Donald Trump's presidency in peril: How an unhealthy obsession with Ukraine created a crisis

Washington: Like every presidential conversation with a foreign leader, this one had scripted talking points and a predigested news release recounting an exchange yet to take place. Aides in the White House Situation Room clustered around a speaker phone, pens and pads in hand to document what they heard.

At 9.03 am on Thursday, 25 July, they listened as President Donald Trump picked up the phone in the White House residence and was connected to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the newly-elected President of Ukraine. Within minutes, two note-takers exchanged troubled looks.

Trump had not merely veered off his talking points. By the conversation’s end, he had asked Zelenskiy — a leader in dire need of US military aid to fight the Russian-led invasion on his eastern border — to “do us a favour” by investigating one of his political rivals and an unfounded conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.

That 30-minute conversation has now emerged as a mortal threat to Trump’s presidency. This week, the House of Representatives begins public hearings that could lead to the impeachment of a president for only the third time in US history. More than a half-dozen Trump administration officials have called the phone conversation and the events surrounding it insidious and shocking. Five officials who dealt with Ukraine have resigned since September.

The unfolding story is in many ways a sequel to the events that led to Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Once again, the plot involves foreign influence in an election and is centered in the post-Soviet sphere.

Only one day before Trump spoke to Zelenskiy, Mueller had testified to Congress about how the Russians had tried to help elect Trump by organising the theft and release of emails damaging to his opponent. In that case, the Russians were the pursuers who sought contacts with Trump’s campaign.

Now the president and his minions were the aggressors, seeking help with the 2020 reelection effort. They asked the Ukrainians to investigate unfounded allegations about former vice-president Joe Biden, one of Trump's leading Democratic rivals, as well as to chase a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had intervened in 2016.

 Donald Trumps presidency in peril: How an unhealthy obsession with Ukraine created a crisis

File image of Donald Trump. AP

The story is also another chapter in Trump’s war on the wheels of US governance, from the intelligence community to the diplomatic corps to Congress itself. In his zeal to win Zelenskiy’s compliance, the president ousted the US ambassador to Ukraine, froze congressionally approved military aid, shut out foreign-policy experts in the National Security Council and sidestepped the State Department to set up a back-channel to Kyiv with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

The Ukraine saga is yet another episode in which Russia is the potential beneficiary of White House decisions. Trump not only sought to muddy the picture of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, but also withheld nearly $400 million in military aid, a tenth of Ukraine’s defence budget, for its war with Russian-backed forces.

The Russians “would love the humiliation of Zelenskiy at the hands of the Americans,” William B Taylor Jr, the top diplomat in Kyiv who nearly quit in protest, testified to Congress.

This account of the effort to muscle the Ukrainians for Trump’s political gain is based on interviews with more than a dozen American and Ukrainian principals as well as thousands of pages of witnesses’ testimony in the House impeachment inquiry. More details and revelations are likely to surface in the hearings that begin Wednesday in the historic House Ways and Means Committee room on Capitol Hill.

But what is already striking is the intense pressure the Trump White House exerted on one of the weakest nations in Europe. Zelenskiy dodged the White House’s demands for months, but with one or more Ukrainians a week dying under Russian fire in the east, he finally ran out of options. In a CNN interview scheduled for 13 September, Zelenskiy aimed to satisfy Trump with an announcement about investigations.

Only at the last minute, after key members of Congress erupted in protest over Trump’s actions, did the White House release the aid. Zelenskiy canceled his appearance, and — for the moment, at least — Ukraine’s perils abated.

Trump’s, however, were only beginning.

Giuliani, a human ‘hand grenade’

Zelenskiy’s election in April garnered limited attention in the United States. But it thrilled American foreign policy experts who had watched Ukraine struggle for decades in the shadow of Russian economic and military threats, seesawing between democracy and authoritarianism.

Zelenskiy, a former comedian with no political experience, had campaigned against corruption and won a landslide victory. He quickly opened a special court to hear corruption cases and stripped legislators of immunity from criminal prosecution, two long-awaited reforms.

“There was much excitement in Kyiv that this time things could be different — a new Ukraine might finally be breaking from its corrupt, post-Soviet past,” Taylor testified.

Zelenskiy hoped to cement a relationship with the US president. But even before he took office, his aides suspected that the route to Trump ran through Giuliani rather than the State Department or the National Security Council. The former New York mayor’s influence over administration policy toward Ukraine “was almost unmissable,” George P Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, testified.

Giuliani and his allies had worked for months to force out Marie L Yovanovitch, the US ambassador in Kyiv, claiming, with no evidence, that she was disloyal to Trump.

Gordon D Sondland, a Republican donor with no diplomatic experience whom Trump had appointed ambassador to the European Union, offered Yovanovitch some unwanted advice: She might save her job, he counselled, if she extolled Trump in Twitter messages.

“You know the president,” he told her, according to Yovanovitch’s testimony to Congress.

Yovanovitch’s superiors insisted that she was an exemplary public servant who had been falsely accused. She nonetheless was abruptly recalled to Washington in May, a decision Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, called dispiriting.

Yovanovitch testified that she did not know exactly why, but she believed that Giuliani and Trump saw her as an obstacle to their strategy for Ukraine.

Even before she was ousted, Giuliani and the president were leveling charges on Fox News against one of Trump’s main Democratic rivals, Biden. As vice-president, they claimed, Biden had forced Zelenskiy’s predecessor to fire a state prosecutor to quash an investigation of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, that had hired Biden’s son Hunter.

No evidence has emerged to support that charge or that points to any crime by Hunter Biden. As vice-president, Biden was among many Western officials who considered the prosecutor corrupt and urged that he be fired.

Trump had also embraced a fringe theory, debunked by extensive evidence, that a central event in the 2016 campaign — the theft of private emails from Democratic computers and their release on the rogue website WikiLeaks — had not been carried out by Russia, as both US intelligence experts and a criminal inquiry had proved, but by Ukraine.

Giuliani saw the Ukraine intrigues as a perfect riposte to the criminal investigation by the special counsel, Mueller, that had cast such a shadow over Trump’s presidency. So did Trump, who told reporters that Ukrainians were behind the “hoax that was perpetrated on our country” — one of his favourite terms for the Mueller inquiry. If Trump could promote the Ukraine theory, he might be able to undercut the evidence that the Russians had tried to get him elected, and put to rest questions about his legitimacy.

Soon after Zelenskiy’s election, Giuliani’s allies relayed a message that the president’s lawyer wanted to meet with him. It was the beginning of a five-month high-wire act in which Zelenskiy tried to mollify Trump and his messengers, yet hang on to the support of members of Congress and diplomats who told him not to get mired in US politics.

Initially, the Ukrainian leader put Giuliani off, a move that went over badly. In a subsequent appearance on Fox News, Giuliani suggested that Zelenskiy had surrounded himself with “enemies of the president and in some cases enemies of the United States”.

In what some saw as a sign of Trump’s personal displeasure, a White House aide later said, Trump’s team also downgraded the US delegation to Zelenskiy’s 20 May inauguration, replacing Vice-President Mike Pence as the group’s senior official with Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Three days later, fresh from Zelenskiy’s swearing-in, Sondland, the European Union ambassador, and Kurt D Volker, a US special envoy to Ukraine, went to an Oval Office meeting. There they praised Zelenskiy as a reformer who deserved US support.

The president would have none of it. “They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people,” Trump retorted, according to Volker. He added, “They tried to take me down.”

Trump was apparently referring to Ukraine’s disclosure in 2016 of tens of millions of dollars in secret payments to Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, who had worked as a consultant to one of Zelenskiy’s predecessors. Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign and is now in prison for crimes related to those payments.

In the Oval Office, the president told both men to coordinate future Ukraine-related initiatives with Giuliani. “He just kept saying: ‘Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy,’” Sondland testified.

And they did, creating a foreign policy back channel that bewildered both Ukrainians and high-ranking administration officials.

Among those officials was John R Bolton, Trump’s third national security advisor. Just days earlier, he had warned Fiona Hill, one of his top deputies: “Giuliani is a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”

Public investigations

Sondland, a blustery hotelier who had parlayed a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural into his ambassadorship, assumed the role as principal go-between with the Ukrainians. He did not like taking instructions from Giuliani, he testified, but Giuliani made it clear he spoke for the president.

What Trump wanted, Giuliani told him, was a public declaration that Ukraine was investigating two matters: Burisma, the firm that had hired Hunter Biden, and whether Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election.

Bolton and State Department officials were largely cut out of discussions about how to achieve that. But that changed on 10 July.

More than a half dozen US and Ukrainian officials gathered that day in Bolton’s West Wing office, including Sondland, Volker, Bolton, Hill and Alexander S. Vindman, Bolton’s chief Ukraine specialist. The Ukrainians included Andrey Yermak, a top aide to Zelenskiy, and Alexander Danyliuk, Bolton’s counterpart in Kyiv.

All went well until the Ukrainians raised one of Zelenskiy’s most important issues: An invitation to the White House that Trump had promised in a letter after Zelenskiy was elected.

Sondland blurted out that Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, had guaranteed the invitation as long as Ukraine announced the investigations. By then, Hill testified, she and others recognised “investigations” as code for Burisma, the Bidens and the 2016 election.

Bolton stiffened, witnesses said, and abruptly ended the meeting. He pulled Hill aside and told her to report what had transpired to John A Eisenberg, the chief legal advisor to the National Security Council.

“Tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” he said, according to Hill’s testimony.

He dispatched her to catch up to the others in the White House basement, where Sondland had reconvened discussions with the Ukrainians. Hill listened long enough to hear the word “Burisma,” then declared the meeting over.

But if Bolton had hoped to blow up the back channel for Ukraine policy that day, he failed.

At 9.15 that morning, over coffee at the nearby Trump International Hotel, Yermak had asked Volker to connect him to Giuliani. “I feel the key for many things is Rudy,” Yermak texted the envoy later that day. He later met the president’s lawyer in Madrid.

Death on the battlefield

By mid-July, it became evident that there was more than an Oval Office meeting at stake for Ukraine. The military assistance was in play, too.

Eight days after the debacle with the Ukrainians at the White House came another bombshell. A secure video conference call with national security officials was interrupted by the disembodied voice of an Office of Management and Budget staffer. At Mulvaney’s direction, the staffer said, the office had placed a hold on $391 million in military aid for Ukraine.

Taylor, the top US envoy to Ukraine, said he listened “in astonishment”.

For four years, Russia had fought to expand its grip on Ukrainian territory. About 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died. Every morning, Ukrainian soldiers stood in formation in front of the Defence Ministry to commemorate their dead.

Taylor traveled later that month to the front lines, where Ukrainian soldiers faced hostile Russian forces across a damaged bridge. He listened uncomfortably as a Ukrainian military commander, unaware that the White House had held up military aid, thanked him for America’s support.

It was against this backdrop that Trump’s 25 July conversation with Zelenskiy unfolded. The president told Zelenskiy that the United States had done much for his nation and raised the “favour” he wanted: the inquiries into the 2016 election and the Bidens.

What the Bidens had done “sounds horrible to me,” he said, according to a White House reconstructed transcript of the call. Trump added that Giuliani would be in touch. Zelenskiy assured Trump that a new prosecutor would investigate Burisma and noted that his aide, Yermak, had already talked to Giuliani. Apparently pleased, Trump later told reporters that the new Ukrainian leader was “a very reasonable guy.”

But Vindman, the national security expert on Ukraine who was taking notes on the conversation in the Situation Room, was staggered by the implications of Trump’s remarks. He headed for the office of Eisenberg, the National Security Council’s chief legal advisor, to question the propriety of the demand for investigations.

Eisenberg quickly shunted the official summary of the conversation to an electronic storage system normally used for the most sensitive classified information. Later, he instructed Vindman not to discuss the phone call with others.

Nonetheless, a Central Intelligence Agency officer detailed to the White House got wind of it. On 12 August, he filed a whistleblower complaint, which slowly made its way to Congress.

Resistance crumbles

After the 25 July phone call, Sondland, Giuliani and Volker worked to draft an announcement for Zelenskiy that would satisfy Trump’s demands. Giuliani rejected one draft because it failed to mention the targets of the investigations. “If it doesn’t say Burisma and it doesn’t say 2016 what does it mean?” he asked Volker in a text.

But the Ukrainians were hesitating. Yermak, Zelenskiy’s aide, said the White House should set a date for Zelenskiy’s meeting with Trump before the Ukrainians released a statement.

Only after US officials explicitly told the Ukrainians that the military aid depended on that announcement did their resistance finally crumble.

Vindman, the national security aide, had drafted a memo for Bolton to give Trump in a meeting on 16 August. It said that the National Security Council, the Defense Department and the State Department all agreed that the aid should be released to Ukraine. But Trump rejected it, Vindman testified.

Timothy Morrison, a National Security Council regional expert, told Taylor: “The president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.”

Taylor protested in phone calls, text messages and in person. He complained to Bolton when the national security adviser came to Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy in late August. On Bolton’s advice, he sent a rare first-person cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 29 August describing the hold on the funds as “folly.”

On 1 September, an anxious Zelenskiy asked Pence about the money during an event in Warsaw, Poland, to commemorate the outbreak of World War II. Pence said only that he would raise it with Trump.

But Sondland, who also was at the event, took Yermak aside to deliver an explicit message: The Ukrainians should not expect the money if Zelenskiy did not publicly announce the investigations.

“It kept getting more insidious,” Sondland testified. Taylor, who took notes of his conversations, said the ambassador told him that “everything was on the line,” unless Zelenskiy put himself “in a public box.”

In Kyiv, all but one of Zelenskiy’s senior advisers argued that he had no choice but to give in. If left frozen, the military aid would expire at the end of the US government’s fiscal year on 30 September. Zelenskiy scheduled a 13 September interview on CNN to deliver an announcement designed to satisfy Trump.

The ground was suddenly shifting in Washington. The hold on the aid, first reported by Politico on 28 August, had surprised and angered members of Congress.

Word of the whistleblower complaint had also reached the top echelons of the National Security Council. As soon as Congress learned of it in early September, three House committees opened investigations.

In the meantime, Taylor was still pushing Sondland to lobby Trump to change his mind. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he texted the ambassador. Sondland called Trump on 7 September to see if there was any wiggle room.

“What do you want from Ukraine?” Sondland testified that he asked Trump.

“‘I want nothing,’” he quoted Trump as replying. “‘I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelenskiy to do the right thing.’”

“I recall that the president was really in a bad mood,” Sondland testified.

The White House reversed course and released the $391 million just two days before Zelenskiy’s CNN interview on 13 September. Two weeks later, it also released a rough transcript of the 25 July call, hoping to defuse the formal impeachment inquiry now underway.

Instead, it accelerated it.

Volker called the transcript “explosive” and resigned just before he testified.

Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, told investigators that Trump had stood US policy on its head. For decades, he said, the United States had demanded that leaders in Ukraine and other countries stop instigating politically motivated prosecutions of their opponents and uphold the rule of law.

For Trump to ask Ukraine to investigate his political rival for his political gain, he said, was “wrong”.

Hill testified that she was “shocked” and “very saddened” by the transcript of the calls and documents. Together, she said, they confirmed “my worst fears and nightmares” that private interests had subverted America’s national security concerns.

Her former boss, Bolton, who resigned in September, has said he would not testify unless a federal court rules that he can legally do so.

But in a letter to the court last week, his lawyer suggested more is to come. Bolton, he said, knows of many other White House meetings and discussions about Ukraine that have yet to become public.

Sharon LaFraniere, Andrew E. Kramer and Danny Hakim c.2019 The New York Times 

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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2019 10:33:02 IST