That’s not the case, as made clear in the article below, published Thursday morning.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the question of whether President Trump is removed from office comes down to whether he leveraged his office for trying to spur Ukraine to launch an investigation that would benefit him personally. That in itself is a deeply contentious assertion, central to a debate that’s been near the surface of the past several days of wrangling at the Senate impeachment trial. But, again, let’s just say that this is the red line.
That line has been crossed, demonstrably — and Trump’s legal team doesn’t seem to contest it.
We have been told repeatedly that the only trustworthy representation of what Trump wanted comes from the rough transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Testimony from others about Trump’s state of mind, we’re informed, is less reliable.
What does that rough transcript show? According to Trump attorney Michael Purpura, the transcript reveals Trump’s concerns about two things.
“First, the president rightly had real concerns about whether European and other countries were contributing their fair share to ensuring Ukraine’s security,” he said. “Secondly, corruption.”
Purpura pointed out that Trump mentioned early in the call that the United States does more for Ukraine than other countries like Germany. Of course, there are two ways to read that: either as Trump expressing frustration that other countries weren’t doing more — or as Trump establishing that Zelensky and Ukraine must be in debt to the United States. It’s immediately after he argues that the United States does so much for Ukraine and Zelensky agrees that Trump then says, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
Purpura described that transition.
“President Trump then turned to corruption in the form of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking a foreign leader to help get to the bottom of all forms of foreign interference in an American presidential election.”
That’s not what Trump asked. What Trump asked was this:
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike ... I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”
He later added: “As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
The “whole nonsense” Zelensky saw the prior day was a reference to testimony on Capitol Hill from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a looming risk for Trump for most of the first few years of his presidency. Trump repeatedly described the Russia probe as a cloud and embraced and disseminated conspiracy theories about its origins. Among those theories was the one he mentioned to Zelensky specifically: that Ukraine was in possession of a server or other evidence that would suggest that the entire Russia probe was predicated on false information.
Even that is a generous assessment of what Trump asked. But it gets at the intent: Trump wanted something that might reinforce the case he’d been making about the Mueller investigation, something to which he could point as additional vindication. His theory about a server is utterly nonsensical as well as pointless, given the robust evidence that the server at issue — actually a reference to the Democratic National Committee’s network — was accessed by Russia.
At no point during the three days it laid out its case did Trump’s impeachment team lawyers mention the server at the center of Trump’s request, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported. Instead, they focus on that last comment, that “a lot of it started with Ukraine” as evidence that Trump was broadly focused on 2016 election interference that stemmed from Ukraine. Nothing wrong with that, Purpura tells us.
It’s worth noting, though, that there isn’t any evidence that there was any significant interference effort by Ukraine, nor has there ever been. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said so explicitly last month. Attorney General William P. Barr announced an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe in May of last year, but there’s no evidence beyond some disapproving comments from Ukrainian officials that the country itself tried to influence the 2016 election against Trump.
What’s worth noting is that Trump didn’t suggest to Zelensky that he should simply work with Barr on this investigation into alleged 2016 interference. Instead, he asked Zelensky to work both with Barr and with his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General,” Trump said of Giuliani. “Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.”
Zelensky had just referred to Giuliani, saying that his assistant had spoken with Trump’s attorney and that he was “hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine, and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.” Two months prior, Giuliani had drafted a letter to Zelensky asking for just such a meeting in his “capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.”
That Giuliani would be looped into this investigation into purported interference makes sense only in the context of Trump lining up resources for his own benefit.
During its defense presentation, Trump’s impeachment lawyers were also quick to point out that there is no explicit quid pro quo during the call with Zelensky himself. At no point does Trump obviously make clear that what Zelensky desires — military aid and a White House meeting bolstering his position — is contingent on the investigations Trump was advocating.
The evidence for that is obvious elsewhere.
First, there are those infamous comments from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney during a news conference last October. Trump’s legal team spent a lot of energy on Wednesday redirecting Mulvaney’s claims to a statement he released after the news conference in which he strenuously denied that Trump leveraged foreign aid to get an investigation into interference. Mulvaney’s claims during the news conference, we’re told, were “garbled and/or misunderstood.”
What Mulvaney said was that Trump’s concerns about Ukraine were corruption and the extent to which other countries were offering aid.
“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mulvaney said. “Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.” He repeated the claim a bit later. When it was noted that this constituted a quid pro quo, Mulvaney shrugged.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney replied. He later added: “I have news for everybody: Get over it.”
But, again, Trump’s team disputes this, based on Mulvaney’s careful, server-centric renunciation of his comments. (“There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server,” his statement later that day read. “This was made explicitly obvious by the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server. There was never any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”) As it turns out, it’s irrelevant to establishing an obvious quid pro quo centered on this 2016 investigation.
Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that the requests made of him by Giuliani to get the investigations “were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.” Sondland would later determine that aid was being withheld to pressure Ukraine (and convey that to a top Zelensky aide named Andriy Yermak), but he was explicit in asserting that Giuliani’s efforts were an explicit this-for-that.
Even that though, is irrelevant to establishing a quid pro quo. Why? Because of a chain of interactions the day of the call in which the quid pro quo was conveyed to Ukraine directly.
Trump and Sondland spoke before the call. Sondland sent a message to then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, one of the “three amigos” tasked by Trump in May 2019 to work on Ukraine. Volker then reached out to Yermak with the following message:
“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”
Investigation for visit to Washington. This for that. Quid pro quo.
Volker made clear that this message came from Sondland when he later texted Sondland to say that he “got your message” and that, after a lunch with Yermak, he “passed your message to him.” Sondland, during testimony, admitted that the message was probably conveyed to him by Trump in that call.
On the call itself, Zelensky drew precisely that link.
“I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington DC,” Zelensky told Trump, according to the rough transcript. “On the other hand, I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.”
A minor point is that Zelensky specified his desire for a meeting in Washington, undercutting Trump’s impeachment team’s insistence that a meeting on the sidelines of a United Nations event in September met Zelensky’s needs. The bigger point is that Zelensky mentions the quo — visit to Washington — in the context of the quid, the investigation. He even links them with “on the other hand”: that; on the other hand, this.
Trump wanted an investigation into the 2016 election that would bolster his political narrative about it being a setup. His chief of staff argued that aid to Ukraine would be held until the investigation was launched, but even beside that, a Trump aide central to his Ukraine outreach had informed a Zelensky aide that a meeting was contingent on the investigation being launched. Zelensky met that benchmark — but never got his meeting.
Trump’s lawyers left the above chain of events almost entirely uncontested. They did at one point note closed-door testimony from Volker in which he denied the existence of a link between a meeting and the desired investigations — but they didn’t note that, a bit later, Volker said the meeting depended on “President Zelensky being convincing that he is going to get to the bottom of what happened.” He reiterated that point during his public testimony as well.
Perhaps this doesn’t meet the necessary standard for removal, which is certainly a fair position to hold. It’s hard to argue, though, that there was no quid pro quo leveraging official resources — that meeting — aimed at generating a politically useful investigation.