Two top American diplomats tried to strike a deal on behalf of President Donald Trump for Ukraine’s leader to investigate discredited allegations of wrongdoing by Joe Biden and his son in return for improving relations with the U.S., according to documents released by House Democrats late Thursday.
Text messages released by three congressional committees show Kurt Volker, the former envoy for Ukraine, coordinating with the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, to help craft a statement for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in early September.
The statement they devised read, “We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of the problem in the future.” Volker sent that line to Sondland on Aug. 13. Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma, a natural gas company.
“Perfect,” Sondland replied.
While the statement was apparently never made by Zelenskiy, the emails suggest that Ukraine was willing to issue it -- but only after the Trump administration offered a firm date for him to travel to the U.S. for a White House visit. It also shows how Ukrainian officials were wary of being used as tools of a domestic U.S. political fight.
On Friday, Ukraine’s top prosecutor said some important cases opened before he was appointed in late August -- including those relating to the Bidens -- are being audited. He didn’t say how long the review would take or whether any cases may be reopened as a result.
The text messages were released as House Democrats accelerate their impeachment investigation of Trump over his interactions with Ukraine’s president. Volker spent most of Thursday testifying behind closed doors to staffers and lawmakers from the three committees.
A Republican official familiar with the day’s closed-door testimony said that Volker testified that there was no quid pro quo between the Trump administration and Ukraine.
Indeed, the text exchanges don’t explicitly reveal a quid pro quo for freeing up U.S. military aid suspended by Trump in return for a Biden-related investigation. But they suggest that Trump’s diplomatic envoys were helping to carry out his domestic partisan aims with the involvement of Rudy Giuliani in his role as Trump’s personal attorney.
A person familiar with the texts said that they didn’t provide the full context of the exchanges. According to the person, who asked not to be identified discussing private communications, it was actually the Ukrainian government that drafted the original statement, not Volker or Sondland.
Then, it was Giuliani who suggested adding to the statement that Ukraine would promise to investigate the Bidens and whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, the person said. When that version was shared with Ukrainian officials, they refused and the idea of issuing the document was abandoned.
However, Volker begins an Aug. 9 text message to Giuliani with, “Hi Mr. Mayor!”
He goes on, “Had a good chat with Yermak last night. He was pleased with your phone call. Mentioned Z making a statement. Can we all get on the phone to make sure I advise Z correctly as to what he should be saying? Want to make sure we get this done right. Thanks!” Andrei Yermak is a Zelenskiy adviser.
Giuliani responded, “Good idea Kurt. I am on Pacific time.”
The documents also include a message from the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, to Sondland, in which Taylor asks if the U.S. is “now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigation?”
“Call me,” Sondland replies.
Taylor then makes a reference to some sort of “interview,” in which Zelenskiy would apparently say something to unlock assistance. He expresses reservations that by withholding aid, the U.S. would be playing into Russia’s hands.
“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” Taylor wrote. “The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”
In a follow-up message the next day, Taylor said he still thinks it’s “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland fired back with a sharp reply, telling him that Trump isn’t seeking a quid pro quo but wants to test Ukraine’s commitment to reform. He then suggested they stop texting and said Taylor should speak directly to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
Republicans blasted the release of the text messages, saying they lacked adequate context.
“This unilateral and cherry-picked release by the Democrats is a desperate attempt to further their failing impeachment narrative and skew the story, Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said in a tweet. “This information cannot possibly be understood without Volker’s explanations from today’s testimony.”
In their letter to committee colleagues, three House chairmen said they are investigating reports that Vice President Mike Pence may have been made aware of the contents of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy.
A rough summary of that call released last week, they wrote, showed Trump “repeatedly urged the Ukrainian President to launch and investigation of Vice President Joe Biden” when Zelenskiy “mentioned critical U.S. military assistance to counter Russian aggression.”
“The president claims he did nothing wrong. Even more astonishing, he is now openly and publicly asking another foreign power -- China -- to launch its own sham investigation against the Biden’s to further his own political aims,” Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings and Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel wrote. They were referring to Trump comments earlier in the day.
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