On Tuesday morning, President Trump confirmed that he ordered a halt to scheduled military aid to Ukraine. Previously, he admitted that shortly after giving that order, he spoke on July 25, 2019 with newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and repeatedly asked him to open investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. These two admissions may be sufficient to get Trump impeached by the House of Representatives.
To begin with, Joe Biden did something a bit similar when he was vice-president. In December 2015, Biden made an appearance in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and warned that governmental corruption was eating the country “like a cancer.” He explicitly warned that loan guarantees might be withheld unless the nation’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was removed from his position. The concern was that Shokin was not pursuing corruption cases because he was himself corrupt.
Biden’s threat was effective. In March 2016, the Ukrainian parliament fired Shokin. This later became part of a conspiracy theory that caught the president’s attention.
It may have started after Biden bragged about his role in having Shokin removed during a January 2018 speech at the Council of Foreign Relations.
The heart of the conspiracy theory stems from the fact that Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company called the Burisma Group from May 2014 to April 2019. The group was investigated by the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Group under suspicion of money laundering. Shokin also investigated them, but his inquiry was not active at the time Joe Biden asked for his removal. Supposedly, Biden’s secret motive for tying foreign aid to Shokin’s removal was a corrupt attempt to protect Burisma Group and his son Hunter. Yet, at no time was Hunter specifically the target of any investigation.
Trump’s explanation of his behavior is evolving. On Sunday, he said that, in his conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, he was behaving in a similar manner to Biden.
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption—all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to [sic] the corruption already in the Ukraine.”
In other words, according to the president, it was corrupt for Biden to threaten to withhold aid in an effort to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired for failing to investigate corruption, but it was not corrupt for Trump to actually withhold foreign aid in an effort to get a prosecutor to conduct a corrupt investigation.
Following Trump’s logic and actions is often dizzying, but this is a real doozy. In truth, Biden wanted Ukraine’s top prosecutor to do his job and root out bureaucratic rot. Since Shokin was clearly not going to do that, Biden wanted him replaced and he used the leverage of U.S. foreign aid to achieve that objective. Trump wants to convince us that he was attempting the same tactic, but in his case it was based on his belief in a bogus conspiracy theory about Joe and Hunter Biden.
Joe Biden isn’t just a former vice-president. He’s the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and therefore a likely 2020 opponent for Trump. By requesting that Ukraine investigate him personally, Trump was seeking to help himself politically rather than acting as a good shepherd of American taxpayers’ money. One way to understand the difference between Biden and Trump’s actions is to realize that Trump was acting alone, while Biden was joined by “many world leaders and the European Union” in his demand that Shokin be replaced.
Maybe Trump realizes that his Sunday explanation wasn’t so good. On Tuesday, he revised it. Now he’s saying that he withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure other European countries to give more of their own aid, according to the Washington Post:
“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 told reporters at the United Nations General Assembly.
That explanation would be more convincing if he hadn’t already offered a more plausible one.
Trump’s July 25th conversation with President Zelensky wasn’t private. There were others in the room and on the call, and a transcript was circulated within a limited circle. On August 12, 2019, someone privy to the conversation lodged an official complaint with Inspector General Michael Atkinson of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. After reviewing the complaint, Atkinson judged it to be credible and urgent.
On August 26, Atkinson sent it to the recently appointed acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire. Per statute, Maguire was required to report the claim to the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate within a week – but he said nothing. On September 9, Atkinson wrote the committees to make them aware of the existence of the whistle-blower complaint and Maguire’s failure to report it.
So, a little over two weeks ago, Congress became aware that there was a whistleblower report and that they were being illegally denied access to it. At that point, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff went public. The next day, September 10, he wrote to Joseph Maguire and subpoenaed the report.
On September 13, DNI general counsel Jason Klitenic responded to Schiff, saying that after consulting with the Justice Department, they had overruled the inspector general. In their determination the complaint was not of “urgent concern,” as it “concerns conduct by someone outside of the Intelligence Community” (i.e., the president), and it “involves confidential and potentially privileged communications.”
Thus, the stonewalling period began in earnest and the controversy grew.
The California Democrat also concluded, based on the DNI’s conduct, that the complaint must involve the president or other administration officials. Schiff subpoenaed Maguire to either supply the complaint by September 17 or appear before the committee on September 19 to explain why he had not. Maguire declined.
One thing to keep in mind is that Inspector General Michael Atkinson told lawmakers that the whistleblower report concerned “multiple actions,” and it’s not at all clear that those actions were all contained within Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian president.
One additional element is the role of Rudy Giuliani in soliciting damaging information on the Bidens from Ukraine. In May 2019, Giuliani announced his intention to travel to Ukraine in search of dirt, only to cancel the trip two days later when he was severely criticized. Yet, per the Wall Street Journal, by June he was in Paris talking “with an official from the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office to discuss a possible Biden investigation.” In August, he traveled to Madrid:
Mr. Giuliani met with Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Mr. Zelensky, in Madrid. The two also spoke by phone later in the month. Mr. Giuliani described Mr. Yermak as “very receptive” and said the aide told him Mr. Zelensky would “get to the bottom of all this.”
It’s possible that the whistleblower report touches on these activities. They are of particular concern because on Friday the Wall Street Journal reported that during the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, the president urged Zelensky to “work with [Mr. Giuliani] on Biden, and that people in Washington wanted to know.” It appears that the August meeting between Giuliani and Yermak in Madrid was the follow-up to that request.
While there is much still to investigate, the basics are known. Even prior to Zelensky’s election in April, Trump and Giuliani had been hoping to use the bogus Hunter Biden story to damage their presumed 2020 opponent. To accomplish this, they needed the help of officials in Ukraine. Knowing that Ukraine is dependent on U.S. military aid, Trump sought to use it as leverage to force Zelensky’s hand and appears to have convinced him to at least send a top aide to meet with Giuliani in a third country.
That these are criminal and impeachable actions doesn’t seem to have really occurred to Trump or Giuliani since they have freely admitted almost everything, only shading what their true purpose was as they deemed it necessary.
The most egregious act is the withholding of military aid, but that is really only a surplus impeachment charge. What they have admitted is at least as serious as what Trump was accused of doing in the Mueller probe. Ironically, the Zelensky phone call occurred the day after Mueller testified before Congress, proving that Trump had learned nothing about what is and is not legal and appropriate in terms of soliciting foreign assistance in a political campaign.
Examining what will happen next will have to be the subject of a separate piece. Currently, acting DNI director Joseph Maguire is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, September 26. Things are moving fast—as of this writing, Pelosi plans to announce that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry, according to the New York Times. Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he would release a transcript of his conversation with Zelensky on Wednesday.
In a way, this story has everything that the Mueller investigation lacked. The conspiracy is in plain sight and the participants have openly confessed. They may make excuses and attempt to muddy the waters, but the case appears to be proven. We’ll have to see if this will have any material effect on how Republican lawmakers respond.