News that President Donald Trump had been briefed in late August on a whistleblower complaint alleging he pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rival, while withholding security aid to Kiev, raises new questions about conversations he had before the aid was released in September.
Trump was briefed by lawyers from the White House counsel’s office about the whistleblower complaint, The New York Times reported Tuesday, and they explained they were trying to determine whether they were legally required to provide the complaint – alleging he sought help with his political campaign from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – to Congress.
While it’s not clear how much detail Trump received in the briefing, the revelation further undermines Republican defenses of Trump’s actions surrounding the aid, given that his decision to release the aid roughly two weeks later occurred with his knowledge of the complaint.
Andrew Bakaj, one of the whistleblower’s lawyers, told CNN on Wednesday that it would be “appropriate” for White House counsel to be notified of the complaint early on, and as a result he expected that office to brief Trump on the matter since it contained allegations related to his conduct.
Still, the briefing also adds a new layer of intrigue over Trump’s September comments to US Ambassador Gordon Sondland, which have become a key line for the President. “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo,” he told Sondland at the time – and has since repeated to reporters and even at rallies.
It’s just one of several statements that prompt reinspection in light of the new timeline for when Trump learned about the complaint.
‘I want nothing’
Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, testified last week about the phone conversation he had with Trump. Sondland said he believes it was on September 9, after US diplomat Bill Taylor had told Sondland he was alarmed that US aid was being withheld unless Ukraine investigated former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Sondland said he had called Trump and asked him what he wanted from Ukraine. “It was a very short, abrupt conversation. He was not in a good mood. And he just said, ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,’ ” Sondland said.
After the call, Sondland told Taylor in a text message: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
Republicans have argued that Trump’s comments to Sondland are proof there was no quid pro quo. And Trump himself wrote out the statement in black marker to read on the White House lawn last week.
Trump, of course, didn’t want nothing – he asked Zelensky for “a favor” on their July 25 call, to investigate the Bidens. And by the time he talked with Sondland, there was already bipartisan pressure on him to release the aid to Ukraine, as it was only weeks away from expiring at the end of the fiscal year. The White House lifted the hold on the aid two days later, on September 11.
The fact that Trump was aware of the whistleblower complaint adds to questions about what was on his mind when he told Sondland he just wanted Zelensky to “do the right thing.”
‘Who told you that?’
Before Trump spoke to Sondland, the EU ambassador prompted Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, to call Trump over the hold on US aid at the end of August.
Johnson has popped up in numerous episodes in the impeachment inquiry. He was on hand for Zelensky’s May inauguration, and was part of the group that briefed Trump about it afterward, in which several officials have testified Trump told his aides to “talk to Rudy” about Ukraine, meaning his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
In an August 30 call with Sondland, shortly after the freeze was publicly reported, Johnson told the Wall Street Journal that Sondland said the US aid was part of a quid pro quo contingent on investigations. In a letter to House Republicans, he said he remembered Sondland saying Ukraine needed to “demonstrate its serious intention to fight corruption and possibly help determine what involvement operatives in Ukraine might have had during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign” before Trump would release the aid.
Johnson said he then called Trump on August 31 to ask him about the aid being withheld. “He reminded me how thoroughly corrupt Ukraine was and again conveyed his frustration that Europe doesn’t do its fair share of providing military aid,” Johnson said, adding that Trump was “adamant, vehement and angry – there was more than one expletive that I have deleted.”
“No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” Johnson said Trump told him.
It’s not known exactly what day in August Trump was briefed about the whistleblower complaint, but it likely happened before he spoke to Johnson on August 31.
OMB official didn’t know why aid frozen
Trump and his Republican allies have pointed to the President’s argument that European countries weren’t paying their share of Ukraine aid to defend the White House’s hold.
But Mark Sandy, a career Office of Management and Budget official, told House impeachment investigators that the White House didn’t approach OMB about European countries’ aid to Ukraine until September, roughly two months after the hold was put in place and after Trump was told of the whistleblower complaint.
“I recall in early September an email that attributed the hold to the President’s concern about other countries not contributing money to Ukraine,” Sandy said, adding that the email had come sometime before September 9, when he was asked to “puIl together the data” on the contributions.
Sandy had learned about the President’s interest in Ukraine in June, and the hold was placed on the aid in early July. But Sandy said that when he had asked the White House for an explanation for why the aid had been withheld, it was “an open question over the course of late July and pretty much all of August.”
Sandy testified that Rob Blair, a White House aide and adviser to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, had come by his office after the hold had been lifted in September. “We asked him the question about why there had been a hold, and we received a similar verbal response, meaning pertaining to the President’s concern about the contributions of other countries,” Sandy said.
Sandy added that he had not spoken to Blair about the Ukraine hold at any point prior, though he noted Blair had dropped by the office and they were “just catching up with him.”
Explanations after the fact
The most infamous explanation for the withholding of US aid to Ukraine came from Mulvaney, who said on October 17 that there was a quid pro quo involving an investigation into the 2016 election and the Democratic National Committee server – before walking it back hours later.
“Did he also mention to me, in the past, the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney said.
Later that day, he issued a statement to clarify: “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. … The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.”
Other senior officials have more diligently stuck by the line that the decision to withhold aid was unconnected to the push for investigations.
“What we did and how we thought about that was aimed at the strategic interest of the United States of America and the right and appropriate way to ensure that there wasn’t corruption in Ukraine that would divert these resources to an inappropriate place,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week” on October 20.
Pompeo, of course, had listened in to the July 25 call and was copied on a July 19 email from Sondland where the ambassador said he talked to Zelensky about running an investigation.
At the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 – hours before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into the President and Ukraine – Trump acknowledged that he had withheld the US aid to Ukraine. But he insisted it was unrelated to the Bidens, claiming he wanted European nations to pay more.
“As far as withholding funds, those funds were paid. They were fully paid,” Trump said as he arrived at the UN General Assembly. “But my complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine, because they’re not doing it.”
Trump’s comments came a day before the White House released a rough transcript of his July call with Zelensky and the two presidents met at the UN, and two days before the whistleblower complaint was released publicly. Trump was already saying the call was “perfect” before the transcript was released.
But at that point, he was also still publicly calling for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“That call was perfect. It couldn’t have been nicer,” Trump said. “And even the Ukrainian government put out a statement that that was a perfect call. There was no pressure put on them whatsoever. But there was pressure put on with respect to Joe Biden. What Joe Biden did for his son, that’s something they should be looking at.”
CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Olanma Mang, Giulia McDonnell and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.