This is the concluding part of a 2-part series. Click here to read part 1.
I spent the past week-plus sifting through dozens of pages of testimony, reading and listening to post-hearing commentary and tracking almost daily new disclosures about the impeachment case against President Donald Trump. My preliminary verdict: Guilty.
President Trump solicited two bribes – or two parts of one bribe, depending on how one counts – with clear quid pro quos and pressured the Ukrainian president to accede to his demands or be denied badly needed military aid (the Ukraine is in a state of war with Russia) and an invitation to visit the White House.
Withholding military aid in particular, even threatening to do so, for personal advantage constitutes extortion.
The first bribe to be revealed was in the president’s July 25 phone call to Volodymr Zelensky when he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate “Crowdstrike,” the 2016 presidential election and the Bidens. His request for an investigation of the Bidens was effectively a request for the Ukrainians to do opposition research on his behalf for the 2020 US presidential election.
“I’d like you to do us a favor,” Trump said, according to the phone call summary, ”to find out what happened with … Crowdstrike and find the server. They say Ukraine has it … I will ask [Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney advising the president] to call you along with the attorney general [William Barr]. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.”
Trump continued: “The other thing, there is a lot of talk about [Joe] Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.”
Biden, acting on behalf of the Obama administration in late 2015, pressured the Ukraine to remove its prosecutor general, Viktor Shoki. President Trump, as well as congressional Republicans, have alleged that Biden thought Shoki’s removal would derail an investigation of Burisma and, by extension, of Biden’s son Hunter, who was serving on Burisma’s board of directors.
The second bribe was revealed in testimony given by Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU who was trying to negotiate a deal to stop the hold on military aid. Sondland reported that Trump insisted the Ukrainian president make a public announcement that he, Zelensky, was conducting these twin investigations if he wanted a phone call from the US president and, more importantly, a White House visit.
An official White House visit, though largely symbolic, would signal to the Ukrainian electorate, as well as to Russia, that his administration had the support of the US president. Zelensky was elected as a reform candidate in April with a mandate to clean up corruption in Ukraine.
Under questioning from House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, Sondland clarified that the proposal was that Zelinsky “had to announce the two investigations the president wanted. He didn’t actually have to do them as I understood it.”
Again, there is no ambiguity about the president wanting an announcement of investigations including of Burisma, meaning the Bidens. The quid pro quos:
Concerning withholding $391 million in military aid, Sondland, in written testimony before his Nov. 20 public testimony, reported that “After a large meeting [on Sept. 1], I recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said that resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” Andriy Yermak is Zelensky’s personal assistant.
Responding to questioning from the Democratic legal counsel, Sondland was unequivocal. “Was there a quid pro quo? The answer is ‘Yes,’” he said, “as I testified previously with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting.”
He added: “Mr. Giuliani conveyed to Secretary [Rick] Perry, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky, committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani expressed those requests directly to the Ukrainians. And Mr. Giuliani also expressed those requests directly to us [including career diplomats in the US State Department]. We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and the White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements…. Everyone was in the loop.”
Everyone in the loop included US Secretary of State Pompeo, US Energy Department Secretary Perry and the president’s Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who serves concurrently in the president’s Cabinet as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the agency that held up the assistance.
Concerning the first bribe, withholding badly needed military aid in exchange for investigating the 2016 election and Burisma, Fiona Hill, the Russia expert and Vladimir Putin biographer on the National Security Council, gave perhaps the most damning testimony about a July 10 meeting in the West Wing of the White House.
“When I came in,” she recounted, “Ambassador Sondland was in an exchange with Colonel Vindman,” director of European Affairs on the National Security Council. “I came in and asked, ‘What’s going on here? And Sondland said, and again the Ukrainians and Ambassador Volker were there, ‘We have a deal here that there will be a [White House] meeting. I have a deal here with Chief of Staff Mulvaney that there will be a [White House] meeting if the Ukranians open up or announce these investigations into 2016 and Burisma.”
She added: “I immediately cut (the discussion) off because by this point having heard Mr. Giuliani over and over again on the television and all of the issues that he was asserting, it was clear that Burisma was code for the Bidens because Giuliani was laying it out there.”
Hill characterized Sondland’s role in these negotiations as “being involved in a domestic political errand while we [the foreign policy professionals] were being involved in national security foreign policy and those two things had just diverged.”
Multiple witnesses testified that the president had set up a separate channel through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and, if necessary, tie the investigations to military aid.
Schiff to Sondland: And you said that Mr. Giuliani, was acting at the president’s demand, correct?
Sondland:Right. When the president says “Talk to my personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, we followed his direction.”
Did Ukraine know that the administration was withholding congressionally approved aid? This was a point of contention by the president’s congressional defenders, the point being: If Ukraine didn’t know that aid was being withheld, then what’s all the fuss? It turns out that Ukraine did know.
As early as July 3, several weeks before the July 25 phone call, according to testimony by Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, her staff “received an email from the State Department stating that they had heard that the CN is being blocked by the OMB. This apparently refers to the congressional notification the State Department would send for foreign military assistance.”
Note, again, that Fiona Hill’s altercation with Sondland occurred on July 10.
Then on July 25, the same day as President Trump’s phone call to President Zelensky, Cooper reported that her staff showed her “two unclassified emails that they received from the State Department. One, said Cooper, “was received at 2:31pm. That email said that the Ukrainian embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee were asking about security assistance. The second email,” she testified, “was received at 4:25 p.m. That email said that The Hill [a political news website] knows about the FMS [Foreign Military Assistance)]situation to an extent and so does the Ukrainian embassy.”
Was the Office of Management and Budget instructed by the White House to place a hold on Ukraininan aid?
The simple answer: Yes. But this part of the story is still evolving because the president has instructed White House officials not to testify. Like Nixon before him, he is hiding behind “executive privilege.”
That said, the House Intelligence Committee has confirmed through witness testimony that a hold on funding was placed. And the president’s acting chief of staff and OMB director Mulvaney admitted at an Oct. 17 news conference that there was a “quid pro quo.”
So the only piece missing is when the official order from the president came down and on what justification.
Secondly, we know that $391 million in military and security aid was released on Sept. 11, two days after the House Intelligence Committee was notified of the whistleblower report.
What comes next is still not clear – whether the House Judiciary Committee will roll the bribery and extortion charges into the “high crimes and misdemeanors” catchall, whether new evidence will surface, and whether 40%-45% of Americans, Trump’s base, care that he got caught using taxpayer money to solicit a bribe.
This concludes a 2-part series. To read part 1, click here.
Roger Schreffler is a veteran foreign correspondent now living back home in the northeastern United States. He attaches this disclosure to his analysis: “Truth in advertising: I see Trump as a clear and present danger to the republic. I have registered both as a Republican and as a Democrat in the past 20 years. My most recent registration was as a Democrat in a year when I wanted to vote in the Democratic primary (can’t remember which year).“