When the New York Times reported last May that Giuliani planned to travel to Ukraine, the president’s lawyer was explicit about what he was seeking. His goal was to encourage Zelensky to investigate alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and allegations centered on former vice president Joe Biden — the two investigations that Trump himself promoted in his call with Zelensky on July 25. Reporting has repeatedly suggested that neither investigation is rooted in demonstrated evidence.
"There’s nothing illegal about it,” Giuliani said to the Times, although he noted that “somebody could say it’s improper.”
“I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop,” he continued. “And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
To facilitate his travel, Giuliani drafted a letter to be given to Zelensky. It was included in documents turned over to the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month by his former associate Lev Parnas.
That letter, bearing Giuliani’s signature, is dated May 10, the day after Giuliani spoke to the Times.
“I am private counsel to President Donald J. Trump,” it begins. “Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen, not as President of the United States.” It goes on congratulate Zelensky on winning the presidency and then to make “a more specific request.”
“In my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent, I request a meeting with you,” it reads, suggesting a meeting on May 13 or 14. By May 11, though, Giuliani canceled his trip in the face of public pressure.
The Times’s new report is based on a draft of Bolton’s upcoming book and suggests that, in the same time frame, Trump asked Bolton to intercede on Giuliani’s behalf.
“President Trump directed John R. Bolton, then his national security adviser, to help with his pressure campaign to extract damaging information on Democrats from Ukrainian officials, according to an unpublished manuscript by Mr. Bolton,” Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt report. “Mr. Trump gave the instruction, Mr. Bolton wrote, during an Oval Office conversation in early May that included the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, who is now leading the president’s impeachment defense.”
Giuliani denied the report to the Times; Trump denied it to CNN after the report came out.
Bolton didn’t make the call. Had he done so, however, it would have been one of the earliest examples of Trump leveraging his authority to pressure Ukraine to aid his own political goals, undermining Biden (by then a declared candidate) and the origins of the investigation into Russian interference. In late May, Trump tasked a group of officials to similarly work with Giuliani on Ukraine. That group included Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, both of whom repeatedly indicated to Ukrainian officials that the investigations Trump sought were necessary conditions for things desired by Zelensky.
By early May, Trump was already aware of one thing Zelensky wanted: a high-profile U.S. official at his inauguration later that month. In the first call between the two on April 21, the day Zelensky won his election, the Ukrainian repeatedly pressed Trump to come to his inauguration. Trump demurred, but for a period afterward Vice President Pence was slated to attend.
According to Parnas, Pence’s attendance collapsed after Parnas met with a Zelensky aide named Serhiy Shefir in Kyiv on May 12. Parnas claims that he told Shefir that an investigation of Biden was necessary for Pence to attend the inauguration. When Shefir later stopped answering his text messages, Parnas told Giuliani that it was a “no-go.”
On May 13, the day after that meeting, Pence adviser Jennifer Williams was informed by Mulvaney’s office that Pence would not be attending the inauguration, according to her testimony in the impeachment inquiry. On Thursday it was reported that Williams was leaving Pence’s office.
The precise date of Trump’s reported request that Bolton call Zelensky to facilitate a meeting with Giuliani isn’t clear. If it occurred in early May, however, it happened while all of these elements were in the mix, including Giuliani’s travel to Ukraine and Pence’s trip to the inauguration. Trump has largely remained at a distance from these events, even denying in an interview earlier this month that he knew about the letter in which Giuliani indicated that he had Trump’s “knowledge and consent” in seeking a Zelensky meeting.
“I don’t know anything about the letter,” Trump said, "but certainly Rudy is one of the great crime-fighters in the history of our country. I didn’t know about the specific letter, but if he wrote a letter it wouldn’t have been a big deal.”
The timing of the Times’s new report is significant. Later Friday, the Senate was expected to hold a vote on allowing witnesses in the president’s impeachment trial, including Bolton and, potentially, Mulvaney. On Friday morning, that vote seemed likely to fail, meaning that Bolton would not be interrogated by the Senate about the recent revelations from his book — or anything else that has yet come to light.