President Trump has offered multiple lines of defense against House Democrats’ allegations that he appeared to abuse the power of his office in his dealings with Ukraine’s new government. Some are situational and temporary, such as his argument that the process was illegitimate because it hadn’t been authorized by a vote of the full House (which it now has been). But one that we are likely to hear throughout is the notion that the president himself did not pressure Ukraine inappropriately to investigate his political rival Joe Biden.
And even as new testimony emerged Tuesday from a Trump ally that shores up the allegations of a quid pro quo, Trump’s critics shouldn’t overlook other testimony that appears to put some distance between Trump and the pressure exerted on Ukraine. Amid the blows raining down on the administration, there have been comments that give the president a degree of cover. And, as in the case of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, there are cases when Trump was kept out of potentially damaging situations by the principled actions of his subordinates.
That’s something for viewers to focus on next week, when the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats holds its first public hearings. The proceedings will start with witnesses who have testified in private about the back-channel Ukrainian policy that Trump pursued through his personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and the heat placed on Ukraine to take actions that could influence the U.S. presidential campaign.
I know, some Trump haters insist that the reconstructed notes of Trump’s July 25 call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is proof enough. According to that document, Trump reminded Zelensky how dependent Ukraine is on U.S. aid, then asked for “a favor”: that Ukraine conduct a pair of investigations that could help Trump politically.
At the time, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget had frozen nearly $400 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine. Since the reconstructed transcript was released, a number of current and former administration officials have said that the aid and/or a coveted White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump were put on hold at least in part to pressure Ukraine to announce the two investigations.
It’s also clear that any number of people in the administration believed that the marching orders on Ukraine were coming from Trump, or at least reflected what the president expressly wanted. A good illustration of this is the testimony released Wednesday from William B. Taylor Jr., former special envoy to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, consider the evidence that emerged Tuesday, when Gordon Sondland, Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to the European Union, revised his previous testimony to the three House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry. Sondland said he now recalls a meeting in Poland in September when he told a top Zelensky aide that the U.S. assistance wouldn’t come until Zelensky publicly committed to probing not just corruption in general, but the two topics that mattered most to Trump: Burisma (a Ukrainian energy company where former Vice President Biden’s son Hunter worked while Biden was President Obama’s point man in Ukraine) and a well-debunked conspiracy theory that seeks to blame Ukraine, not Russia, for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
But Sondland also has testified that Trump told him personally that there was no quid pro quo. So why did he tell the Ukrainians that there was one? Because he “presumed” that’s what Trump wanted, Sondland told the committees, based on what he’d previously been told by Giuliani — with whom he’d met at Trump’s direction.
The more evidence that accumulates of Ukrainians being told to investigate the Bidens if they wanted U.S. aid, the greater the chance that Sondland and Giuliani will be portrayed as freelancers pursuing a misbegotten idea of what Trump wanted.
Ambassador Kurt Volker, the former special U.S. representative for Ukraine negotiations, also put some distance between Trump and the alleged quid pro quo. According to the transcript released Tuesday, Volker said, “I don’t recall ever hearing that the president was interested in investigating Burisma.” He became aware of Trump’s interest in Burisma and the Bidens, Volker said, only after the reconstructed notes of the July 25 call was released.
He had known about the reports swirling in the media about the Bidens, however, and he “cautioned the Ukrainians to distinguish between highlighting their own efforts to fight corruption domestically, including investigating Ukrainian individuals, something we support as a matter of U.S. policy, and doing anything that could be seen as impacting U.S. elections, which is in neither the United States’ nor Ukraine’s own interest.” He added, “To the best of my knowledge, no such actions by Ukraine were ever taken, at least in part, I believe, because of the advice I gave them.”
That testimony dovetails with the “no harm, no foul” point Trump’s defenders have made, namely, that the aid to Ukraine was eventually released without Zelensky publicly calling for an investigation of the Bidens or of Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election. (Privately, Zelensky promised Trump during the July 25 call that he would appoint a new top prosecutor who “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”) But then, an attempt to abuse the powers of the office is still a problem, just as any attempted crime would be.
Volker said he heard from Giuliani, not Trump, that the president was concerned about “the possibility of there having been election interference” by Ukrainians in 2016. But he said Trump never withheld a meeting with Zelensky based on the demand for an investigation into the alleged interference. Besides, he said, he always thought it was fine to call on Ukraine to conduct such a probe “because that is just a matter of, you know, we don’t want anybody interfering in our elections.” He added that he didn’t believe Ukraine had interfered, so asking Zelensky to promise to investigate the alleged meddling amounted to “trying to help President Zelensky convey the right message in a phone call to build a relationship with the [Trump] that he needs to build just to have confidence in each other.... to make sure he conveyed a message that would be convincing to the president.”
“Because that’s what the president wanted to hear?” Volker was asked. To which he replied, “Yeah.”
In other words, Volker viewed some of what was going on in the July 25 phone call as puffery. It’s not clear the Ukrainians, who desperately needed U.S. aid to keep Russia-backed rebels at bay, felt the same way, however.