(Bloomberg) — Public debate surrounding the House impeachment inquiry has focused heavily on whether President Donald Trump’s aides withheld military aid to Ukraine as part of a “quid pro quo.”
Yet testimony unsealed this week makes clear that something else valuable to the fledgling Ukrainian government was the initial deal offered: an Oval Office meeting between the nations’ leaders if Ukraine announced it would investigate Joe Biden and the Democrats.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials knew an Oval Office handshake between Trump and newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy would confer much-needed authority and legitimacy on a young, untested and inexperienced leader facing off against Russia, his nation’s biggest adversary.
Transcripts released this week by House impeachment committees underscore how important a visit to the White House was to Zelenskiy, who was eager to show that Trump would stand by Ukraine despite the American president’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. More may come out when public testimony begins next week.
Official U.S. policy was to back Ukraine as it struggled to counter Russia’s supplies of arms, tanks and fighters in a breakaway region of eastern Ukraine. Trump’s administration had even begun providing military aid to Kyiv that the Obama administration had denied. But Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was pushing another agenda — one that made an Oval Office visit contingent on political help for Trump.
“Heard from White House,” Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker wrote in a text message to a top Zelenskiy aide in July. “Assuming President Z convinces Trump he will investigate/‘Get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016 we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck.”
That demand was also spelled out by William Taylor, the interim U.S. envoy to Ukraine. Taylor told the impeachment inquiry that by mid-July, “it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskiy wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections.”
Testimony shows that Giuliani demanded a public statement by Zelenskiy that his government would investigate Democratic presidential contender Biden and his son’s past role on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukranian natural gas company, as well as the unsubstantianted theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Read More: Diplomat Describes Trump Aides’ Escalating Pressure on Ukraine
In denying that Trump demanded a quid pro quo, Trump and Republican lawmakers have focused on the argument that Ukrainian officials didn’t even know early on that the military aid they were counting on was being held up.
But Volker’s text messages and other evidence made clear that the Ukrainians knew that an investigation into Biden and the Democrats was the admission price for a meeting that arguably would have as much symbolic power as the military aid that was eventually delivered.
Analysts say Ukraine’s new president was in a precarious position as the leader of a country that’s under siege by Russia and viewed skeptically in the West over its endemic corruption. Outside signs of support were crucial, they say.
“The Ukrainian president’s team wanted Zelenskiy to be seen on the world stage as a major important new figure, and they wanted him visibly interacting with top Western counterparts,” said Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Ukraine had been a political thorn in Trump’s side since his 2016 campaign, when his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was forced to quit over his business dealings there.
“Everyone on the U.S. side knew that was going to be a hard sell because Trump had been such a dogged, vocal critic of all things Ukraine-related as a candidate and as president,” Weiss said of the efforts by diplomats to pursue a Trump-Zelenskiy alliance.
Many top U.S. officials and lawmakers shared a concern that Trump’s hostility toward Ukraine would leave the country exposed and unable to push back against Russian aggression. Republican Senator Ron Johnson led a bipartisan push in Congress to get the military aid delivered.
Yet Giuliani dug in on conditions for a meeting, and he signaled as much publicly.
On June 21, he tweeted that Zelenskiy was “still silent on investigation of Ukrainian interference in 2016 and alleged Biden bribery of Poroshenko. Time for leadership and investigate both if you want to purge how Ukraine was abused by Hillary and Clinton people.” Petro Poroshenko was Zelenskiy’s predecessor.
In a later conversation about demands for Ukraine to issue a statement, Volker said Giuliani told him, “Well, if it doesn’t say Burisma and if it doesn’t say 2016, what does it mean? You know, it’s not credible. You know, they’re hiding something.”
As the transcripts from the impeachment inquiry released this week make clear, some U.S. officials saw risks in the White House’s demands.
“Yes, it would be fine to have the two presidents talk, but if President Zelenskiy, in order to get that meeting were going to have to intervene in U.S. domestic policy or politics” by “announcing an investigation that would benefit someone in the United States, then it wasn’t clear to me that that would be worth it,” Taylor said.
Trying to Please
The inquiry also has found that Ukrainian leaders tried to satisfy the quid pro quo for a meeting, offering to make statements along the lines that Giuliani demanded — but only after a date for the White House visit was pinned down.
“I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things,” Zelenskiy adviser Andriy Yermak wrote Volker at one point. “But it will be logic to do after we receive confirmation of date.”
A few days later he said: “Once we have a date, we will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-Ukraine relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling.”
The White House meeting never happened. Instead, Zelenskiy and Trump met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in late September. Earlier that day, the White House had released a partial transcript of the two leaders’ July 25 phone call — in which Trump asked for a “favor” involving Biden and the Democrats — and the seeds of Trump’s possible impeachment were already taking root.
–With assistance from Tony Capaccio.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at email@example.com, Larry Liebert
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