Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee would have you believe the Ukraine scandal was just one phone call on July 25, the call that prompted the whistleblower complaint, and despite the inspector general of the intelligence community finding that complaint an “urgent matter of concern,” Republicans do not find anything in the call readout to be a concern. (After all, Republicans accepted Russian assistance in the 2016 election to their benefit, and are more than happy to do so again).
But the crucial piece in understanding the Ukraine scandal is that two months before Volodymyr Zelensky won power – in February 2019 – President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and his two now-indicted henchmen thought they had a deal with Kyiv for political dirt.
Josh Kovensky at Talking Points Memo explains, The Most Pivotal Moment In The Trump Ukraine Scandal Timeline:
But everything changed in a matter of days. Whatever deal the group thought they had struck fell apart with the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky, forcing Trump and Giuliani to launch a new pressure campaign to bully Kyiv anew into helping them politically.
It was then that Giuliani, [his Ukrainian henchmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman], and Trump embarked on a flurry of activity to try to convey to the newly elected Zelensky the need to announce investigations into the Bidens and into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, eventually trying to bring to bear the full might of U.S. foreign policy to serve their partisan political goals.
The fulcrum of the scandal was the April 21 election. It is the key to understanding what came before and to unlocking the sequence of events that followed, culminating in the impeachment inquiry against Trump.
TPM spoke with experts on the area and constructed a timeline of events based off of congressional testimony, revealing how the pressure campaign on Ukraine pivoted around the country’s April election.
Before the Election
The crucial piece in understanding the Ukraine scandal … came as then-President Petro Poroshenko prepared to fight for re-election in two successive rounds of elections: one in March, and a runoff scheduled for April. Poroshenko was facing an uphill battle with declining popularity, and doing Trump a solid could benefit Poroshenko politically at home.
Giuliani had already met with a key Poroshenko official, prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, in New York City in January, and then again in Warsaw in February. Giuliani was accompanied on both trips by Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were later indicted for an alleged campaign finance scheme.
Giuliani reportedly spoke with Trump about “investigations” after the January meeting, where Lutsenko spun Giuliani a tale about abuse of office by Joe Biden and supposed collusion in 2016 between Ukraine and the DNC.
By late February, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Poroshenko was open to a deal pushed by Parnas and Fruman in which the Ukrainian leader would get electoral help via a state visit to the U.S., while he would give Trump a lift by announcing investigations into the Bidens and potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections.
“There was pressure on Poroshenko,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told TPM. “And Lutsenko was clearly trying to arrange a deal.”
In any case, the agreement does not appear to have panned out entirely as planned.
Poroshenko never got a state visit to the U.S.
At the same time, however, Lutsenko did speak with American journalist John Solomon, then writing at The Hill newspaper. On March 20, Solomon began to publish a series of articles in which Lutsenko smeared the U.S. embassy in Kyiv and announced investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 elections.
According to the testimony of George Kent, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Lutsenko was only able to share information with Giuliani after Poroshenko “authorized” him to do so.
It’s not clear if those steps fit within whatever deal was contemplated.
When Poroshenko lost in a landslide to Volodymyr Zelensky on April 21, it set off a mad scramble in Trumpworld to make inroads with the new government. It’s no coincidence that the flurry of activity in early May which has been the focus of investigators comes in the weeks after Zelensky’s win and before his May 20 inauguration.
The available evidence suggests that Trump, through Giuliani, was scrambling to re-up the deal with his new Ukrainian counterpart.
At the time, Zelensky cut a contradictory profile. He was both a political neophyte and a well-connected political operator. A comedian without political experience, Zelensky had run a suave campaign which appealed to Ukrainians frustrated with the failures of the Poroshenko administration, but faced his own criticism for his ties to a notorious oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky, the powerful businessman who owned the TV channel on which Zelensky became famous.
Trump held a phone call with Zelensky hours after his victory was announced, and within days was referencing investigations. The President told Sean Hannity in an April 25 interview about his call with Zelensky that he was interested in reporting around allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections, saying, “I would imagine [Attorney General Bill Barr] would want to see this.”
At the same time, Giuliani and those around him embarked on a burst of activity, all oriented toward building contacts with the new leader.
Parnas and Fruman flew to Israel for a meeting with Kolomoisky in late April.
The pair reportedly approached Kolomoisky under the pretense of proposing a gas deal. But at the meeting, Kolomoisky and his attorneys have said, Parnas and Fruman switched tack, asking the oligarch for access to Zelensky, while offering to guarantee access to U.S. officials for a fee.
Kolomoisky says that he kicked the pair out of his office, telling them that he couldn’t give them access.
In early May, Giuliani himself began to plan a trip to Kyiv. He told the New York Times on May 9 that he would go to encourage Kyiv to investigate Hunter Biden, as well as allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections.
But that trip went nowhere. Giuliani was forced to cancel the venture amid a massive public outcry.
In the end, the most significant consequence of the group’s efforts was that the one American official who had built connections in Zelensky’s government was removed from Ukraine. U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had assembled direct channels into Zelensky’s government, according to a former American diplomat familiar with the situation. She was removed from her post in Kyiv on May 7 after lobbying by Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman.
The former diplomat noted that Giuliani and his group appeared to be caught off guard by Poroshenko’s defeat.
“That’s a sign of incompetence,” the former diplomat noted. “All the polls were showing that Zelensky would win.”
Inauguration and Beyond
As Zelensky’s May 20 swearing-in approached, the White House prepared to dispatch a delegation to Kyiv for the new president’s inauguration.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide, testified to House impeachment investigators that the delegation was planned on short notice, leaving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to attend with Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
After Zelensky’s inauguration, Trump told the returning delegation during a May 23 meeting at the White House that they needed to speak with Giuliani for policy on Ukraine and for handling Zelensky.
Trump, according to testimony, said he was worried about “corruption” [code] in Ukraine and indicated that Giuliani – and his push for “investigations” into the matter – was necessary.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said in his amended testimony.
But from there, the self-appointed “three amigos” – Sondland, Volker, and Perry – launched an ultimately futile quest to get Zelensky to announce investigations. Trump continued to push as well, withholding more than $250 million in security assistance from mid-July in a bid to extort Zelensky into announcing investigations into Biden and the 2016 elections.
That culminated in Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president, in which he praised Lutsenko while telling Zelensky to “do us a favor” and open politically beneficial probes.
The informal channel of U.S. policy towards Ukraine continued over the summer, before sputtering out as an unnamed tipster blew the whistle on the whole endeavor.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told TPM that the “informal channel” had to have been created because all other options had failed.
“The only reason why there was an unofficial channel is because it wasn’t about the U.S. interest, it was about the personal political interest of the President,” Pifer said.
The other talking point that Republicans and their propagandists at Trump TV keep pushing is that President Zelenski never made the public announcement of investigations that Trump asked for, and the Javelin missiles and security aid were eventually released, so “no quid pro quo.” Where’s the harm? That was just “Trump being Trump” (normalizing his corruption and criminal behavior).
But President Zelenski did agree to make the public announcement of investigations that Trump asked for, and was spared from doing so with only hours to spare because of the publication of news about the whistleblower complaint. It was the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that forced the Trump administration’s hand to release the Javelin missiles and security aid only because the Trump administration got caught shaking down the Ukrainian government.
The New York Times reported, Ukraine’s Zelensky Bowed to Trump’s Demands, Until Luck Spared Him:
It was early September, and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, faced an agonizing choice: whether to capitulate to President Trump’s demands to publicly announce investigations against his political enemies or to refuse, and lose desperately needed military aid.
Only Mr. Trump could unlock the aid, he had been told by two United States senators, and time was running out. If the money, nearly $400 million, were not unblocked by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, it could be lost in its entirety.
In a flurry of WhatsApp messages and meetings in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, over several days, senior aides debated the point. Avoiding partisan politics in the United States had always been the first rule of Ukrainian foreign policy, but the military aid was vital to the war against Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives since it began in 2014.
By then, however, Mr. Zelensky’s staffers were already conceding to what seemed to be the inevitable, and making plans for a public announcement about the investigations. It was a fateful decision for a fledgling president elected on an anticorruption platform that included putting an end to politically motivated investigations.
[I]nterviews in Kiev with government officials, lawmakers and others close to the Zelensky government have revealed new details of how high-level Ukrainian officials ultimately decided to acquiesce to President Trump’s request — and, by a stroke of luck, never had to follow through.
Aides were arguing in favor of “bowing to what was demanded,” said Petro Burkovskiy, a senior fellow at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation who has close ties to the Ukrainian government. They were willing to do so, he said, despite the risk of losing bipartisan support in the United States by appearing to assist Mr. Trump’s re-election bid. “The cost was high.”
As President Trump’s principal envoy to Ukraine, Gordon Sondland, admitted in congressional testimony, the Trump administration had withheld the military aid to pressure Mr. Zelensky to make a public statement on the two investigations: one into whether former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had pressed for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a natural gas company where his son served on the board; the other into unproven accusations that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in the 2016 election to promote the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
In the July 25 phone call that provoked a whistle-blower complaint and touched off the impeachment inquiry, Mr. Zelensky offered private assurances that his government would look into those matters.
But a public statement that raised doubts about Russian meddling and Mr. Biden, whom the president regarded as the greatest threat to his re-election, would be far more useful politically to Mr. Trump. Not only would it smear Mr. Biden, it could also appear to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian electoral interference by pinning some blame on Ukraine.
UPDATE: Trump is pushing the conspiracy theory of his pal Vladimir Putin. Democrats Say Trump’s Ukraine Conspiracy Theories Parallel Putin’s. During Friday’s questioning of Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Daniel Goldman, a top Democratic aide on the House Intelligence Committee, cited a February 2, 2017, joint press conference held by Putin and the far-right leader of Hungary, Viktor Orban. In it, Putin pushed the view that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 US election.
“We all know, during the presidential campaign in the United States, the Ukrainian government adopted a unilateral position in favor of one candidate,” Putin said. “More than that, certain oligarchs, certainly with the approval of the political leadership, funded this candidate, or female candidate, to be more precise.”
Asked about Putin’s statement, Yovanovitch said that amid intense concern in the United States about Russian meddling, it was “classic” for Putin, a former KGB officer, “to try to throw off the scent and create an alternative narrative that maybe might get picked up and get some credence.”
Conspiracy theories about Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election have been seized upon by Trump defenders and by Trump himself.
The Washington Post reported that, Surprise: Trump allegedly got his Ukraine conspiracy theory from the Russia-tied criminals on his campaign.
Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theory appears to have been propagated by two top aides who were central figures in the special counsel’s investigation: Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. The conspiracy theory also was apparently fertilized by Manafort associate Konstantin Kilimnik.
The assertion that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence agencies, or is a Russian intelligence operative, was a central part of the theory in the Mueller Report.
The three of them appear to have played a role in convincing Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite what both Mueller and the U.S. intelligence community have concluded, and that it was actually Ukraine.
Now the entire Republican Party and its conservative media propaganda machine are all-in on this Russian intelligence conspiracy theory as well. They are doing the Kremlin’s work for them.
Back to the Times’ Ukraine reporting:
A tug-of-war ensued between a senior aide to Mr. Zelensky, Andriy Yermak, and another of Mr. Trump’s envoys to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, over the wording of the proposed public statement. Mr. Volker went so far as to draft a statement for Mr. Zelensky that mentioned both investigations.
Mr. Yermak pushed back, suggesting language that mentioned investigations but in general terms, so as not to antagonize the Democrats. Late in the negotiations, the American diplomats consented to dropping mention of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
Even as Mr. Yermak negotiated the wording in August, the stakes were clear. While rumors had been swirling for months about a possible hold on military aid, by early August high-level Ukrainian officials had confirmed the freeze.
The trade soon became explicit. They were approached in September by Mr. Sondland, a major donor to Mr. Trump’s inauguration who had been appointed ambassador to the European Union despite having no diplomatic experience. At that point, he explained in blunt terms to Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Yermak, there was little chance the aid would be forthcoming until they made the public statement on the investigations.
“I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Mr. Sondland said in sworn testimony released by the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry.
Mr. Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to speak on CNN, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, testified.
But aides to Mr. Zelensky, on high alert to avoid any move that might irritate Mr. Trump, wondered if that was such a good idea, in that Mr. Trump habitually called CNN “fake news” in his Twitter posts.
They also uncovered a post from Mr. Trump attacking Fox News as “not working for us anymore!”
Nearly all Mr. Zelensky’s top advisers favored his making the public statement, said one of the officials who participated in the debate. United States military aid, they agreed, as well as diplomatic backing for impending peace talks to end the war outweighed the risks of appearing to take sides in American politics.
There was a lone holdout — Alexander Danyliuk, the director of the national security council. Mr. Danyliuk, who resigned in late September, told the Ukrainian news media that the Zelensky administration would now need to “correct the mistakes” in relations with the United States and “in particular their own.”
Finally bending to the White House request, Mr. Zelensky’s staff planned for him to make an announcement in an interview on Sept. 13 with Fareed Zakaria, the host of a weekly news show on CNN.
Note: Fareed Zakaria addressed the details in this op-ed in the Washington Post on Friday.
Zelensky planned to announce Trump’s ‘quo’ on my show. Here’s what happened. Zakaria provides a useful timeline:
On Sept. 5, The Post published an editorial revealing that it had been “reliably told” that Trump was trying to force Zelensky to investigate Biden. On Sept. 9, four days before my visit to Kyiv, House Democrats initiated an investigation into the allegations. That same day, the intelligence community inspector general notified the House and Senate intelligence committees of the whistleblower complaint. The next day, Sept. 10, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) sent a letter to acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire demanding that he turn over the complaint. That is also the day Trump announced he had fired John Bolton as national security adviser. And then, on Sept. 11, aid to Ukraine was unfrozen with no conditions.
A few days later, on Sept. 18 and 19, The Post broke the story wide open. The interview was called off.
The security aid was released only because the Trump administration got caught shaking down the Ukrainian government.
Though plans were in motion to give the White House the public statement it had sought, events in Washington saved the Ukrainian government from any final decision and eliminated the need to make the statement.
Word of the freeze in military aid had leaked out, and Congress was in an uproar. Two days before the scheduled interview, the Trump administration released the assistance and Mr. Zelensky’s office quickly canceled the interview.
Since then, Trump administration officials including the White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, have tried to argue that the security assistance could not have been conditioned on the public statement, because the aid was released without it.
That stance has crumbled as a succession of United States diplomats, capped by Mr. Sondland on Tuesday, have testified in the impeachment inquiry that the freeze on aid was part of a quid pro quo designed to coerce Mr. Zelensky into making the public statement.
* * *
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister until a change of government on Aug. 29, said in an interview, “From the contacts that took place, it’s difficult to say if they led, or did not lead, to concrete deals.” In public, Mr. Zelensky has insisted he would never order a politicized prosecution.
Either way, Mr. Klimkin said, Ukrainian officials were at the least keenly aware of the stakes — a trade of United States assistance for political favors, even as Mr. Trump’s supporters have insisted they should not have viewed relations in this light.
“We are not idiots, or at least not all of us,” Mr. Klimkin said.
The other insane talking point coming from Republicans and Trump TV is that extortion is not in the constitution and neither is attempted bribery (as grounds for impeachment), and in any case, Trump never received the payoff he asked for. Laura Ingraham: “Attempted bribery isn’t in the Constitution”.
Bribery is expressly stated as grounds for impeachment in the Constitution, and it is the solicitation of a bribe that is the offense, one does not have to actually receive anything in return. The Founders Would Have Called Out Trump for Bribery:
The bribery charge sticks to Trump whether one looks to federal law or to the understanding of bribery in the era of the Framers.
Aaron Blake reports on current law at The Washington Post:
The federal bribery statute says someone has committed bribery if he or she is a “public official” who “directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally … in return for … being influenced in the performance of any official act.” The argument here would be that Trump sought politically helpful investigations from Ukraine in exchange for releasing military aid and/or granting a much-sought Oval Office meeting for its president, Volodymyr Zelensky. To date, six officials have said there was some kind of quid pro quo there.
As for bribery as the Framers understood it, a trio of attorneys writing at Lawfare quote 18th- and early-19th-century legal treatises to show that the constitutional understanding was even broader than what federal law now prohibits––put simply, bribery was “understood as an officeholder’s abuse of the power of an office to obtain a private benefit rather than for the public interest.”
They go on to explain:
The understanding of bribery at the Founding maps perfectly onto Trump’s conduct in his call with Zelensky. As noted above, Trump made clear to Zelensky that he was asking him for a “favor”—not a favor to benefit the United States as a whole or the public interest, but a favor that would accrue to the personal benefit of Trump by harming his political rival. Trump’s request that Zelensky work with his private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, underscores that Trump was seeking a private benefit. And Trump was not seeking this “undue reward” (to quote “Russell on Crimes” and the Delaware statute) as a mere aside unrelated to the president’s official role. Rather, he did so in the course of an official diplomatic conversation with a head-of-state.
In fact, Rudy Giuliani has since stated, “The investigation I conducted concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption, was done solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges, that kept changing as one after another were disproven,” characterizing his own actions as something not done to benefit the American people, but done “solely” to benefit Trump.
The Lawfare authors continue:
The transcript makes clear that Trump tied together the request for a personal favor with the delivery of military aid. But even if he had not made such a direct connection, this sort of corrupt use of public office to obtain a private benefit fits squarely within the definition of bribery when the Constitution was written.
Moreover, given the specifics of the allegations against President Trump, it is noteworthy that nothing worried the Founders more than the possibility that the president would be corrupted by a foreign power. As Gouverneur Morris said about impeachment during the Constitutional Convention, “[The President] may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard [against] it by displacing him.”
In reference to other Trump scandals, a debate about what constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” [abuse of power] may be necessary. But on the Ukraine matter, that debate doesn’t matter. What matters is whether Trump is guilty of “Bribery” as it is used in the Constitution. It would appear that he is.
The Hobbs Act, i.e., Extortion 18 U.S.C. § 1951, makes it a crime to obtain property from another with that person’s consent under the color of official right in a manner that affects interstate commerce. The standard for proving extortion under the Hobbs Act is very similar to the standard for proving bribery: “The Government need only show that a public official has obtained a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts.” Extortion can be charged as a course of conduct, and the standard is heightened where the payment is made in the form of campaign contributions, which can include in-kind contributions of subjective value like opposition research or “dirt” on one’s political opponents, despite what Robert Mueller thinks about assigning it a value.
The one federal crime Congress is not currently discussing but should be is the federal racketeering statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq. (RICO), which makes it a crime “to conduct or participate” in the affairs of an enterprise “through a pattern of racketeering activity.” 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c). The statute also criminalizes a conspiracy to engage in such conduct. Id. § 1962(d). The RICO conspiracy provision does not require proof of an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.
The statute defines the term “racketeering activity” to include the predicate crimes of extortion, bribery, and mail and wire fraud. 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1).
There is an obvious conspiracy to extort or bribe Ukraine involving Donald Trump, his “fixer” Rudy Giuliani and his Ukrainian henchmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (and Giuliani continues to consult Paul Manafort), and those carrying out the conspiracy, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney (who confessed in public to a quid pro quo), Ambassador Gordon Sondland (who has testified there was a quid pro quo), and possibly other government officials including Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ambassador Kurt Volker (two of the “three amigos”), and Vice President Mike Pence, who delivered Trump’s “messages” to President Zelensky.
Donald Trump has always acted like a third-rate mafia boss, it is only fitting to use the federal RICO statute to prosecute this crime boss and his criminal enterprise.