though it was not provided to them. On Sept. 10, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the director of national intelligence demanding that the complaint be turned over.
The next day, on Sept. 11, the aid was released.
Again, Jordan’s assertion is that aid was held until Pence, Bolton and senators could verify that Zelensky was legitimate. We’re asked to believe that despite there being no apparent direction from the White House to make such a determination. Despite, as well, the absence of evidence that this concern was expressed as a rationale for the stoppage in the moment. Despite the determination by Trump’s own Defense Department that it had no qualms that would stand in the way of delivering aid. Despite Defense reiterating that position after the aid stoppage was announced.
Accepting Jordan’s presentation of what happened requires us not only to embrace what hasn’t been shown but also to reject what has been. That the Trump-appointed ambassador to the E.U. says he told Ukraine the stoppage was linked to the investigations. That the aid was released in the immediate aftermath not of Pence’s visit to Zelensky or to the Murphy-Johnson visit but, instead, after the whistleblower complaint was about to be surfaced to Congress and public questions about the motivation for the stoppage had emerged.
We’re asked, once again, to give Trump the benefit of the doubt that what he appeared to be doing wasn’t what he was doing. You may judge for yourself whether that’s deserved.