Twenty-nine times in the past three months, President Trump has used Twitter to implore the country to read the rough transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Even when the rough transcript was first released, that assertion was dubious. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about the context in which the conversation took place, context that makes clear that Ukraine was well aware of what Trump sought and what it was expected to do. That context became more obvious over the weekend with the release of emails showing discussion of the hold on aid to Ukraine immediately after Trump and Zelensky hung up the phone.
What the rough transcript says
Even within the transcript, there are hints that Zelensky understands both what’s expected of him and that he’s agreeing to the terms.
The most obvious indication of that came toward the end of the call.
“I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington D.C.,” Zelensky said. “On the other hand, I also wanted [to] ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.”
On the one hand, Zelensky is thanking Trump for prior invitations to come to the White House. On the other, he assures Trump that the investigations he seeks will move forward. There’s a link between the two that’s implied in that phrasing, and, as we’ll see, it mirrors a link that had been presented to Zelensky as essential.
Trump, of course, makes his own connections between what Zelensky wants and what he himself hopes to obtain.
“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense,” Zelensky said to Trump. “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
Javelins are antitank weapons that were provided to Ukraine earlier in Trump’s administration to support the country in its struggle against Russia. They are the most direct example of how U.S. military aid has been deployed to Ukraine.
Instead of acquiescing to Zelensky’s request — or even acknowledging it — Trump segues.
“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump said. The favor? Launch an investigation into his bizarre conspiracy theory about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.
Trump has recently tried to argue that the “us” in that phrasing is a reference to the United States broadly and, therefore, that he wasn’t asking for something of benefit to himself. The nature of the request and his tendency to refer to himself in the first-person plural, though, make that claim hard to accept.
In short, there are two apparent points of leverage buried in the transcript: the meeting in Washington and Ukraine’s desire for additional military aid.
What was happening July 25: The aid
Ukraine would have had every reason to believe that more aid was coming. On June 18, the Department of Defense announced publicly that it was sending $250 million appropriated by Congress to Ukraine.
When Trump saw news coverage of that announcement, though, he balked. The next day, he asked Mike Duffey, a political appointee in the Office of Management and Budget, to learn more about why the aid was being disbursed. On July 3, a notification to Congress from OMB that the aid was being released was put on hold. On July 12, the aid was frozen, a decision that was announced within the administration broadly July 18.
We’ve known for some time that the formal order to hold the aid came late in the day July 25, sometime around 6:45 p.m. Emails released to the Center for Public Integrity and published over the weekend show additional conversations that same day centered on the hold in aid.
About 11 a.m. — some 90 minutes after Trump and Zelensky got off the phone — Duffey emailed staffers at the Defense Department.
“Based on guidance I have received and in light of the Administration’s plan to review assistance to Ukraine,” Duffey wrote, “including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, please hold off on any additional DoD obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process.” Later, he added, that “[g]iven the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction.”
On July 2, the day before the congressional notification was due to go out, Duffey had been informed that $7 million in aid had already been sent to Ukraine according to another email obtained by CPI. Here, he’s instructing Defense not to obligate any further money, given the hold.
Mark Sandy, an OMB official who testified as part of the impeachment inquiry, was carbon-copied on the email. Sandy testified that he had been informed of the halt to aid via email from the office of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on July 12 — but hadn’t received it until after he returned from vacation. On July 19, after he was back, Duffey informed him about the hold.
Sandy was concerned about legal obligations OMB had to get the money out the door by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, so he scheduled a meeting with counsel on July 22 — three days before the Trump-Zelensky call. To ensure that Defense could meet that obligation, it was determined that the department should be able to move forward with its work preparing the disbursement of the money, as Duffey noted later in the 11:04 a.m. email.
That allowance was memorialized in a footnote to the document released at 6 p.m. that same day. Emails obtained by CPI show that Sandy sent a draft of the footnote to the Defense Department at 1:13 p.m., about two hours after Duffey’s email.
It’s a tantalizing timeline but, ultimately, not necessarily one that relates directly to the call. Sandy testified that his conversations with counsel and Defense stretched from July 22 to July 25. That the footnote was finalized that day, though, is a reminder that the hold was already in the works as Zelensky was mentioning aid to Trump in their call.
Evidence emerged that same day that at least some members of the Ukrainian government were aware of the hold. In public testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Laura Cooper revealed that her staff had received two emails that same afternoon hinting that Ukraine was already aware of the hold.
At 2:31 p.m., Cooper testified, someone on her staff received an email saying that “the Ukrainian embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee are asking about security assistance.” At 4:25, another message, indicating that “the Hill knows about the FMF situation to an extent and so does the Ukrainian embassy.”
“FMF” stands for “foreign military financing,” security aid disbursed through the State Department.
Ukraine wouldn’t want the aid halt to be known publicly, as Catherine Croft, a Ukraine specialist at the State Department, testified.
“I think that if this were public in Ukraine it would be seen as a reversal of our policy,” she said, “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.”
No evidence has emerged to suggest that Zelensky was aware of the halt in aid during his call with Trump. The earliest indicator that Kyiv knew (as opposed to the Embassy in Washington) was several days later.
Trump knew, of course. And when Zelensky raised the prospect of aid, Trump replied with the request for a favor.
What was happening July 25: The meeting
As we’ve documented previously, Zelensky was almost certainly aware both that his meeting with the White House was dependent on his launching the investigations Trump sought and what he had to do to get them.
In late June, Zelensky was told that a meeting depended on the investigations during a phone call with then-Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, according to impeachment testimony offered by David Holmes. On July 10, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland twice told Ukrainian officials that the meeting and the probes were linked.
The morning of the call, Trump and Sondland spoke again. In that same hour, Sondland tried calling Volker and, not connecting with him, asked that he call as soon as possible. Shortly thereafter, Volker texted a senior Zelensky aide named Andriy Yermak, again making clear the connection between the probes and the meeting.
“Heard from White House — assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Volker wrote.
Volker later texted Sondland.
“Hi Gordon, got your message,” he wrote, “had a great lunch with Yermak and then passed your message to him.”
After the call, Yermak texted Volker.
“Phone call went well,” he wrote. “President Trump proposed to choose any convenient dates. President Zelenskiy chose 20, 21, 22 September for the White House Visit. Thank you again for your help!”
True to Volker’s texts, Trump didn’t extend that invitation for a visit in his call with Zelensky until the Ukrainian president had agreed to launch the investigations. It was only after both had been agreed to that Trump said,: “Whenever you would like to come to the White House feel free to call. Give us a date, and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.”
That also came only after Zelensky was explicit in linking the visit with his promise to conduct the probes.