The Trump Ukraine scandal — about to enter its fourth week — saw a number of outstanding if relatively minor questions answered over the weekend, all while President Trump worked to further define his strategy to counter Democrats’ impeachment inquiry against him.
The central question around Trump’s interactions with Ukraine is not whether he pushed that country to investigate potential presidential rival former Vice President Joe Biden, but whether there was quid pro quo in the president’s requests to have Biden investigated.
In a Saturday preview of his upcoming congressional testimony, a representative for US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland indicated the ambassador will tell Congress the answer to the question of whether there was quid pro quo is yes — but not the one you’re thinking of. Sondland will reportedly testify that in exchange for Ukraine’s vow to investigate corruption, the administration was promising a coveted White House audience, not the release of military aid. He’s also said, however, he did not connect administration calls for new corruption investigations and Joe Biden at the time.
Trump himself intensified his attacks on Democrats’ inquiry, calling it “bullshit” at a Friday night rally — only to shift his strategy on Monday. Thus far, he’s been attacking the inquiry and directing government officials not to cooperate with Democrats’ requests for information. But on Monday, he called on the whistleblower who alerted Congress about his interactions with Ukraine to testify, seeming to argue that the man’s testimony would absolve him of all allegations of wrongdoing — although the whistleblower’s account is already corroborated by information the White House has released.
And the man who set off Trump’s desire for a Biden investigation — the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden — worked to neutralize Republican questions and conspiracy theories that he improperly benefitted from his father’s office by promising to step down from the board of a foreign company.
Was there an offer of quid pro quo in Trump’s Ukraine call? Sondland says yes.
The US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, is expected to testify before Congress Thursday about his knowledge of a campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. In particular, he will likely be asked about allegations the president withheld congressionally approved military aid Ukraine needed to continue its fight against Russian aggressors in the hope of pressuring Ukrainian leaders to launch that investigation.
As the US ambassador to the European Union, Sondland wouldn’t seem a likely candidate to be involved with Ukraine, given that nation is not in the EU. However, the ambassador told a Ukrainian news outlet UATV early this year that he had inserted himself into US-Ukraine relations: “We have what are called the three amigos. And the three amigos are Secretary [Rick] Perry, again, Ambassador Volker, and myself. And we’ve been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine-US relationship.”
He is of particular interest to those directing the impeachment inquiry because of his appearance in text messages Volker gave to lawmakers during his congressional testimony. In those messages, which were among Volker, Sondland, and the current top US diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor, Sondland seems to work to shield the president from allegations of wrongdoing, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop has written:
One State diplomat, Bill Taylor, twice raised concerns that this was connected to Trump’s demands for investigations and with US politics. And, twice, Ambassador Gordon Sondland responded by urging him to talk on the phone rather than by text message.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote on September 1. “Call me,” Sondland answered.
Eight days later, Taylor wrote: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded by denying that this was the case — and urging him not to text about the matter anymore.
Specifically, Sondland responded to Taylor’s concerns about the security assistance delay by texting (after a four-and-a-half hour pause):
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. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text. If you still have concerns, I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or [Mike Pompeo] a call to discuss them directly.
The New York Times has reported Sondland crafted that text, a far more formal message than the others Congress has released, after consulting with Trump himself. Trump has been using that text both to defend himself and to shield Sondland from any questions about potential misconduct on the ambassador’s part.
Saturday, the Washington Post reported Sondland will tell lawmakers that the content of that text was indeed given to him by Trump during a phone call and that he texted it to his colleagues without stopping to verify the message’s accuracy. “It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth,” Sondland’s representative told the Post’s Aaron C. Davis and John Hudson.
Sondland is also expected to tell lawmakers that he “believed Trump at the time and on that basis passed along assurances,” and that more than the question of military aid, he was focused on getting Ukrainian leaders to agree to release a statement announcing they planned to launch new corruption investigations, including into an company on which Joe Biden’s son served as a board member. In exchange, the Ukrainian president would be invited to the White House.
This, Sondland is expected to say, “was a quid pro quo, but not a corrupt one,” his representative said.
After blocking witness testimony, Trump is pushing for Congress to interview the whistleblower
Donald Trump has taken an active role in combating the growing impeachment inquiry he faces. He has lashed out against key figures in that investigation on Twitter and in press conferences, and has worked to undermine the public’s confidence in the whistleblower himself.
In fact, Trump himself reportedly helped craft a letter his administration sent Congress last week promising it would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. As the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng and Sam Stein reported Saturday: “Trump enthusiastically suggested adding various jabs at Democratic lawmakers and would request that their ‘unfair’ treatment of him be incorporated into the letter.”
While he continued that approach throughout most of the weekend — for instance, telling an audience in Louisiana that Democratic Party leader and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “hates the country” and that Democrats are “pursuing an illegal, invalid, and unconstitutional bullshit impeachment” because “they know they can’t win on election day” — the president pivoted Monday and began to argue that Democrats aren’t being thorough enough in their impeachment inquiry.
After weeks of attacking the whistleblower whose complaint launched an impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump is now calling on him to testify before Congress.
Adam Schiff now doesn’t seem to want the Whistleblower to testify. NO! Must testify to explain why he got my Ukraine conversation sooo wrong, not even close. Did Schiff tell him to do that? We must determine the Whistleblower’s identity to determine WHY this was done to the USA..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2019
The president’s call comes in the wake of comments by House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, who told CBS’ Face the Nation House Democrats are reconsidering their efforts to bring the whistleblower to testify before them.
Schiff said the Democrats’ hesitation is due to the president himself: He has repeatedly threatened the whistleblower, who remains anonymous, and the chairman said lawmakers are concerned for the whistleblower’s safety.
“Before the president started threatening the whistleblower … we were interested in having the whistleblower come forward,” Schiff said. “Our primary interest right now is making sure that that person is protected.”
Democratic lawmakers had hoped to interview the whistleblower in a secure location in order to learn more about the wrongdoing he alleged in his complaint, namely that Trump attempted to trade congressionally approved military aid for a Ukrainian investigation into a potential presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and that the White House attempted to bury records of a call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to start that investigation.
However, Schiff said that evidence related to that call released by the White House, particularly a memo summarizing its contents, and the fact the whistleblower compiled his complaint after speaking to people with firsthand knowledge of the call, make the whistleblower’s testimony less critical than it once was.
“Given that we already have the call record, we don’t need the whistleblower who wasn’t on the call to tell us what took place during the call,” Schiff said.
Though the whistleblower’s account is already corroborated by the White House’s own records, there are still a bevy of other questions Democrats want answered. A number of witnesses will appear before Congress this week, including Fiona Hill, former White House adviser on Russia, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s European and Eurasian Bureau.
Sunday, the House Intelligence Committee’s Rep. Jim Himes told ABC’s This Week redacted transcripts of these testimonies — and those Congress has already completed — will eventually be made available to the public.
Hunter Biden says he will avoid all appearances of conflicts of interest in the future
The Ukraine scandal began because Donald Trump was convinced that Joe Biden used the power of the vice presidency to shield his son, Hunter, from a criminal investigation. There is no evidence to support this, and on the campaign trail Biden has been vehement in his rebuttals to the president’s allegations.
Hunter Biden himself, however, has stayed out of the affair, even when Trump began to claim that he used his father not just in his business dealings in Ukraine but in China to make a large business deal that ended with him on the board of a Chinese private equity firm.
Sunday, that changed, as Anya van Wagtendonk explained for Vox:
Sunday, through his lawyer George Mesires, the younger Biden seemed to acknowledge his business dealings had placed heightened scrutiny on his father, while also defending his actions. In a statement, Mesires also explained how Hunter Biden planned to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest going forward.
First, the younger Biden pledged to cease all work with any foreign-owned companies in the event that his father is elected president in 2020, Mesires wrote. And ahead of that eventuality, Hunter Biden has said he will step down from the board of BHR (Shanghai) Equity Investment Fund Management Company, a private equity company backed by Chinese state-owned companies.
To avoid questions of whether his work creates a conflict of interest for his father, the statement says Biden plans to resign from the BHR board by the end of this month; it does not specify whether he will give up his stake in the firm, however.
The week begins with a few more questions answered. Following Sondland’s canceled testimony, it was unclear to what degree the White House would be able to stop witnesses from speaking to Congress; his upcoming appearance and expected remarks suggest the administration will be able to do little to stop testimonies and that at least one official sees some evidence of quid pro quo.
The answer to the question of who is directing the administration’s response to the inquiry seems to be that it is Trump himself; he has weighed in on legal matters and is certainly setting the tone for the official counterpoints.
We already knew that Hunter Biden didn’t seem to have done the things Trump accuses him of, but the weekend saw him make his case.
Despite all this, there were few hints to the answer to the largest question of all: Will Trump be impeached? The weeks to come will tell.