Over the course of about 30 hours of testimony, Nunes’s skepticism only strengthened. His last comment, offered after the last two witnesses testified, was similarly dismissive of Trump’s guilt.
“What you’re seeing in this room over the past two weeks is a show trial,” said Nunes (R-Calif.), “the planned result of three years of political operations and dirty tricks, campaigns waged against this president. And like any good show trial, the verdict was decided before the trial ever began.”
On Monday, The Washington Post obtained a 123-page document drafted by Nunes and other senior House Republicans that offers a rebuttal to the expected report from the Democratic majority. The thrust of the document is that Trump’s interactions with Ukraine were aboveboard and understandable, an outgrowth of his demonstrated commitments and concerns that suggested no ulterior motives — and, indeed, that no such motives were shown. It is, in essence, a formalized, more tonally neutral version of the argument that Nunes offered repeatedly from the dais — and one that is often at odds with the testimony that Nunes and his colleagues heard.
The document delineates 10 findings to exonerate Trump. They are listed in bold below, followed by our analysis of how robust an argument can be made for them.
“President Trump has a deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption.”
On May 23, a small group of officials met with Trump at the White House after having attended Zelensky’s inauguration several days prior. The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified that the group hoped to convey to Trump its confidence that Zelensky would tackle endemic corruption in the country.
“Unfortunately,” Sondland told the committee, “President Trump was skeptical. He expressed concerns that the Ukrainian government was not serious about reform, and he even mentioned that Ukraine tried to take him down in the last election.”
By this point, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani had already publicly and repeatedly criticized alleged Ukrainian corruption, focused on two issues that quickly became central to Trump’s own beliefs. The first was the “tried to take him down” claim, a vague reference to the unfounded idea that Ukraine had tried to interfere in the 2016 election against Trump. The other was Giuliani’s belief that former vice president Joe Biden had demanded the firing of a prosecutor investigating a company, Burisma Holdings, for which Biden’s son Hunter worked. The primary source for Giuliani’s belief? The fired prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was targeted by Biden and others within the Obama administration and internationally for failing to act on corruption.
The Republican report notes that Giuliani was probably a source of Trump’s skepticism.
As we’ve reported, if Trump had a “deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism” of corruption in Ukraine, he never mentioned it before the emergence of his interactions with Zelensky in September. He talked about corruption all the time — in the context of Democrats and the media. Trump has never indicated a real interest in combating international corruption as president.
We have documentation of three times when Trump and Zelensky spoke directly: The April 21 call after Zelensky won the election, the July 25 call mentioned above and a Sept. 25 public press availability with the two presidents in New York.
In none of those conversations did Trump address corruption in any context except wanting an investigation of the Bidens specifically.
“President Trump has a long-held skepticism of U.S. foreign assistance and believes that Europe should pay its fair share for mutual defense.”
It is true that Trump has frequently complained about foreign aid and that he has at times ordered that aid be reduced or halted. It’s similarly true that he has advocated that Europe contribute more to NATO, though that’s generally an apparent misunderstanding of the benchmark requirement of NATO members, which focuses on defense spending as a function of GDP and not actual contributions to the organization.
What’s important to remember in this case, though, is that there was no explanation communicated within the administration for the stoppage of aid to Ukraine. Trump was apparently alerted to the aid after the Defense Department publicly announced military assistance in late June (according to Mark Sandy of the Office of Management and Budget). By July 3, multiple administration officials were aware that a hold had been placed on the aid, a halt communicated more broadly on July 18. Ukraine was aware of the halt as early as July 25 — the day of the Trump-Zelensky call.
More importantly: If the aid was halted by Trump simply because he didn’t like foreign aid, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t then used to pressure Ukraine.
“President Trump’s concerns about Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board are valid. The Obama State Department noted concerns about Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma in 2015 and 2016.”
There is little dispute that Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board as his father served as vice president was potentially problematic.
However, this isn’t what Trump expressed. In the July 25 call, he described his desire for an investigation as follows:
“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
This is not a “concern about Hunter Biden’s role.” This is Trump lifting up the allegation made by Shokin (and rebutted by numerous other officials) that he was fired because Joe Biden acted inappropriately. There is no question raised by Trump about Hunter Biden and no investigation of Hunter Biden requested. The focus is only on Joe Biden, a potential 2020 opponent of Trump’s.
“There is indisputable evidence that senior Ukrainian government officials opposed President Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 election and did so publicly. It has been publicly reported that a Democratic National Committee operative worked with Ukrainian officials, including the Ukrainian Embassy, to dig up dirt on then-candidate Trump.”
These claims are extraneous to the issue at hand, which focuses on Trump’s own actions. They are, instead, an attempt to rationalize what Trump did, just as the above claims about Hunter Biden are meant to offer an argument for why Trump might have wanted an investigation of the former vice president’s son.
In this case, though, the evidence for the claims themselves is even less defensible. We reported on this at length on Monday, articulating the claims above and assessing the evidence behind them. In short, two or three senior officials disparaged Trump on social media, something that former Trump National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified was common among officials of numerous countries, including close U.S. allies. The “operative” who worked to “dig up dirt” was, in fact, a DNC consultant in charge of outreach who investigated the Trump campaign chairman’s political work in Ukraine on the side. It was reportedly an effort to see whether Paul Manafort’s hands were dirty, not Trump’s — and Manafort’s hands turned out to be demonstrably dirty, leading to his resignation from the campaign.
Comparing this to Russia’s 2016 interference is ridiculous. Politico reported Monday afternoon that Senate Republicans who looked at the question agreed.
“The evidence does not establish that President Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Burisma Holdings, Vice President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, or Ukrainian influence in the 2016 election for the purpose of benefiting him in the 2020 election.”
The evidence — the rough transcript of the July 25 call — clearly demonstrates that Trump pressured Ukraine to launch two investigations, one about Joe Biden’s targeting of Shokin and one focused on a false theory that Ukraine was somehow involved in inaccurately blaming Russia for culpability in hacking the DNC in 2016. Others in the administration went further, pushing for a broader 2016 probe or of Burisma itself.
The question of pressure itself is well established. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a member of the NSC, noted the inherent imbalance between the United States and Ukraine that underlines any request from the American president. David Holmes, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, outlined how Ukraine felt — and still feels — pressure to comply with Trump’s requests.
Were the requests meant to benefit Trump in the 2020 election? That is harder to evaluate, in part because it depends on understanding his motivation.
We can focus on the specific requests being made: to probe Joe Biden in particular and to cast doubt on a central component of Russia’s 2016 interference (the DNC hacking). Were Ukraine to announce investigations that might have those results, the political benefit to Trump would be tangible, but the effects on Trump’s purported actual concerns — corruption and 2016 interference by Ukraine — negligible. Republicans have inserted Trump’s specific requests into a broader, more nebulous context precisely so that they can dismiss criticism of the requests as having been politically motivated. Here, they’re saying that the contexts are apolitical, though, of course, the actual requests weren’t.
“The evidence does not establish that President Trump withheld a meeting with President Zelensky for the purpose of pressuring Ukraine to investigate Burisma Holdings, Vice President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, or Ukrainian influence in the 2016 election.”
The evidence shows quite clearly that Sondland demanded investigations from Ukraine before approving a Trump-Zelensky meeting in Washington; he said as much. He also testified that he did so in compliance with Giuliani’s wishes — after being told by Trump that he and his colleagues should work with Giuliani on Ukraine in that May 23 meeting.
More specifically, there’s ample documentary evidence and testimony to suggest that Trump specifically requested that Ukraine agree to investigations before a meeting would move forward, including a chain of communications from the White House to an adviser to a senior Zelensky aide right before the July 25 call in which the aide was instructed that a meeting depended on new investigations. On the call, Trump didn’t invite Zelensky to the White House until after the investigations were agreed to.
In short, there’s little doubt that this was precisely the quid pro quo at stake.
“The evidence does not support that President Trump withheld U.S. security assistance to Ukraine for the purpose of pressuring Ukraine to investigate Burisma Holdings, Vice President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, or Ukrainian influence in the 2016 election.”
Note the phrasing here: a lack of evidence that Trump withheld aid for the purpose of pressuring Ukraine. As established above, that may be the case — but it also doesn’t preclude Trump from having understood that the stoppage in aid put pressure on Ukraine to comply with his wishes. There was no rationale given for stopping the aid, leading Sondland to assume that the halt was linked to the desire for the investigations (since the White House meeting was explicitly predicated on the same thing). In his testimony, Holmes argued that Ukraine would have come to the same conclusion.
The aid was released only after questions had already emerged about whether it was stopped to pressure Ukraine to launch new probes that were politically useful to Trump. It was released only after congressional Democrats announced an investigation of Giuliani’s efforts and why the aid was stopped in the first place.
When Sondland told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that the aid was halted to force the investigations, Johnson raised the question with Trump. Trump insisted that there was no link — but that he needed to know what had happened in 2016.
“The evidence does not support that President Trump orchestrated a shadow foreign policy apparatus for the purpose of pressuring Ukraine to investigate Burisma Holdings, Vice President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, or Ukrainian influence in the 2016 election.”
During her testimony, Hill described Sondland’s efforts and how they contrasted with the formal diplomatic process.
“I was upset with him that he wasn’t fully telling us about all of the meetings that he was having,” she testified. “And he said to me: ‘But I’m briefing the president, I’m briefing Chief of Staff [Mick] Mulvaney, I’m briefing Secretary [Mike] Pompeo, and I’ve talked to Ambassador [John] Bolton. Who else do I have to deal with?’ ”
“And the point is, we have a robust interagency process that deals with Ukraine,” she continued. “It includes Mr. Holmes. It includes Ambassador [Bill] Taylor as the chargé in Ukraine. It includes a whole load of other people. But it struck me when yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland’s emails, and who was on these emails, and he said … ‘these people need to know,’ that he was absolutely right.”
“Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national security foreign policy,” she said. “And those two things had just diverged. So he was correct.”
Put simply, Hill and others in the formal diplomatic channel saw Sondland’s efforts as distinct from that effort. Sondland saw his job as effecting Ukraine policy in accordance with Giuliani’s focus, at Trump’s request — and that included explicitly leveraging a White House meeting for the desired investigations.
That’s not reconcilable with the presentation made in the Republican “finding.”
“The evidence does not support that President Trump covered up the substance of his telephone conversation with President Zelensky by restricting access to the call summary.”
One of the allegations made in the original whistleblower complaint was that the White House tried to prevent people from learning about Trump’s call with Zelensky by moving the rough transcript to a more secure storage system.
While multiple witnesses indicated that they didn’t see that move as necessarily nefarious (including Vindman), the rationale for moving it was, according to former NSC staffer Tim Morrison, to prevent it from leaking.
The Republicans are unequivocally correct on one point: The order to move it didn’t come from Trump but from an NSC attorney.
“President Trump’s assertion of longstanding claims of executive privilege is a legitimate response to an unfair, abusive, and partisan process, and does not constitute obstruction of a legitimate impeachment inquiry.”
This will almost certainly be something to which the Democratic majority responds directly. It’s worth noting, though, that the broad invocation of executive privilege by Trump predated the impeachment inquiry and its process by several months.