Decoding the explosive Ukraine text messages
Messages between a pair of U.S. diplomats show just how deeply officials were engaged in Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
Encrypted text messages released by House Democrats late Thursday night reveal that a plan to get Ukraine’s newly elected president to investigate President Donald Trump’s political rivals was hatched with the active involvement of U.S. diplomats, who worked for months to try to carry out the president's demands.
The extraordinary texts were exchanged between then-Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, and Bill Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and longtime Foreign Service officer who has served as the chargé d'affaires for the country since June.
They were released following Volker’s nearly 10-hour deposition with committee staff on Thursday. The texts reveal that before Trump’s fateful July 25 call with Volodymr Zelensky, in which he urged the Ukrainian leader to investigate Joe Biden and the Democrats, Volker told a Zelensky aide that a White House summit between the two presidents would depend on Ukraine “getting to the bottom of what happened” in 2016.
The texts offer further evidence that the White House wanted to make the U.S. relationship with Zelensky conditional on Ukraine investigating his political rival—the subject of House Democrats’ deepening impeachment inquiry, and the biggest threat to Trump’s presidency so far. On Friday, Trump denied any quid pro quo, but the texts suggest otherwise.
Below, we annotated the behind-the-scenes negotiations led by Trump’s top Ukraine diplomats that have now become the latest exhibit in the House’s investigation:
Six days before Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, Volker introduced Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to a top Zelensky aide named Andrey Yermak. By that point, Giuliani had been loudly advertising his belief, for months, that Ukraine should investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter for alleged corruption. Volker reportedly testified during his congressional deposition that he had tried to convince Giuliani that the Biden information he was receiving was unreliable. But Volker established the Giuliani-Yermak link anyway, and facilitated it through phone calls and, ultimately, an in-person meeting.
That same day, Volker circles back with the other diplomats and offers the first indication that he understands that a good relationship between Trump and Zelensky is predicated on “an investigation,” as Giuliani had been demanding. “Personnel issues” likely refers to who Zelensky will choose as the country’s top prosecutor—an important issue for Trump and Giuliani, who want Ukraine to reopen an investigation into the Bidens and examine any role Ukraine may have played to help Democrats in the 2016 election.
Taylor, a career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006-2009 and was appointed interim chargé d'affaires for Ukraine in June 2019—following then-ambassador Masha Yovanovitch’s sudden recall from Kiev—establishes himself here as the skeptic of the bunch, Notably, he puts in writing for the first time the possibility that Ukraine is being used as an instrument for “reelection politics.” Sondland’s response suggests that the foundation of a Trump-Zelensky “relationship” is Ukraine’s commitment to pursuing the investigations Trump and Giuliani want.
Volker here further advances the Giuliani-Yermak relationship, despite it being abundantly clear what Giuliani wanted: The former New York mayor tweeted, just one month prior, that Zelensky should investigate Biden and alleged Ukrainian meddling in 2016. Volker, Giuliani and Sondland are now pushing for a Trump-Zelensky call in lieu of an in-person meeting, presumably to establish the terms of their relationship as Sondland mentioned the day before. Fiona Hill, who served as Trump’s top adviser on Russia, Ukraine, and the E.U. until June, had been urging the White House to delay a phone call or meeting between Trump and Zelensky as much as possible, according to a former NSC official. But her replacement, Tim Morrison, appears to have been more receptive to the idea.
This is a key exchange that Democrats are likely to present as further evidence of a direct quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky. Volker, just hours before Trump and Zelensky speak on the phone, spells it out in black-and-white in a text message to Zelensky’s top aide: The Ukrainian president must convince Trump he will investigate alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election before any Trump-Zelensky summit in Washington is set up.
Note: Trump’s belief that Ukraine meddled in 2016 revolves around a baseless conspiracy theory that the Russians did not hack the Democratic National Committee and that the Ukrainians have been hiding the DNC server that proves it. (The DNC sent images of its servers to the FBI, and they remain at DNC headquarters.) Giuliani has also alleged that Ukraine helped Democrats dig up dirt on Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was a top adviser to the exiled pro-Russian president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. But during his trial, Manafort’s former deputy Rick Gates testified that his boss had indeed received millions in secret payments from various Ukrainian oligarchs on Yanukovych’s behalf.
By saying the call went well, Yermak seems to be saying that Zelensky successfully convinced Trump that Ukraine will investigate Biden and the alleged Ukrainian interference. “In addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the president of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly,” Zelensky told Trump, according to a rough transcript of the call. Trump had asked for the investigation as “a favor” after reminding Zelensky how much the U.S. supports Kiev both financially and politically.
After Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son with the help of Attorney General Bill Barr, Zelensky reassured Trump he would select a new prosecutor general who is “100% my person, my candidate,” and he or she “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”
A brief explanation: Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of directors of an oil and gas company, Burisma, that was investigated briefly by the chief Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in 2015. Giuliani and Trump have alleged that Biden, as vice president, urged Ukraine to fire Shokin because he was investigating Hunter—but the probe had been dormant for a year by the time Biden, and the bulk of the international community, asked Ukraine to fire Shokin because he was seen as lax on corruption.
This is an important exchange, in which Sondland reports that Tim Morrison, Fiona Hill’s replacement, has agreed to set up a Trump-Zelensky meeting—largely because Trump “really wants the deliverable,” presumably of Ukraine’s promise to launch the requested investigations.
By this point, the Ukrainians were extremely eager to arrange a White House summit because of the legitimacy such a meeting would confer on the new president and the symbolic importance of showing Russia, Kiev’s chief adversary, that the U.S. fully supports the new Ukrainian government. Sondland is indicating that dangling a date for the summit might spur the Ukrainians to take action sooner—but the U.S. also wants an assurance of some kind beforehand in the form of a “draft statement” that was first disclosed by the New York Times on Thursday night. The statement, which Zelensky does not appear to have ultimately given, would have committed Ukraine to conduct the investigations requested by Trump.
Here, again, Volker brings Giuliani into the mix for advice on drafting a public statement delivered by Zelensky that would commit him to investigating the Bidens and the alleged Ukrainian interference in 2016. Volker is apparently trying to orchestrate the exact set of circumstances under which Trump would agree to work with Zelensky—on the one hand, doing his job to facilitate a better U.S.-Ukraine relationship, but on the other, allowing that relationship to be predicated on Trump’s personal political desires. Notably, this seems to confirm the whistleblower’s description in their complaint that Volker and Sondland "provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to 'navigate' the demands that the president made."
Yermak gets assertive and plays a little hardball here, asking Volker to lock in a date for a Trump-Zelensky summit before Zelensky agrees to release a statement committing to any investigations. Volker tries to negotiate and offers a middle ground: show us the draft statement and we’ll use that as leverage with the president to set a date. Yermak then explicitly spells out the plan for the first time: After a date for a summit is set, Zelensky will hold a press conference announcing the visit to Washington and committing to an examination of both Burisma and election meddling as part of a “reboot” of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. Volker, rather than express trepidation about this plan, says it “sounds great.”
Two days later, on August 12, a whistleblower filed a formal complaint with the Intelligence Community Inspector General alleging that “the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals.”
Here, Volker sends Sondland some of the language he would like to see in the statement released by Zelensky—note: it includes specific references to both Burisma, the company that included Hunter Biden on its board of directors, and “interference” in the 2016 election,and a promise not only to examine the episodes, but to actually “initiate and complete” a full investigation. Sondland agrees and suggests they send it directly to Yermak, presumably to relay to Zelensky.
Volker reiterates that the “clear message” being sent to Zelensky is that the diplomats want “an unequivocal draft” that specifically mentions investigating both 2016 election interference and Burisma—again, the company associated with Hunter Biden.
Trouble ahead for Volker as it becomes public from POLITICO reporting that Trump ordered his national security team to put a hold on military assistance aid to Ukraine. Up until this point, the Ukrainians evidently believed that the only thing being held over their head by the Trump administration, in exchange for a commitment to probing Burisma and 2016 interference, was a summit with Trump at the White House. As it turns out, financial assistance that Ukraine has used to fend off Russian aggression in the east was also frozen while the talks were ongoing.
One day after POLITICO revealed that military assistance aid was being withheld, Trump canceled his trip to Poland where he was expected to meet with Zelensky, citing a need to remain in the U.S. to monitor an impending hurricane. One day later, Taylor, who has already established himself as skeptical of the way the Zelensky-Trump relationship is being handled, asks Sondland a pointed question following revelations that the aid has been frozen: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland then suggests moving the conversation offline.
This is a particularly striking exchange—Taylor seems to threaten to quit if Zelenky does the requested press interview and commits to the investigations, but Trump still holds up the security assistance. He also says the Russians will “love it” if that happens, indicating how important the aid is both symbolically and practically for Ukraine to fend off Russian aggression.
One day later, Taylor is still trying to convey how important the assistance aid is to the Ukrainians, and how the hold placed on the aid has “already” shaken their faith in the U.S. This further corroborates the idea that the Ukrainians didn’t know this freeze on aid was even on the table. Sondland then indicates that the best way to restore the relationship and get Trump to release the security assistance is for Zelensky to go ahead with the interview—again likely referring to a press interview in which he commits to the investigations.
Taylor then responds with a comment that’s been seen by Democrats as an elucidation of the exact quid-pro-quo disclosed by the whistleblower: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responds five hours later that there is no quid pro quo, and suggests “we stop the back and forth by text.”
Two days later, on September 11, Trump released the hold on Pentagon and State Department aid. On Wednesday, the State Department approved a $39 million sale of additional Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, which Zelensky had specifically requested in his July 25 call with Trump. On Friday, Ukraine's prosecutor general, Ruslan Riaboshapka, announced that his office would conduct an audit of cases closed by his predecessors, of which there are 15 that deal with wealthy businessmen connected to Burisma. Notably, though, Riaboshapka did not commit to opening new investigations into Burisma itself or election interference directly.