On September 24, 2019, Speaker Pelosi unilaterally announced that the House of Representatives would initiate an inquiry into impeaching President Donald J. Trump concerning the President’s telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25. Democrats allege that President Trump “jeopardized U.S. national security by pressuring Ukraine to initiate politically-motivated investigations that could interfere in U.S. domestic politics .”2 The evidence, however, does not support this allegation.
This is true but misleading. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House committees already conducting oversight would conduct their review under the umbrella of an impeachment inquiry. That formalized the process, but Republicans have complained there was not at the time a vote in the House, although that is not required in the Constitution. Pelosi announced the inquiry also in part because the administration had been seeking to keep both the August whistleblower complaint and the transcript of the call in July between Trump and Zelensky secret. Both were subsequently released. Pelosi’s allegations against Trump were actually much more broad. She said in a brief televised address that the President’s actions were a “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
In the 49 days since Speaker Pelosi’s announcement, Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has been leading this inquiry from his Capitol basement bunker.
The secure room used by Schiff’s House Permanent Committee on Intelligence is indeed underground, and so are his committee’s offices. He has controlled information emerging from that secure room, which was at one point crashed by Republicans — despite the fact that Republican members have been in hearings the whole time. Schiff recently began releasing transcripts of depositions and will this week conduct public hearings. Some portions of the transcripts released by Schiff’s committee have, however, included redactions.
The fact-finding is all unclassified, so the closed-door process is purely for information control. This arrangement has allowed Chairman Schiff-who has already publicly fabricated evidence and misled Americans about his interactions with the anonymous3 whistleblower – to selectively leak cherry-picked information to help paint misleading public narratives while, at the same time, placing a gag order on Republican Members present.
Controlling information is a key element of any investigation. US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland had his memory jogged by the testimony of other witnesses. Starting this week, the committee will conduct public hearings with some of the same witnesses.
Speaker Pelosi promised the “impeachment inquiry” would “treat the President with fairness.”4 Chairman Schiff has broken this promise. In the course of the inquiry to date, Chairman Schiff has denied fundamental fairness and minority rights. He directed witnesses called by the Democrats not to answer Republican questions. He withheld deposition transcripts from Republican members. He broke with precedent and offered no due process protections for the President.
The attack on process is Republicans’ main line of defense on the President’s behalf. However, an impeachment proceeding is not the same as a criminal trial, and Trump is not technically owed a protection of “due process” in an impeachment proceeding. But it’s not a good look for Democrats to have kept attorneys for Trump out of these initial depositions — though even that is complicated by the fact that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is a key figure in the events under investigation.
Republicans in the closed hearings did ask questions essentially on Trump’s behalf and will also do so at the public hearings. Democrats want to view this initial investigation like grand jury proceeding. Republicans want to view it like a trial. But if Democrats in the House impeach Trump, he will have a trial — in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
As Chairman Schiff now moves his inquiry from his basement bunker to public hearings, this memorandum updates Republican Members about the key points of evidence learned to date in the Democrats’ “impeachment inquiry.” The body of evidence to date does not support the Democrat allegation that President Trump pressured Ukraine to conduct investigations into the President’s political rivals for his political benefit in the 2020 election. The body of evidence to date does not support the Democrat allegations that President Trump covered up misconduct or obstructed justice.
This is a key, and very carefully worded, sentence. Trump clearly asked Ukraine to conduct investigations, including into Biden, his leading 2020 rival — and the focus of Giuliani’s activities over the months leading up to the call. The political benefit is obvious but implied.
Democrats will allege, however, that President Trump abused his authority by leveraging a face-to-face meeting with President Zelensky and U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to force Ukraine to conduct two “political” investigations: one into the role of Vice President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma, and the other into allegations of Ukrainian interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
This is actually a succinct and accurate translation of the allegations. Reminder: A lot of this will be Republicans and Democrats drawing different conclusions from the same facts.
Four key pieces of evidence are fatal to the Democrats’ allegations. Stripping away the hyperbole and hysteria, these indisputable pieces of evidence show that there was no “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as required by the U.S. Constitution.
These are indeed the crimes for which impeachment is proper, as spelled out in Article II, Section 4. There’s been a lot of debate about what exactly constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Some experts suggest it is simply violating the public trust. A lot of Democrats have taken to arguing that Trump might be guilty of bribery, an impeachable offense, for keeping a hold on military aid already approved by Congress in exchange for the promise of investigations.
These facts are:
These are highly subjective arguments.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney subsequently acknowledged the aid was held up to pressure for investigations.
Trump brings up Hunter Biden and Joe Biden repeatedly and also repeatedly pushes to have Attorney General William Barr meet with the Ukrainians. Immediately after Zelensky talks about wanting a Javelin missile system, Trump asks for the favor of the investigation. That sure reads like pressure and conditionality in the call transcript.
Zelensky did say publicly there was no pressure, but he has also said he really does not want to get involved in US politics. Zelensky also didn’t say there was no pressure applied, just that “no one can put pressure on me.” There is a lot of reporting, however, about the fact that Zelensky aides and US diplomats have said that Zelensky felt pressure. Plus, Ukraine still needs US support in its standoff with Russia.
This last point is true. The aid flowed without an investigation. But it occurred after US diplomat Bill Taylor was alleging internally the situation looked inappropriate and after a bipartisan uproar on Capitol Hill. And we also know that it all started coming to a head just as Zelensky was prepared to announce the investigations in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN.
The body of evidence shows instead that President Trump holds a deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine due to its history of pervasive corruption. The President has also been vocal about his skepticism of U.S. foreign aid and the need for European allies to shoulder more of the financial burden for regional defense.
Both of these things are completely true.
Public reporting shows how senior Ukrainian officials interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in favor of Secretary Clinton and in opposition to then-candidate Trump- including some officials who President Zelensky retained in his government. Seen in this light, any reluctance on the President’s part to meet with President Zelensky or to provide taxpayer-funded assistance to Ukraine is entirely reasonable.
This is the subject of much debate and almost zero evidence. There are two things at play. First, a Ukrainian court did rule that the release of information in 2016 about years-old payments made to then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort by the toppled Russia-backed Ukrainian government amounted to meddling. But an appeals court overruled that decision. (Manafort is now inmate #35207-016 at the federal penitentiary in Loretto, Pennsylvania, after being convicted on fraud and other charges relating to his Ukraine work.)
There’s also the issue of whether it was Ukrainian hackers that targeted the DNC in 2016. But the entire US intelligence committee has fingered Russia for that, although Trump clearly still seems to suspect Ukrainians. And Manafort was pushing the idea it was Ukrainians back in 2016.
Democrats want to impeach President Trump because unelected and anonymous bureaucrats disagreed with the President’s decisions and were discomforted by his telephone conversation with President Zelensky. The Democrat impeachment narrative flips our system of government on its head. The federal bureaucracy works for the President. The President works for the American people. And President Trump is doing what Americans elected him to do.
If it were bureaucrats impeaching Trump, this would be true. But the investigation is being conducted by elected members of Congress. Rather than flipping the system of government on its head, impeachment follows exactly what the framers of the Constitution envisioned.
To appropriately understand the events in question-and most importantly, assess the President’s state of mind during his interaction with President Zelensky-context is necessary. This context shows that President Trump has a deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine and U.S. taxpayer-funded foreign aid, independent of and preceding any mention of potential investigations of Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 elections or Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma, a notoriously corrupt company.
Since it became an independent nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been plagued by systemic corruption. The Guardian has called Ukraine “the most corrupt nation in Europe”5 and Ernst & Young cites Ukraine among the three most-corrupt nations of the world.6
Corruption is so pervasive in Ukraine that in 2011, 68.8% of Ukrainian citizens reported that they had bribed a public official within the preceding twelve months.7
Bribery and extortion are pervasive in public life in Ukraine, according to a survey conducted with backing from USAID.
Pervasive corruption in Ukraine has been one of the primary impediments to Ukraine joining the European Union.8 Corruption-related concerns also figure prominently in the E.U.-Ukrainian Association Agreement, the document establishing a political and economic association between the E.U. and Ukraine.9
State Department witnesses called by the Democrats during the “impeachment inquiry” confirmed Ukraine’s reputation for corruption. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent described Ukraine ‘s corruption problem as “serious” and said corruption has long been “part of the high-level dialogue” between the United States and Ukraine. 10 Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, testified that in Ukraine “corruption is not just prevalent, but frankly is the system.”11 Ambassador Bill Taylor, the current charge d’affaires in Kyiv, said corruption in Ukraine is a “big issue.”12 Ambassador Kurt Volker, the former Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, testified that “Ukraine has a long history of pervasive corruption throughout the economy[,] throughout the country, and it has been incredibly difficult for Ukraine as a country to deal with this, to investigate it, to prosecute it.” 13 He later elaborated:
Ukraine had for decades a reputation of being just a corrupt place.There are a handful of people who own a disproportionate amount of the economy. Oligarchs, they use corruption as kind of the coin of the realm to get what they want, including influencing the Parliament, the judiciary, the government, state-owned industries. And so businessmen generally don’t want to invest in Ukraine, even to this day, because they just fear that it’s a horrible environment to be working in, and they don’t want to put - expose themselves to that risk. I would have to believe that President Trump would be aware of that general climate. 14
President Trump’s views on Ukraine have been colored by the country’s history of pervasive corruption. The Democrats ‘ witnesses described how President Trump holds a deep-seated skepticism of Ukraine, a view that witnesses said was genuine and reasonable given the country’s history of corruption.
Multiple Democrat witnesses offered firsthand testimony of President Trump’s skeptical view of Ukraine, going as far back as the President’s first year in office.
It’s a little misleading to call these Democratic witnesses. They are witnesses called by Democrats, yes, but most are career diplomats who made a point of testifying they have served Republican and Democratic presidents. Others, like Volker and Fiona Hill, have done more work with Republicans than Democrats.
Ambassador Volker explained that “President Trump demonstrated that he had a very deeply rooted negative view of Ukraine based on past corruption. And that’s a reasonable position. Most people who would know anything about Ukraine would think that.”15 He elaborated that the President’s concern about Ukraine was genuine, and that this concern caused a delay in the meeting with President Zelensky.16 Ambassador Volker explained:
So the issue as I understood it was this deep-rooted, skeptical view of Ukraine, a negative view of Ukraine, preexisting 2019, you know, going back. When I started this, I had one other meeting with President Trump and [then-Ukrainian] President Poroshenko. It was in September of 2017. And at that time he had a very skeptical view of Ukraine. So I know he had a very deep-rooted skeptical view. And my understanding at the time was that even though he agreed in the meeting that we had with him, say, okay, I’ll invite him, he didn’t really want to do it. And that’s why the meeting kept being17 delayed and delayed.
Other testimony confirms Ambassador Volker’s assessment. Ambassador Yovanovitch recalled the President’s skepticism, saying that she also observed it firsthand during President Trump’s meeting with President Poroshenko in September 2017.18 She testified:
Q. Were you aware of the President’s deep-rooted skepticism about Ukraine’s business environment?
Q. And what did you know about that?
A. That he-I mean, he shared that concern directly with President Poroshenko in their first meeting in the Oval Office.19
CNN’s story about that meeting focused on the fact that while Trump routinely rolls out the red carpet for foreign leaders, he kept the meeting with Poroshenko, a foe of Russia, low-key.
Dr . Fiona Hill, former senior director at the National Security Council, also confirmed President Trump ‘s skepticism. She testified:
I think the President has actually quite publicly said that he was very skeptical about corruption in Ukraine. And, in fact, he’s not alone, because everyone has expressed great concerns about corruption in Ukraine. 20
Catherine Croft, Ambassador Volker’s deputy at the State Department, likewise confirmed that President Trump was skeptical of Ukraine due to its history of corruption, explaining: “[H]e described his concerns being that Ukraine was corrupt, that it was capable of being a very rich country, and that the United States shouldn’t pay for it, but instead, we should be providing aid through loans.” 21
This is a key point. Trump has detailed Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation. Specifically with regard to Ukraine, this will include how evidence of Manafort’s many millions of dollars of income for political consulting of the former Russian-backed governor came to be public in a ledger. That information forced Manafort out of Trump’s campaign in the summer of 2016. It ultimately led to his conviction by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of bank fraud and unreported foreign income. He’s currently in prison.
President Trump’s skepticism about Ukraine was compounded by statements made by senior Ukrainian government officials in 2016 that were critical of then-candidate Trump and supportive of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although Democrats have attempted to discredit these assertions as “debunked,” the publicly available statements by Ukrainian leaders speak for themselves.
In August 2016, less than three months before the election, Valeriy Chaly, then Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States, authored an op-ed in a U.S. newspaper criticizing candidate Trump for comments he made about Russia’s occupation of Crimea. 22 Ambassador Chaly wrote that candidate Trump’s comments “have raised serious concerns in [Kyiv] and beyond Ukraine.”23 Although President Zelensky dismissed Ambassador Chaly on July 19, 2019,24 the ambassador’s op-ed still remains on the website of the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States.25
Here is Chaly’s op-ed in The Hill. It was critical of Trump and pushed him, if he became President, to back a foreign policy opposed to countries invading sovereign borders. Trump had questioned the need for sanctions on Russia, a departure from the GOP platform and a preview of his deference to Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office.
Later that month, the Financial Times published an article asserting that President Trump’s candidacy led “Kyiv’s wider political leadership to do something they would never have attempted before: intervene, however indirectly, in a US election.”26 The article quoted Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian Member of Parliament, to detail how the Ukrainian government was supporting Secretary Clinton’s candidacy.27 The article explained:
Though most Ukrainians are disillusioned with the country’s current leadership for stalled reforms and lackluster anti-corruption efforts, Mr. Leshchenko said events of the past two years had locked Ukraine on to a pro-western course. The majority of Ukraine’s politicians, he added, are “on Hillary Clinton’s side.”28
The Financial Times reported that during the U.S. presidential campaign, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had warned on Facebook that candidate Trump “challenged the very values of the free world.”29 On Twitter, Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov called Trump a “clown” who is “an even bigger danger to the US than terrorism.”30 In a Facebook post, Minister Avakov called Trump “dangerous for Ukraine and the US” and said that Trump’s Crimea comments were the “diagnosis of a dangerous misfit.”31 Minister Avakov continues to serve in President Zelensky’s government.
In January 2017, a Politico article by current New York Times reporter Ken Vogel detailed the Ukrainian effort to “sabotage” the Trump campaign. 32 According to Vogel’s reporting, the Ukrainian government worked with a Democrat operative and the media in 2016 to boost Secretary Clinton’s candidacy and hurt then-candidate Trump. The article reported:
Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated document s implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found. 33
The Politico article detailed how a Democrat operative “traded information and leads” with staff at the Ukrainian embassy and how the Ukrainian embassy “worked directly with reporters researching Trump, [Trump campaign manager Paul] Manafort, and Russia to point them in the right directions.” 34 The article quoted a Ukrainian political officer at the embassy as saying that he was instructed not to speak to the Trump campaign “because [ candidate Trump] was critical of Ukraine” and “Hillary is going to win.”35
Here are the articles by the Financial Times and Politico. And here’s a quote for balance from the Politico article: “The Ukrainian efforts had an impact in the race, helping to force Manafort’s resignation and advancing the narrative that Trump’s campaign was deeply connected to Ukraine’s foe to the east, Russia. But they were far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia’s alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic emails.”
In addition, testimony from a 2018 transcribed interview of Nellie Ohr, a contractor for Fusion GPS, the political intelligence firm hired to gather information about candidate Trump, shows that Ukrainian parliamentarian Leshchenko - the same politician who said that Ukraine was “on Hillary Clinton’s side” in 2016 - was a Fusion GPS source for information about Manafort.36
Here’s the Nellie Ohr transcript. The relevant portion begins on page 114.
Multiple witnesses called by the Democrats testified that these Ukrainian actions during the 2016 election campaign likely color ed President Trump ‘s views of Ukraine. Ambassador Volker said:
Q. And you mentioned that the President was skeptical, had a deeprooted view of the Ukraine. Is that correct?
A. That is correct.
Q. And that, whether fair or unfair, he believed there were officials in Ukraine that were out to get him in the run-up to his election?
A. That is correct.
Q. So, to the extent there are allegations lodged, credible or uncredible, if the president was made aware of those allegations, whether it was via The Hill or, you know, via Mr. Giuliani or via cable news, if the President was made aware of these allegations, isn’t it fair to say that he may, in fact, have believed they were credible?
A. Yes, I believe so.37
Ambassador Sondland testified:
Q. Did [President Trump] mention anything about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election?
A. I think he said: They tried to take me down. He kept saying that over and over.
Q. In connection with the 2016 election?
A. Probably, yeah.
Q. That was what your understanding was?
A. That was my understanding, yeah. 38
Ambassador Taylor testified:
Q. So isn ‘t it possible that Trump administration officials might have a good-founded belief, whether true or untrue, that there were forces in the Ukraine that were operating against them?
A. [B]ased on this [January 2017] Politico article, which, again, surprises me, disappoints me because I think it’s a mistake for any diplomat or any government official in one country to interfere in the political life of another country. That’s disappointing. 39
Since his 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump has emphasized his view that U.S. taxpayer-funded foreign assistance should be spent wisely and cautiously. As President, he has continued to be critical of sending U.S. taxpayer dollars to foreign countries and has asked our allies to share the financial burden for international stewardship.
Trump calls himself a nationalist and he’s argued that Europeans should do more to pay for NATO, that South Koreans should do more on the Korean peninsula and that Saudi Arabia should do more in the Middle East.
In a March 2016 interview with the New York Times, then-candidate Trump said: “Now, I’m a person that-you notice I talk about economics quite a bit [in foreign policy] because it is about economics, because we don’t have money anymore because we’ve been taking care of so many people in so many different forms that we don’t have money.”40 That same month, candidate Trump spoke to CBS News about U.S. spending to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective defense alliance between the U.S., Canada, and European countries. He said then:
NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country anymore. We’re bon-owing, we’re borrowing all of this money … NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed. 41
Here’s that New York Times interview. He actually brought up Ukraine at the time, but mischaracterizing the situation. He said Russia and Ukraine were getting “confrontational.” In reality, Russia violated Ukraine’s border in 2014 and then backed separatists going to war there. It was clear at the time Trump didn’t mind Russia’s expansion and he ignored the international outcry at the time. “Now I’m all for Ukraine,” Trump said. “I have friends that live in Ukraine, but it didn’t seem to me, when the Ukrainian problem arose, you know, not so long ago, and we were, and Russia was getting very confrontational, it didn’t seem to me like anyone else cared other than us.”
As president, President Trump has continued to press European allies to contribute more to NATO defense. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General, acknowledged that President Trump ‘s stance has helped NATO member countries to increase defense spending, commending the President on “his strong message on burden sharing.”42
* * *
Members cannot properly assess President Trump’s mindset during his July 25 phone conversation with President Zelensky without understanding this context. President Trump has generally been skeptical of foreign assistance, believing that European allies should contribute their fair share to regional defense. President Trump has had, for years preceding the call, a deepseated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism toward Ukraine due to its pervasive corruption. President Trump was well aware of actions by senior Ukrainian government officials to work for his defeat in the 2016 election. These experiences colored President Trump ‘s interaction with President Zelensky.
This is all true. But it’s also true that very little of this came up during the Zelensky call. Instead, what came up were specific requests to investigate Biden. Plus, the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney — who was a key figure in holding up the aid — acknowledged during an October press conference that the aid was contingent on the investigations and he argued there wasn’t anything wrong with that. He later walked those comments back.
At its core, the Democrats’ “impeachment inquiry” centers on the interaction between two individuals: President Trump and President Zelensky. The summary of their July 25 call shows no conditionality, and both presidents have said they felt no pressure. President Trump never raised the issue of security assistance during the call, even though evidence suggests it had been delayed by that time. Ultimately, the delay on the security assistance cleared and President Trump and President Zelensky met face-to -face without Ukraine investigating the President’s political rivals. These facts undercut the Democrat allegations.
The best evidence of the telephone conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky is the contemporaneous summary prepared by White House Situation Room staff. As transcribed, the call summary denotes laughter, pleasantries, and compliments exchanged between President Trump and President Zelensky. The summary does not evince any threats, coercion, intimidation, or indication of a quid pro quo- as even Democrats have acknowledged. 43
The transcript also documents Trump pivoting directly from talk of US military systems Zelensky says Ukraine needs to a “favor” Trump wants — investigations. The pressure is clear. The question is whether the power structure — Ukraine is at war with Russia and needs US money; Trump has the money but has frozen it — amplifies the pressure. The testimony from diplomats, which is remarkably consistent, makes clear the requirement for aid was the investigation and that made Bill Taylor in particular uncomfortable. We also know that Sondland made clear to Zelensky’s aide in September — months later — that there was a requirement of an investigation for the military aid clear.
The summary bears absolutely no resemblance to Chairman Schiff’s self-described “parody” interpretation of the call.44
Schiff will never live down his parody. He probably shouldn’t.
Democrats have seized on the President’s phrasing - “I would like you to do us a favor though”45- to accuse the President of pressuring President Zelensky to target his political rivals for his political benefit.46 Democrats omit, however, the remainder of his sentence. The full sentence shows that President Trump was not asking President Zelensky to investigate his political rivals, but rather asking him to assist in “get[ting] to the bottom” of foreign interference in the 2016 election.47 This reading is supported by President Trump’s subsequent reference to Mueller, who had testified the day before about his findings,48 and to Barr, who has initiated an official inquiry into the origins of the Russian collusion hoax.49 Also undercutting the Democrat allegation of pressure, President Zelensky did not express any concern that President Trump had raised the allegations about foreign interference in the 2016 election.
Please do read the transcript. When Trump talks about foreign influence in 2016, he’s talking about trying to undermine the Mueller report and, despite the facts, pin election meddling on Ukraine instead of Russia. He’d also love to clear Manafort’s name. A short while later he asks for the investigation into Biden for the first time. Here’s that full quote: “The other thing, here’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
In fact, the Democrats’ witnesses testified that it would be appropriate for Ukraine to investigate allegations of corruption, including allegations about 2016 election interference. Ambassador Volker testified that he “always thought [it] was fine” for Ukraine to investigate allegations about 2016 election interference.50 Dr. Hill similarly testified that it is “not actually completely ridiculous” for President Zelensky’s administration to investigate allegations of corruption arising from prior Ukrainian administrations.51
Democrats have also seized on the President’s passing reference to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, referring to Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian company known for its corruption.52 The call summary shows, however, that President Trump and President Zelensky did not discuss Hunter Biden substantively.53 President Zelensky did not even reply to President Trump’s passing reference before the conversation continued to a different subject.54
If directly asking a foreign leader to look into your political rival and his son is a passing reference, so be it. And Zelensky does not move on to another subject, but rather explains how he’s hiring a new prosecutor. The previous prosecutor, Yurie Lutsenkso, had said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. Plus, Trump is not making the case himself here, but rather pushing for meetings between Zelensky, Barr and Giuliani.
Nonetheless, there are legitimate questions about Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board. Burisma was founded by Mykola Zlochevsky, who served as Ukraine’s Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources from 2010 to 2012.55 During Zlockevsky’s tenure in the Ukrainian government, Burisma received oil exploration licenses without public auctions.56 According to the New York Times, Hunter Biden and two other well-connected Democrats Christopher Heinz, then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s stepson, and Devon Archer-“were part of a broad effort by Burisma to bring in well-connected Democrats during a period when the company was facing investigations backed not just by domestic Ukrainian forces but by officials in the Obama administration.”57 In 2016, the Obama Justice Department fined a Hong Kong subsidiary of a multinational bank for a similar scheme, with then-Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell explaining that “[a]warding prestigious employment opportunities to unqualified individuals in order to influence government officials is corruption, plan and simply.”58
The case regarding Burisma had been closed. But that’s beside the point in many ways. Trump has fueled this conspiracy theory into the mainstream in party by putting pressure on Zelensky. His goal here is to undercut Biden. The more this is discussed, the more successful he is. Here’s CNN’s full fact check.
Evidence suggests that Hunt er Biden’s role on Burisma’s board was a concern during the Obama Administration. In May 2014, the Washington Post reported that “[t]he appointment of the vice president’s son to a Ukrainian oil board looks nepotistic at best, nefarious at worst. No matter how qualified Biden is, it ties into the idea that U.S. foreign policy is self-interested, and that’s a narrative Vladimir Putin has pushed during Ukraine’s crisis.”59
This is true and there was reporting on it at the time. But Trump is, years later, trying to create the impression of impropriety after the rest of the world had moved on. Republicans want nothing more than to attack Biden’s credibility and make this story about him.
Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent testified that while he served as acting Deputy Chief of Mission in Kyiv in early 2015, he raised concerns directly to Vice President Biden’s office that Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’ s board “could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”60 Kent said that the “message” he received back was that because Vice President Biden’s elder son, Beau, was dying of cancer there was no “bandwidth” to deal with any other family issues.61 Ambassador Yovanovitch similarly testified that the Obama State Department actually prepared her to address Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma if she received a question about it during her Senate confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Ukraine in June 2016. She explained:
Q. And you may have mentioned this when we were speaking before lunch, but when did the issues related to Burisma first get to your attention? Was that as soon as you arrived in country?
A. Not really. I first became aware of it when I was being prepared for my Senate confirmation hearing. So I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of questions and answer and various other things. And so there was one there about Burisma, and so, you know, that’s when I first heard that word.
Q. Were there any other companies that were mentioned in connection with Burisma?
A. I don ‘t recall.
Q. And was it in the general sense of corruption, there was a company bereft with corruption?
A. The way the question was phrased in this model Q&A was, what can you tell us about Hunter Biden’s, you know, being named to the board of Burisma.
* * *
Q. Did anyone at the State Department - when you were coming on board as the new ambassador, did anyone at the State Department brief you about this tricky issue, that Hunter Biden was on the board of this company and the company suffered from allegations of corruption, and provide you guidance?
A. Well, there was that Q&A that I mentioned.62
The call summary itself shows no indication of conflict, intimidation, or pressure. President Trump never conditioned a face-to-face meeting on any action by President Zelensky. President Trump never mentioned U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. President Zelensky never verbalized any disagreement, discomfort, or concern about any facet of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship or President Trump’s comments.
Since President Trump voluntarily released the content of the July 25 phone conversation, both President Zelensky and President Trump have said publicly and repeatedly there was no pressure to investigate President Trump’ s political rival s. President Zelensky’s statements are particularly important, as Democrats allege that he was the target of the pressure campaign. President Zelensky has variously asserted that “nobody pushed . .. me,” “I was never pressured, “ and there was no “blackmail.”
Zelensky and Trump said these things. But he’s also now using the military and security aid and he’d like to keep doing that in the future. Plus, there is copious reporting and testimony about the pressure, which is also documented on the call transcript.
On September 25, President Zelensky and President Trump met face-to-face for a bilateral meeting during the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly in New York. The presidents jointly participated in a media availability, during which President Zelensky asserted that he felt no pressure. 63 President Zelensky said:
Q. President Zelensky, have you felt any pressure from President Trump to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden?
A. I think you read everything. So I think you read text. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved to democratic, open elections - elections of USA. No, you heard that we had, I think, good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things . And I - so I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed-pushed me.64
This is surreal. Zelensky is asked, sitting next to Trump, if Trump, who has the power to cut off military aid, pressured him. And then Trump takes over the answer.
PRESIDENT ZELENSKY: I think you read everything. So I think you read text. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved to democratic, open elections — elections of USA.*
No, you heard that we had, I think, good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things. And I — so I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed — pushed me.*
PRESIDENT TRUMP: In other words, no pressure.*
Q President Trump, would — President Trump, would you like Mr. Zelensky to —*
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Because you know what? There was no pressure. And you know there was — and, by the way, you know there was no pressure. All you have to do it see it, what went on on the call. But you know that. But you can ask a question, and I appreciate the answer.*
President Zelensky again reiterated that he was not pressured to investigate President Trump ‘s political rivals during an interview with Kyodo News, a Japanese media outlet, published on October 6. Kyodo News quoted President Zelensky as saying, “I was never pressured and there were no conditions being imposed” on a face-to-face meeting or U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. 65 President Zelensky denied “reports by U.S. media that [President] Trump’s requests were conditions” for a face-to-face meeting or U.S. security assistance. 66
On October 10, during an all-day media availability in Kyiv, President Zelensky again emphasized that he felt no pressure to investigate President Trump’s political rivals. President Zelensky said there was “no blackmail “ during the conversation, explaining: “This is not corruption. It was just a call.” 67
In addition, on September 21-before President Trump had even declassified and released the call summary-Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko denied that President Trump had pressured President Zelensky to investigate President Trump’s political rivals. 68 Foreign Minister Prystaiko said:
I know what the conversation was about and I think there was no pressure. There was talk, conversations are different, leaders have the right to discuss any problems that exist. This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on a lot of questions, including those requiring serious answers. 69
Similarly, Ambassador Taylor testified that he had dinner with Oleksandr Danylyuk, then Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, on the night of the phone conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky. 70 He testified that Danylyuk said that the Ukrainian government “seemed to think that the call went fine, the call went well. He wasn’t disturbed by anything. He wasn’t disturbed that he told us about the phone call.” 71
Taylor also testified about the pressure being placed on the Ukrainians and he spelled out the idea that aid was contingent on the announcement of investigations. Republicans will find it difficult to rely on the parts of Taylor’s testimony they like, but to ignore the others. But it’s clear from other recent statements that Republicans are likely to suggest that the pressure and requirements for aid Taylor mentioned were either the result of miscommunication or misunderstanding of Sondland. They’re gearing up to say that if there was wrongdoing, Trump wasn’t involved.
Like President Zelensky, President Trump has repeatedly and publicly denied that he pressured President Zelensky to investigate his political rivals. During the September 25 bilateral meeting with President Zelensky, President Trump said to the assembled members of the media: “There was no pressure. And you know there was-and, by the way, you know there was no pressure. All you have to do it see it, what went on the call.”72 When asked whether he wanted President Zelensky to “do more” to investigate Vice President Biden, President Trump responded: “No. I want him to do whatever he can. This was not his fault; he wasn’t there. He’s just been here recently. But whatever he can do in terms of corruption, because the corruption is massive.”73
Democrats will assert that due to the power imbalance between the United States and Ukraine, Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia, and Ukraine’s need for U.S. support to repel the Russian threat, President Zelensky would not dare state any issue or concern he may have had with President Trump’s remarks. However, there is no evidence that President Zelensky ordered the opening of an investigation related to any of the matters discussed on the July 25 phone call, thus undercutting this Democrat assertion. In addition, Democrat witnesses explained that President Trump has more strongly assisted and equipped Ukraine to deter Russian aggression than President Obama did. Most notably, President Trump finally provided Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons instead of just blankets. 74
Zelensky was prepared to announce the investigation in an interview on CNN with Zakaria, who has said he did not understand what was about to happen on his show. But Zelensky was spared by the clock as news of the pressure and the complaint started to seep out.
Evidence also suggests that the Ukrainian government never even knew that U.S. security assistance was delayed until some point in August 2019, long after the July 25 phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky. Although the assistance was delayed at the time of the July 25 call, President Trump never raised the assistance with President Zelensky or implied that the aid was in danger. As Ambassador Volker testified, because Ukrainian officials were unaware of the hold, “there was no leverage implied.”75 This evidence undercuts the allegation that the President withheld U.S. security assistance to pressure President Zelensky to investigate his political rivals.
Catherine Croft, an aide to Kurt Volker, the US special envoy for Ukraine, told impeachment investigators Ukraine knew the aid had been frozen and why over the summer. That echoes Taylor’s testimony and undercuts this talking point. But again, this document feels very much like a way to protect Trump specifically. And yes, there is no mention of the aid being frozen on the call. The question is whether the aid was somehow held without Trump’s knowledge or because of his command after the call. And then, was it held because of the investigations? There’s testimony that answers both of these assertions.
Most of the Democrat witnesses, including Ambassador Taylor, traced their knowledge of a hold to a July 18 interagency conference call, during which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced a hold on security assistance to Ukraine. 76 However, the two U.S. diplomats closest the Ukrainian government - Ambassador Volker and Ambassador Taylor testified that Ukraine did not know about the delay “until the end of August,” six weeks later, after it was reported publicly on August 28.77
Ambassador Volker, the chief interlocutor with the Ukrainian government, testified that he never informed the Ukrainians about the delay. 78 The Ukrainian government only raised the issue with Ambassador Volker after reading about the delay in Politico in late August. 79 Explaining why the delay was “not significant,” Ambassador Volker testified:
Q. Looking back on it now, is [the delayed security assistance] something, in the grand scheme of things, that’s very significant? I mean, is this worthy of investigating, or is this just another chapter in the rough and tumble world of diplomacy and foreign assistance?
A. In my view, this hold on security assistance was not significant. I don’t believe- in fact, I am quite sure that at least I, Secretary Pompeo, the official representatives of the U.S., never communicated to Ukrainians that it is being held for a reason. We never had a reason. And I tried to avoid talking to Ukrainians about it for as long as I could until it came out in Politico a month later because I was confident we were going to get it fixed internally. 80
Volker was actively engaged in trying to help the Ukrainians navigate Trump’s demands. He wanted them to get the aid.
Ambassador Taylor similarly testified that the Ukrainian government was not aware of the delay of U.S. security assistance until late August 2019. He explained:
Q. So, based on your knowledge, nobody in the Ukrainian government became aware of a hold on military aid until 2 days later, on August 29th.
A. That’s my understanding.
Q. That ‘s your understanding. And that would have been well over a month after the July 25th call between President Trump and President Zelensky
Q. So you’re not a lawyer, are you, Ambassador Taylor?
A. I am not.
Q. Okay. So the idea of a quid pro quo is it’s a concept where there is a demand for an action or an attempt to influence action in exchange for something else. And in this case, when people are talking about a quid pro quo, that something else is military aid. So, if nobody in the Ukrainian government is aware of a military hold at the time of the Trump-Zelensky call, then, as a matter of law and as a matter of fact, there can be no quid pro quo based on military aid. I just want to be real clear that, again, as of July 25th, you have no knowledge of a quid pro quo involving military aid.
A. July 25th is a week after the hold was put on the security assistance. And July 25th, they had a conversation between the two presidents where it was not discussed.
Q. And to your knowledge, nobody in the Ukrainian government was aware of the hold?
A. That is correct.81
It is also Taylor’s testimony and the text messages he sent in September that make clear he thought the aid was contingent on the investigations and that he didn’t like it.
Other testimony from the Democrats’ witnesses in closed-door depositions, still unreleased by Chairman Schiff and therefore unavailable to the American public, supports the point that U.S. officials did not convey to Ukraine that security assistance was delayed, much less the notion that the delay was due to President Trump seeking political investigations.
Evidence also shows that U.S. security assistance to Ukraine was released and President Zelensky met with President Trump without Ukraine investigating President Trump’s political rivals. These facts significantly undermine the Democrat allegation that President Trump used either as leverage to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
The aid was released, presumably, as a result of bipartisan backlash. And Trump’s meeting with Zelensky occurred on the sidelines of the UN and not at the White House, as Zelensky had hoped. It also occurred after the broad outlines of the call and the whistleblower complaint were made public.
On September 11, 2019, OMB released the U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine subsequently received this assistance. The U.S. disbursed this assistance without Ukraine ever acting to investigate President Trump’s political rivals.
On September 25, President Trump and President Zelensky met during the U.N. General Assembly in New York. President Trump and President Zelensky were scheduled to meet nearly a month earlier, on September 1 in Warsaw, but Hurricane Dorian forced President Trump to change his plans. President Trump and President Zelensky met publicly without Ukraine ever investigating President Trump’s political rivals.
Ambassador Volker said that President Trump and President Zelensky had a “positive” meeting. He testified:
Q. Turning back to President Trump ‘s skepticism of Ukraine and the corruption there, do you think you made any inroads in convincing him that Zelensky was a good partner?
A. I do. I do. I attended the President’s meeting with President Zelensky in New York on, I guess it was the 25th of September. And I could see the body language and the chemistry between them was positive, and I felt that this is what we needed all along. 85
Ambassador Taylor testified that the meeting was “good” and President Trump “left pleased that they had finally met face to face. 86 Ambassador Taylor said there was no discussion about investigations during the September 25 meeting. 87
Both Zelensky and Trump were asked about the investigation requests by reporters, so in that respect it was certainly discussed.
* * *
These four key points undercut the Democrat impeachment narrative that President Trump leveraged U.S. security assistance and a presidential meeting to force Ukraine to investigate the President ‘s political rivals. The summary of the presidential conversation showed no pressure; President Zelensky, the target of the alleged pressure campaign, felt no pressure; Ukraine did not know of the alleged leverage, the delayed security assistance, at the time of the presidential conversation; and, finally, Ukraine received what it wanted without doing anything in return.
The Democrats’ closed-door “impeachment inquiry” has generated over a hundred hours of testimony from 15 witnesses. The American people observed none of that closed-door testimony, only learning about developments from selective leaks of cherry-picked information. The subsequently released transcripts did not- and could not-convey tone, body language, and other nonverbal signs used to assess a witness ‘s credibility. The transcripts cannot be a substitute for live witness testimony.
The points raised in this document are a good indicator for how Republicans will attack the witnesses in public hearings.
Now as the Democrats move their proceedings into open hearings, their process is still one-sided, partisan, and fundamentally unfair. There is no co-equal subpoena power. There are no due process protections for the President. There is no guarantee that Chairman Schiff will call witnesses put forward by Republicans. In fact, Chairman Schiff has already denied the minority’s request to call the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint initiated the inquiry.88
These things are not required under the Constitution, but subpoena power, at least, has featured in the two modern impeachment proceedings — that’s President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton. Republicans have said they would subpoena Hunter Biden, which is one reason Democrats won’t give them subpoena power.
Notwithstanding this unprecedented partisanship, the evidence shows that President Trump had a deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism toward Ukraine, and a vocal position that Europe should contribute more to regional defense. The summary of President Trump’s conversation with President Zelensky reflects no conditionality or pressure, and President Zelensky himself said he felt no pressure. President Trump never raised U.S. security assistance to President Zelensky, and ultimately the assistance was released and a presidential meeting occurred without Ukraine investigating the President’s political rivals. Simply put, the evidence gathered to date does not support the Democrat allegation that President Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the President’s political rivals for his benefit in the 2020 presidential campaign. The evidence gathered does not establish an impeachable offense.
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