The first problem is that a United Nations meeting isn’t a White House meeting. An even bigger problem is that Zelensky himself — whose denials of pressure by Trump have been hailed by the Trump team — has said as much. At that very same U.N. meeting the White House suggests had satisfied Trump’s promise, Zelensky made it abundantly clear that it did not.
“I want to thank you for invitation to Washington,” Zelensky said on Sept. 25, more than five months after the White House’s first invitation. He added, only half-jokingly: “You invited me, but I think — I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I think you forgot to tell me the date.”
The subtext is clear: This isn’t what I was promised; I was promised a White House meeting. It suggested he recognized the leverage that was being employed.
And when it comes to leveraging withheld meetings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, laid out a compelling re-rebuttal to the White House’s claims later Wednesday.
On the Senate floor, Schiff walked through the early timeline of the pressure campaign in Ukraine, pinpointing Vice President Pence’s canceled trip to Zelensky’s inauguration in May as a turning point.
Combining witness testimony, evidence and new allegations from Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, Schiff wove a highly plausible case that the leveraging of Ukraine extended to an audience with the White House’s No. 2 official, too. He indicated the cancellation of Pence’s trip was both punitive and a moment of reckoning.
Schiff’s case centered on Giuliani’s behind-the-scenes work in Ukraine. He argued that Giuliani’s successful efforts to remove U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch were intended as a signal to Ukrainian leaders that he held power and that they should do his bidding.
“So, we heard in March about the effort to get rid of [Yovanovitch], and it succeeded,” Schiff said. “And guess what message that sent to the Ukrainians? About the power the president’s lawyer has. The Ukrainians were watching this whole saga. They were hearing his interviews. They were seeing the smears that he was putting out, and this attorney for the president, working hand-in-hand with these corrupt Ukrainians, was able to get a new ambassador yanked out of her job. Proof positive: You want a window to this president? You want entree to this president? You want to make things happen with this president? You go through his lawyer.”
Schiff then succinctly summarized the timeline, which we’ll do in more detail below. He pointed to the lack of progress on Giuliani’s requests by the incoming Ukrainian administration, despite Giuliani having established his heft.
On May 9, Giuliani announced he would be going to Ukraine to push for investigations to help his client personally.
On May 11, Giuliani canceled that trip amid a backlash.
Hours later on the same day, text messages show Parnas, Giuliani’s associate, introducing himself to top Zelensky aide Serhiy Shefir as “mayor Rudy Giuliani’s friend” and arranging a meeting for the following day.
On May 12, according to Parnas, he told Shefir the U.S.-Ukraine relationship “would sour” unless Ukraine pursued Giuliani’s requested investigations. He said he told Shefir the investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden was the most important one, and that without it, “Pence would not show up” to Zelensky’s inauguration.
But according to Parnas, the meeting was tense. And text messages show Shefir not responding to Parnas’s follow-ups. Eventually, on the evening of May 12, Parnas said he called Giuliani and told him it was a “no-go.”
The next day, May 13, word got around that Pence’s trip had been canceled, according to the testimony of Pence aide Jennifer Williams.
Schiff summarized it thusly:
“April: Zelensky has this huge victory in the presidential election. He gets a congratulatory call from the president. The president assigns Vice President Pence to go to the inauguration,” Schiff said. “May: Giuliani is rebuffed by Zelensky, cancels the trip to Ukraine, the one where he wanted to go, remember, meddle, in the investigation.”
Schiff added: “May: Trump disinvites Pence to the inauguration. Pence is going, Giuliani is rebuffed, Pence ain’t going. That’s May. Instead, May 23rd, we have this meeting at the White House and there’s a new — a new party in town: the ‘three amigos.’ They’re going to be handling the Ukraine portfolio. And they’re told, work with Rudy, work with Rudy.”
It’s important to note that, when The Post detailed this timeline and Parnas’s new claims last week, a senior administration official distanced Pence from the behind-the-scenes machinations:
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal knowledge, said that Pence and his team had no awareness of the meeting between Parnas and Shefir, nor was the vice president’s office aware of any conversation between Giuliani and Trump immediately before Trump’s directive to Pence that he skip Zelensky’s inauguration.The official would not share what reason Trump gave Pence for canceling his trip, citing the White House’s long-standing policy to not comment on private conversations between the president and the vice president.
Translation: Pence doesn’t own whatever happened; he was a bystander.
Looming over all of this, of course, is Parnas’s credibility as a witness. He’s under indictment, and the Trump team has cast doubt on his allegations without delving into specifics.
But what he says fits neatly and plausibly with everything we know about this episode. And the documentation he has provided shows him setting up a meeting with Shefir and not getting his desired responses the day before Pence’s staff learned that his trip was canceled. That sure points in the direction of the White House using that cancellation to send a message. Whether that’s ultimately 100 percent proven or not, it provides a very distinct counterpoint to the White House’s claims that meetings weren’t withheld as leverage — and, most implausibly, that the meetings weren’t even withheld.