“Now, we’ve heard, and you will hear more, about that in the days ahead. We know about Mr. Schiff’s version of the transcript. You heard it. You saw it,” he continued. “I want to keep coming back to facts, facts that are really undisputed.”
This is an awfully clever argument, claiming that the House impeachment managers nefariously didn’t pay enough attention to the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which there’s no explicit quid pro quo introduced by the president. It’s a simultaneous effort to lift up that rough transcript (a favorite pastime of the president himself) and to suggest that it is the most important piece of evidence.
It isn’t, as is immediately obvious to any objective observer. The evidence that there was a quid pro quo at play is robust even without Trump mentioning it to Zelensky. In fact, there was no need for Trump to be explicit about the quid pro quo to Zelensky, as multiple witnesses made clear.
The meeting quid pro quo
The most obvious and immediate example of this comes from the apparent effort to leverage a meeting at the White House desired by Zelensky to spur Ukraine to announce investigations that would benefit Trump politically. One was of former vice president Joe Biden, a possible opponent to Trump in the 2020 election. The other focused on allegations that Ukraine was somehow involved in Russia’s 2016 election interference, which, if brought into question, would bolster Trump’s long-standing “witch hunt” dismissal of the investigation of what happened that year.
It’s true that, on the July 25 call, Trump did not tell Zelensky that he wouldn’t get a meeting at the White House unless he announced the investigations. He didn’t have to, because someone else already had.
Here’s what happened that day.
Between 7 and 8 a.m. Trump speaks by phone with Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who was in Ukraine. Sondland was one of the “three amigos” (as he would explain to a Ukrainian television host the following day), part of a three-person team tasked by Trump in May of last year with implementing Ukraine policy in concert with Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
In his first testimony, Sondland would suggest that the conversation with Trump on July 25 was unimportant. That later would change as additional evidence emerged.
7:54 a.m. Sondland sends a text message to Kurt Volker, who was then the special envoy to Ukraine and another of the three amigos. It’s brief: “Call as soon as possible.”
8:36 a.m. Volker, also in Ukraine, sends a text message to Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to Zelensky. The two had eaten lunch together a few hours earlier.
“Heard from White House — assuming President [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” the message reads.
That’s an explicit quid pro quo: Assure Trump about an investigation and get a date for a visit to Washington.
9:03 a.m. Trump and Zelensky get on the phone.
“I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington D.C.,” Zelensky told Trump, according to the rough transcript. “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.”
Finalize the visit. Assure you that there will be an investigation.
A bit later, Trump thanked Zelensky.
“I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you,” he 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.”
9:35 a.m. Shortly after Trump and Zelensky wrap up their call, Volker texts Sondland. (There’s no reason to think that the timing was anything other than a coincidence.)
“Hi Gordon, got your message,” Volker wrote, “had a great lunch with Yermak and then passed your message to him. He will see you tomorrow, think everything in place.”
That “your message” is an essential piece of the puzzle. It suggests that Volker’s reference to the “White House” having articulated the quid pro quo in his first message with Yermak came from Sondland. During his public testimony, Sondland acknowledged that he had probably gotten that message during his call with Trump earlier in the morning.
“If he testified that he got that message from me, then I would concur with that,” Sondland said about the Volker text message during questioning from Daniel Goldman, an attorney working for the Democrats.
“So is it fair to say that this message is what you received from President Trump in that phone call that morning?” Goldman asked.
“Again, if he testified to that — to refresh my own memory — then, yes, likely I would have received that from President Trump,” Sondland replied.
10:15 a.m. Yermak closes the loop with Volker.
“Phone call went well,” he wrote in a text message. “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!”
At another point in his testimony in November, Sondland stated flatly that Giuliani’s efforts “were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Giuliani, Sondland said, “demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations” and that, in so doing, “was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.”
There’s evidence to that effect, too, centered on messages exchanged among Volker, Giuliani and Yermak in early August. But the case was already made on July 25: Sondland passed a message from Trump to Zelensky, via Volker and Yermak setting the table for the quid pro quo on the call itself.
The aid quid pro quo
Even that, though, may have been more pointed than it had to be. Had Zelensky repeatedly asked for a meeting and seen it not come to fruition even as he was being asked repeatedly to announce new investigations, it wouldn’t take much to figure out how to grease the skids.
David Holmes, a political staffer at the embassy in Kyiv, made that point specifically about the stop on military and security aid that was in place from mid-July until Sept. 11.
“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 testified. “We hadn’t been 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?” Goldman asked.
“Correct,” Holmes replied.
“And the hold was still remaining without explanation?” Goldman continued.
“Correct,” Holmes said.
To defenders of the president, that there was neither an explicit articulation of quid pro quo nor a direct link proved between Trump’s halt on the aid and the investigations he sought was robust evidence of his innocence. As the evidence mounted, though, each of those was called into dispute.
That latter point, the lack of any testimony about Trump personally linking the aid to the investigations, was weakened Sunday with reports that former national security adviser John Bolton is accusing Trump of doing specifically that. The accusation, revealed in Bolton’s upcoming book, is that Trump said in August that the aid would be held until the investigations were announced.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) responded on Twitter by noting that there were still multiple meetings between U.S. and Ukrainian officials in which there was no explicit articulation of the need for the investigations before the aid would be released.
7/25: Trump/Zelensky phone call— Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) January 27, 2020
7/26: Volker & Taylor meet Zelensky
8/27: Bolton meets Zelensky
9/1: VP Pence meets Zelensky
9/5: Sens. Johnson, Murphy meet Zelensky
In all 5 meetings: ZERO discussion or evidence of linking aid and political investigations#GiveMeABreak
There’s an important omission there — a Sept. 1 conversation between Sondland and Yermak in which Sondland was explicit about the need to announce the investigations before the aid would be released.
Yermak would later deny that conversation, but, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, it’s worth taking that denial with a grain of salt. For one thing, Tim Morrison of the National Security Council testified that he saw Sondland and Yermak speak and, immediately afterward, was told by Sondland that he had linked the aid to the investigations. That conversation emerged, in fact, only after William Taylor, who was the acting ambassador to Ukraine, revealed that Morrison had told him about Sondland’s conversation with Yermak. (Sondland was forced to amend his testimony to incorporate that detail.)
Yermak was also intimately involved in the explicit effort to draft language announcing investigations in exchange for a White House meeting, even sending a text message to Volker at one point in which he argued for the quo going before the quid.
“I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things which we discussed yesterday,” he said, referring to an announcement including specific mentions of the probes Trump wanted. “But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date. We inform about date of visit and about our expectations and our guarantees for future visit. Let discuss it.”
Even had Sondland not said anything, it’s hard to believe that Yermak wouldn’t assume that the halt in aid was aimed at the same outcome. The effort to release a statement collapsed in mid-August over a dispute about what the announcement would include. On Aug. 28, Politico reported that the aid was on hold; shortly afterward, Yermak texted Volker to ask that they speak.
“When I spoke [to] the Ukrainians about the hold after August 29th, instead of telling them that they needed to do something to get the hold released, I told them the opposite,” Volker testified, “that they should not be alarmed. It was an internal U.S. problem and we were working to get it fixed.”
“I did not know others were conveying a different message to them around the same time,” he said — clearly referring to Sondland’s conversation with Yermak a few days later.
The most robust evidence that Trump didn’t need to explicitly call for a quid pro quo in his July 25 call with Zelensky is that Ukraine was told that a quid pro quo was in play under Trump’s authority, without Trump having to be explicit.
This, of course, is why Sekulow wants to focus obsessively and exclusively on the rough transcript.