None of those questions has anything to do with the point of the impeachment inquiry, which is to consider how President Trump leveraged his position to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations of the Bidens and of a theory Trump had about 2016 election interference. What’s more, the first and third have readily obvious responses. The role of the whistleblower was, by that point, established, the person’s initially reported concerns broadly validated by later testimony. The hiring of Hunter Biden by the Ukrainian energy company Burisma can itself be easily explained: It probably sought influence with the administration of President Barack Obama, though there has been no evidence that his position influenced administration policy.
That second question, more than the other two, has emerged as a central point of focus among defenders of Trump. Over the weekend, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), for example, reiterated his previous claims that there was something to assertions that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. In doing so, he joined Nunes and many others in suggesting, first, that this happened and, second, this is exculpatory for Trump’s behavior.
Given the primacy of this question about what Ukraine did, it’s worth outlining the evidence that Republicans have pointed to during the impeachment hearings and on social media as constituting Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Those allegations center on a January 2017 Politico article by reporters Ken Vogel and David Stern titled “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump backfire.” The prior month, with questions about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election swirling, Vogel and Julia Ioffe had documented allegations made by Russia about Ukrainian officials trying to hurt Trump’s campaign by targeting Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman. Manafort resigned his position in August 2016 after Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and a member of Ukraine’s parliament named Serhiy Leshchenko alleged that Manafort had received millions in under-the-table payments for his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
The efforts that backfired were threefold, according to Vogel and Stern. One involved those allegations about Manafort that led to his firing. Another were several anti-Trump posts on social media from Ukrainian officials. The third was an effort by a Democratic National Committee contractor named Alexandra Chalupa, whose parents were immigrants from Ukraine, to dig up information about Manafort’s work.
The DNC operative. Chalupa was mentioned frequently by Nunes during the impeachment hearings and was identified by Republicans as a witness they would have liked to have interviewed. She told Politico that she had been focused on Manafort before his hiring by Trump’s campaign and that she had spoken with Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Valeriy Chaly, and some embassy staffers about her concerns shortly before Manafort joined Trump’s team. She denied any formal investigatory relationship with the embassy but said, “If I asked a question, they would provide guidance, or if there was someone I needed to follow up with,” though “there were no documents given, nothing like that.” Chalupa and the DNC noted that her role with the party didn’t include this effort; she left her role with the party after the July convention to focus on the research effort.
Before one hearing, Nunes represented Chalupa's interactions in a decidedly pointed manner.
“Alexandra Chalupa is a former operative for the Democratic National Committee who worked with officials of the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in order to smear the Trump campaign in 2016,” he said, conflating a focus on Manafort with an effort to “smear the Trump campaign.”
In the next sentence, he looped her into another aspect of the purported “interference.”
The opinion piece. “She met directly about these matters with then-Ukrainian Ambassador Chaly,” Nunes continued, “who himself wrote an article criticizing Trump during the 2016 campaign.”
That article was published by The Hill on Aug. 4, 2016. It focused on comments made by Trump in the days prior in which he suggested he might recognize Crimea — seized from Ukraine by Russia in 2014 — as part of Russia. (“The people of Crimea,” he said in an interview, “from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”) Chaly’s essay focused on how that willingness to accede to Russia was at odds with existing policy and the platform of the Republican Party.
Several impeachment witnesses were asked about Chaly's essay. Fiona Hill, a former member of Trump's National Security Council, dismissed the Trump criticism as a “peg,” a way of linking an argument defending Ukraine to something that was in the news.
“I would say that it’s probably not the most advisable thing to do for an ambassador because you never know who is going to win,” Hill said — after being asked whether it constituted “election interference.”
The Manafort dirt. In the end, it wasn’t Chalupa’s efforts that doomed Manafort but, instead, the documents presented by Leshchenko. The New York Times had previously reported that Manafort had received more than $12 million in illicit payments from the pro-Russian party for which he worked, but Manafort’s ouster came only after the actual documents were made public by Leshchenko.
Leshchenko told the Financial Times shortly afterward that he believed it was important to “show not only the corruption aspect, but that [Trump] is [a] pro-Russian candidate who can break the geopolitical balance in the world.” Leshchenko also said that most politicians in Ukraine were “on Hillary Clinton’s side” — both quotes that were included in the Vogel-Stern article. They also spoke with Leshchenko, who told them (in January 2016) that he “didn’t care who won the U.S. elections.” (In an opinion essay for The Washington Post, Leshchenko also denied a political motivation.)
“I think that what Mr. Leshchenko and others who were looking into the black ledger were most concerned about was actually not Mr. Manafort,” Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said during her public testimony, “but former president [Viktor] Yanukovych and his political party and the amount of money that they allegedly stole and where it went and so forth.” The “black ledger” is a commonly used term for the released documents.
Aiding the Republican argument was a December 2018 Ukrainian court ruling that determined that Leshchenko and his colleagues had, by releasing the documents detailing the Manafort payments, been involved “in meddling in the electoral process of the United States in 2016.” In July, that determination was thrown out on appeal.
The disparagement. In addition to Chaly’s essay, in which he pegged a defense of Ukraine to Trump’s comments about Crimea, the Vogel-Stern article noted specific anti-Trump comments by other Ukrainian officials. A former prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said on Facebook that Trump “challenged the very values of the free world.” Arsen Avakov, the minister of internal affairs, called Trump a “bigger danger to the U.S. than terrorism” and said his comments on Crimea were the “diagnosis of a dangerous misfit.”
Yovanovitch waved away questions about Avakov. When the Republican counsel noted that he had said “some real nasty things” about Trump, she replied that “sometimes that happens on social media” — a reference to Trump’s attacks on her that morning.
“You know, are you asking me whether it’s appropriate? Probably not,” she added. “But I would say that Minister Avakov has been, as well as others, both in President [Petro] Poroshenko’s administration as well as in the Zelensky administration, has been a good partner to the United States.”
“I would just say that those elements that you’ve recited don’t seem to me to be the Ukrainian — you know, kind of a plan or a plot of the Ukrainian government to work against President Trump or, or anyone else,” she added.
Hill was asked about the officials' comments in her closed-door deposition.
“We found disparaging remarks made by pretty much every world leader and official at different points about the President,” she testified, according to a transcript. “So, you know, this is not surprising but, again you know, and the fact of this was in the course presumably of the campaign.”
In the public hearing, she went further, noting that officials even from allied governments had said “some pretty hurtful things” about Trump — and that she would also have taken offense at them.
“The difference here, however, is that hasn’t had any major impact on his feelings towards those countries,” Hill pointed out. “Not that I have seen. But I’ve heard the president say, and he said it in public so I’m not revealing any kind of executive privilege here, that Ukraine tried to take me down.
“I could list a whole host of ambassadors from allied countries who tweeted out, who had public comments about the president, as well,” she added. “And it did not affect security assistance having meetings with them. If it would [there’d be] a lot of people he wouldn’t have met with.”
Beyond the incidents above, all documented in the Vogel-Stern article, no other alleged “interference” has been documented. Articles pointing back to those same events have been compiled to imply a broader effort, as demonstrated by a social media account associated with Trump's reelection campaign.
Five of the six headlines shown in the above tweet all point to incidents outlined by Vogel and Stern (and include the Vogel-Stern article itself). The exception is the one about “Moscow’s cyber warriors,” which is obviously a report on Russian interference itself that happened to be staged in Ukraine.
It’s important to compare the Ukrainian “interference” outlined by Vogel and Stern with what’s known about Russian interference. As documented by investigators working for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a team of a dozen Russian intelligence officers, working directly on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had carried out hacks targeting Trump’s 2016 opponents. Enormous amounts of material were stolen from the DNC and Clinton’s campaign chairman and released publicly through WikiLeaks. Separately, a group funded by a Russian oligarch tied to Putin was working to heighten political divisiveness on social media and support Trump’s candidacy. Mueller’s team obtained an indictment against another dozen individuals as part of that effort.
As the 2017 Politico article notes, the piecemeal efforts by Ukrainian individuals to potentially influence the 2016 election “were far less concerted or centrally directed” than what the Russian government explicitly engaged in. It’s important to note: Vogel and Stern were writing well before Mueller was appointed or any specific details of the Russian interference effort were documented by federal investigators.
There’s one additional caveat that’s important to mention. In his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump at no point raises specific concerns about a purported effort by Ukraine to interfere in 2016. Trump didn’t express the frustration Hill said she would have found understandable about being disparaged. Instead, he requested an investigation into a specific sub-conspiracy theory about the DNC hacking that has already been robustly debunked.
In other words, the briefest response to Nunes’s second question isn’t the articulation above. It’s to note that what Nunes insists on knowing about isn’t even what Trump was interested in.
Update: On Monday afternoon, Politico reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee, controlled by Republicans, looked into allegations of Ukrainian interference briefly in 2017. The investigation fizzled out.