David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, offered testimony on Thursday that strongly undercuts those arguments.
While Trump and his defenders focus specifically on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it’s important to extend our window of reference outward, starting most usefully with Trump’s first conversation with Zelensky, on April 21.
In that call, which occurred the day Zelensky won his election and two days after Trump hired Rudolph W. Giuliani as his personal attorney, Zelensky repeatedly makes clear that he would like Trump to attend his inauguration. Trump is noncommittal but promises Zelensky that someone senior will attend.
It sets an immediate tone in the relationship: Ukraine wants, and Trump withholds. It was certainly not a new development with Zelensky’s election that Ukraine was in a supplicatory relationship with the United States, but the gulf between the two countries quickly widened.
Within weeks, it became clear what Trump wanted. Giuliani planned a trip to Ukraine to try to gin up investigations useful to Trump (as Giuliani told the New York Times). That trip was canceled after public backlash. Days later, Trump decided that Vice President Pence shouldn’t attend Zelensky’s inauguration, leaving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to lead the delegation. On May 23, Perry was part of a meeting at the White House in which Trump ordered senior officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine issues.
The effort to pressure Ukraine soon took two primary tracks. Zelensky was eager to get the political boost of a White House visit, something that would demonstrate U.S. support for Ukraine as its military conflict with Russia continued. Defense and economic aid approved by Congress and signed off on by the Defense Department — and announced publicly by DOD in mid-June — had yet to be disbursed to Ukraine. Both were things Ukraine wanted or needed, and both things were withheld by Trump.
At first, Trump and his team seemed to be focused on leveraging the White House meeting to get Zelensky to announce investigations into purported interference in the 2016 election (an unfounded claim that would allow Trump to criticize the Russia investigation he hated) and into former vice president Joe Biden’s activities in the country (a similarly shaky claim that would target a potential 2020 opponent). On July 10, in a pair of meetings at the White House, E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland — one of those told on May 23 to work with Giuliani on Ukraine — informed senior Ukrainian officials specifically that a White House meeting depended on their agreeing to launch the probes.
While Ukraine appears not to have known it at the time, the aid slated for delivery had already been halted. Multiple witnesses in the impeachment investigation have testified that the aid stoppage began July 3, though it was only announced broadly within the administration July 18.
There’s an underreported detail that seems salient. Acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. had a conversation with Ukraine’s then-defense minister, one of the officials at the July 10 meeting in which Sondland had demanded investigations. The Ukrainian “conveyed to me that President Zelensky did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. reelection campaign,” Taylor later testified — indicating that Ukraine at the time had a specific understanding of Trump’s motivations. Taylor, it’s worth noting, had come to his position in June, bringing to Zelensky a letter from Trump inviting the Ukrainian president to the White House.
On July 25, Trump and Zelensky spoke, and Trump asked directly for the investigations he sought. The groundwork for the request had already been laid before the call. Apparently after speaking with Trump, Sondland informed then-Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker (another of the May 23 meeting attendees) that Zelensky would get a White House meeting in exchange for supporting the investigations. Volker passed that on to a senior Zelensky aide named Andriy Yermak, and, on the call, Zelensky agreed to the investigations as he requested a date for a meeting. When the call was over, their end of the deal met, Yermak texted Volker to indicate the days they desired for a meeting.
That same afternoon, hours after the call, employees of the Defense Department started seeing hints that Ukraine knew that the aid had been halted. (“From July 18 on, it was sort of inevitable that it was eventually going to come out,” Catherine Croft, a State Department employee who previously worked on Ukraine issues for the National Security Council, later testified.) One email received by staff working for inquiry witness Laura Cooper indicated that Ukraine’s embassy knew about the hold. Another was apparently an inquiry from a Ukrainian about the status of the aid.
The next day, Sondland, Volker and Holmes met with Ukrainian officials. Zelensky mentioned the “sensitive issues” raised in the call, according to Holmes, which he later understood to mean the probes Trump wanted. Sondland testified Wednesday that he’d had a separate conversation with Yermak in which he mentioned the investigations. After these meetings came the infamous phone call between Sondland and Trump, recounted by Holmes and confirmed by Sondland, in which Trump asked specifically about the investigations, and Sondland confirmed that they were moving forward.
It’s important at this point to reinforce Ukraine’s understanding of what’s happening. They know that the United States has been coy about confirming the meeting at the White House. They have heard rumors or may have known outright that aid had been stopped. They had an incentive to keep that quiet, as Croft testified.
“If this were public in Ukraine, it would be seen as a reversal of our policy and would, just to say sort of candidly and colloquially, this would be a really big deal, it would be a really big deal in Ukraine, and an expression of declining U.S. support for Ukraine,” she said. “As long as they thought that in the end the hold would be lifted, they had no reason for this to want to come out.”
And, of course, they had heard repeatedly — from Sondland, from Trump, from Giuliani — that Trump wanted these investigations. To echo a metaphor Sondland used on Wednesday, the arithmetic was simple.
In early August, as administration officials not in the White House pushed for the release of aid, Sondland, Volker and Giuliani were working with Yermak on a public statement announcing the probes. On Aug. 10, Yermak pushed back a bit, demanding that the meeting date be set before the statement was released. For the next week or so, that conversation continued.
It’s not clear why that wasn’t issued. It may be because attention shifted to another format for publicizing the new investigations: an interview with CNN at an international conference in mid-September.
At the end of August, though, the calculus shifted dramatically when Politico reported that the aid had been stopped. Yermak quickly reached out to Volker and Taylor out of concern.
On Sept. 1, Sondland met with Yermak during an international event in Poland. There, he told Yermak that aid was being withheld until the new probes were launched, something that he had also conveyed to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) two days earlier. Sondland testified on Wednesday that this wasn’t a direction from Trump or Giuliani but, instead, his own assumption of why aid had been withheld, given the lack of an explanation for the stoppage.
Holmes testified Thursday that he figured Ukraine made a similar calculation.
“Zelensky had received a letter, a congratulatory letter from the president saying he would be pleased to meet him following his inauguration in May,” Holmes said. “We hadn’t to able to get that meeting — and then the security hold came up with no explanation. And I’d be surprised if any of the Ukrainians — you said earlier, we discussed earlier, you know, sophisticated people — when they received no explanation for why that hold was in place, they would have drawn that conclusion.”
“Because the investigations were still being pursued?” Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked.
“Correct,” Holmes replied.
“And the hold was still remaining without explanation?” Goldman continued.
The aid was released shortly afterward, although there’s no evidence that it was a function of unstated conditions being met. Instead, the release of the aid came on Sept. 11, six days after a Washington Post editorial raised the question of aid being leveraged for an investigation into Biden and two days after House Democrats announced an investigation into Trump, Ukraine and Giuliani.
Taylor and Holmes were concerned that, even after the aid was released, Zelensky and the Ukrainians would feel pressure to move forward with the CNN interview planned for a few days later. Both diplomats mentioned a meeting a few days after the hold was lifted in which they pressed Yermak not to do the interview out of concern it would make Ukraine seem to be engaging in partisan politics — exactly what that official had feared in his conversation with Taylor in July. Yermak shrugged.
The Ukraine story soon blew up in the media, though, and the interview didn’t happen.
Trump and Zelensky met in person for the first time on Sept. 25, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Earlier that morning, Trump had published the rough transcript of their July 25 call to defuse questions about his actions.
During that meeting Zelensky was asked by a reporter whether he had felt pressure to investigate the Bidens. Sitting next to Trump, Zelensky hemmed a bit.
“I think you read everything,” he said in at-times awkward English. “So, I think you read text. I — I’m sorry but I don’t want to be involved, to democratic, open elections of U.S.A. No, you heard that we had, I think, good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things, and I think, and you read it, that nobody push it. Push me.”
“In other words,” Trump added, “no pressure.”
In his testimony on Thursday, Holmes offered an excellent summary of why Trump’s paraphrasing of Zelensky was unfair.
“Although the hold on the security assistance may have been lifted, there were still things they wanted that they weren’t getting, including a meeting with the president in the Oval Office,” Holmes said of Ukraine’s concerns. “Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted and they still wanted important things from the president. So I think that continues to this day. I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward.”
Right now, he added, as Zelensky plans a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he needs to be able to present the United States as standing at his back.
The pressure campaign from Trump’s administration that has consumed Zelensky’s administration was generally informal, flowing from a focus on a White House meeting to the halt in aid. But there’s a through-line, identified by Holmes: Ukraine needed to show solidarity with the United States, and it still needs to. This, of course, is also why Ukraine wouldn’t want to contradict Trump, just as it wouldn’t want to make public the stoppage in aid.
During that first meeting of Trump and Zelensky in New York, Zelensky at one point seemed to lash out a little bit, subtly. While we now know how much effort was put on getting that White House meeting, it wasn’t publicly known then — and really was only understood as a chess piece by Zelensky, Trump and their inner circles.
“I want to thank you for invitation to Washington,” Zelensky said to Trump. “You invited me, but I think — I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I think you forgot to tell me the date.”
The two played it off. But the moment was loaded.