Impeachment transcripts reveal a consistent, damaging narrative for Trump
The transcripts reveal a widespread concern among American diplomats that critical military aid intended to counter Russia’s aggression as well as a meeting between the two country’s presidents was conditioned on the politically motivated investigations sought by Trump and his allies.
In the assessment of the five diplomats at the center of the impeachment inquiry, Giuliani was everywhere. He was texting with State Department officials and directing U.S. foreign policy, all seemingly at the behest of the president. He was Trump’s free-wheeling emissary seeking to push a foreign government to, in effect, publicly tar Joe Biden.
House investigators have stitched together a uniquely Trumpian narrative — one of retribution against perceived enemies, defiance of diplomatic norms and a pervasive fear that Russia would benefit from the disarray, all to help Trump fend off his top 2020 rival.
And while the storyline could develop further as the transcripts of the half-dozen other witness interviews are released, Democrats have emphasized that the basic foundation of their case to impeach the president for an extraordinary abuse of power remains unchanged — and has only been strengthened by the transcripts that are being released to the public.
In fact, Democrats have argued for weeks that sufficient evidence exists in plain sight to believe that Trump committed impeachable offenses, most notably in the rough transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
While Democrats express confidence in the narrative taking shape, many Republicans remain eager to defend the president. In interviews, GOP lawmakers are picking apart the diplomats’ testimony and echoing Trump’s denials of a quid pro quo, essentially arguing that Trump’s denials are more powerful than a cadre of diplomats’ consistent testimony.
“Any time that anyone talks to the president, he has been clear: There is no linkage, there is no quid pro quo, and to suggest otherwise goes against a lot of testimony that we’ve already heard,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
Trump’s allies have also questioned whether Giuliani’s push for an investigation of Biden was done in tandem with Trump. But Giuliani re-asserted Wednesday that all of his actions were done on behalf of his client, the president — further undercutting the argument that the former New York mayor was a rogue actor.
Democrats believe there is only one Ukraine story to tell, supported by mountains of corroborating evidence and testimony from witnesses whose recollections buttress each other. The public will soon hear it in broad daylight.
Giuliani on the offensive
To build their case, Democrats have taken pains to connect Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine to Trump. Last month, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said in an interview: “Rudy Giuliani is Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is Rudy Giuliani.”
Though some questions remain about what exactly Giuliani and Trump discussed in private, the testimony from key witnesses has largely backed up Swalwell’s argument.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told investigators he was “disappointed” Trump directed him to involve Giuliani in Ukraine policy matters but reluctantly agreed to carry out the order because he believed Giuliani was “the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine.” Sondland said he “assumed” Giuliani’s actions were illegal.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who came under fire from Giuliani and was later forced out by Trump, also detailed to impeachment investigators the influence Giuliani had over Trump.
When asked whether State Department officials tried to thwart Giuliani’s efforts as directed by the president, Yovanovitch said: “I don’t think they felt they could.”
She later said Trump’s lack of support for her was due to Giuliani’s alignment with Ukraine’s former top prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, whom U.S. officials believed was not credible and was trying to stifle U.S. policies to combat corruption in Ukraine.
And William Taylor, who succeeded Yovanovitch as the top American diplomat in Ukraine, said the efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals stemmed directly from Giuliani, calling it an “irregular” diplomatic channel.
“I think the origin of the idea to get President Zelensky to say out loud he’s going to investigate Burisma and 2016 election, I think the originator, the person who came up with that was Mr. Giuliani,” Taylor told investigators, according to the transcript of his testimony.
When Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) asked Taylor whose interests Giuliani was representing, Taylor replied: “President Trump.”
At least one of those diplomats, former U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker, said he pushed back against Giuliani.
“I said to Rudy in that breakfast the first time we sat down to talk that it is simply not credible to me that Joe Biden would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money or things for his son or anything like that,” Volker said, according to the transcript of his testimony. “I’ve known him a long time. He’s a person of integrity, and that’s not credible.”
Quid pro quo confirmed
One by one, the diplomats have also corroborated claims that there was a quid pro quo involving nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine and a Trump-Zelensky meeting at the White House — both of which Ukraine viewed as crucial after the inauguration of a new president and amid unabated malign influence from Russia.
“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the [Ukrainian] president committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor told investigators, according to the transcript of his testimony made public on Wednesday, specifically naming a public corruption investigation targeting Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company whose board Joe Biden’s son Hunter sat on.
Taylor, who often took handwritten notes documenting his conversations and interactions, also testified that Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine’s finance minister, told him on July 20 that Zelensky “did not want to be used as a pawn in a U.S. re-election campaign.”
The Ukrainians were increasingly concerned that that was the case, Taylor told lawmakers, adding that Ukrainian officials knew what they needed to do in order to get what they wanted.
“I think it was becoming clear to the Ukrainians that, in order to get this meeting [with Trump] that they wanted, they would have to commit to pursuing these investigations,” he said. “And Mr. Danylyuk, at least, understood — and I’m sure that he briefed President Zelensky, I’m sure they had this conversation — believed that opening those investigations, in particular on Burisma, would have involved Ukraine the 2020 election campaign. He did not want to do that.”
In fact, a quid pro quo was communicated directly to a senior Ukrainian official.
Sondland amended his testimony this week to reveal the latest bombshell: He told investigators that he told a senior Ukrainian official that the country would likely not receive the military aid or be granted a coveted meeting with Trump unless the government publicly committed to investigating Biden, Burisma and a debunked theory about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election.
“I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland wrote.
Sondland was one of the few witnesses to initially cast doubt on the notion of a quid pro quo. With his reversal, all of the stories are aligned.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.