“This week, current and former State Department officials have begun cooperating with the impeachment inquiry by producing documents and scheduling interviews and depositions,” said Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairmen of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform committees in a joint statement Thursday night. “Based on the first production of materials, it has become immediately apparent why Secretary Pompeo tried to block these officials from providing information.”
Volker provided Democrats with 60 pages of text messages and other documents that showed some senior State Department officials were outraged that the Trump administration would try to make aid to Ukraine contingent on efforts to help the president’s reelection campaign.
One text between Volker and Andrey Yermak, a top Zelensky adviser, on July 25 — the day of the Trump-Zelenksy call — linked a Zelensky visit to the Washington to whether the Ukrainians moved ahead with the Biden probe. Volker said “Heard from the White House. Assuming President Z convinces [T]rump he will investigate/ ‘get to the bottom of what happened in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”
And in another more controversial text, a senior American diplomat expressed outrage to any linkage between U.S. aid to whether the Ukrainians took the steps Trump and Giuliani wanted.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” said Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, in a Sept. 9 text message.
But Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, strongly denied in a response to Taylor that this was Trump’s purpose.
“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland wrote. “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.”
Republicans insisted that Volker testified that Trump never sought a “quid pro quo” from Zelensky, despite the new documents and Democrats’ repeated questions on the topic.
“What we do know is there was definitely not quid-pro-quo,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform panel, told reporters after leaving the Volker deposition. “Any comments that would indicate that there was some nefarious purpose on behalf of this president was not backed up by the facts today.”
“If there was an Academy Award for leading the witness, my Democratic colleagues would have gotten three Oscars today,” Meadows added.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), without offering specifics, said Volker’s testimony “blew a massive hole” through allegations that Trump sought a quid pro quo from the Ukrainian leader leader.
But Sondland and Volker — under pressure from Giuliani — were also asked to draft a statement saying Ukrainian officials were committed to beginning investigations into Biden and other Trump rivals. Volker testified about that episode to congressional investigators on Thursday, according to several people involved in the hearing. The New York Times first reported the intent to draft the statement.
One source said Volker testified that he wanted a broader statement on the Ukrainians fighting corruption. Giuliani, though, pushed for a statement more narrowly focused on Burisma — the Ukrainian energy firm on whose board Hunter Biden sat — and a possible Ukrainian role in the 2016 U.S. election, a near obsession with Trump. No statement was ever drafted, Volker said.
Volker also told investigators that he warned Giuliani that he was being fed some incorrect information on the Bidens from Ukrainian contacts, particularly Yuriy Lutsenko, the country’s former top prosecutor.
“The ambassador’s view of Ukrainian corruption and Rudy Giuliani’s view of corruption are at odds with one another,” Meadows acknowledged. “I think the ambassador had a much more forward-looking position on what he believes the new Ukrainian government will do, and I think that’s at odds with what Rudy Giuliani believes.”
Giuliani’s role in the Ukrainian scandal was the focus of a “significant portion” of Thursday’s session, according to sources familiar with the hearing, and Democrats accused the former New York mayor and ex-federal prosecutor of being involved in a “shakedown” of the Ukrainiains on Trump’s behalf.
“We saw further evidence that there was a shadow shakedown, and I would say, the lead deputy for the president was Rudy Giuliani,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “You had an experienced diplomat, working for free as a special envoy, who in many ways was a front for the work being done on the side, parallel to his efforts, by Rudy Giuliani.”
According to Swalwell, there is “more and more evidence that the president of the United States was improperly using his office, using our taxpayer dollars, to leverage help from an ally in our upcoming 2020 elections.”
Volker is mentioned in a whistleblower complaint that fueled the impeachment inquiry. The complaint notes that Zelensky met with Volker the day after his phone call with Trump, and says the envoy tried to help Ukrainian officials figure out how to “navigate” Trump’s demands.
The Trump administration held up nearly $400 million in foreign aid approved by Congress as Trump and Giuliani lobbied to announced a probe into the Bidens. Trump and Giuliani alleged that Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time, intervened to block an investigation into Burisma in 2016. There is no evidence that an investigation was underway at the time or that Biden intervened to protect his son’s firm.
Giuliani has also pulled Volker into the episode, insisting that he met with Zelensky’s aides at the request of State Department officials — including Volker — and that he briefed the department about his discussions afterward.
On Thursday morning, Giuliani tweeted out screenshots of texts between him and Volker in which the envoy appeared to be arranging meeting times for Giuliani and a Ukrainian official.
The former New York mayor also railed against Democratic lawmakers pursuing impeachment, though he offered a kind word for Volker.
“Crooked Dems not letting Republicans subpoena witnesses and maybe even question witness,” Giuliani claimed in a tweet. “This is a Star Chamber, illicit and part of their conspiracy to violate constitutional rights condoned by their media lamb dogs. Kurt did nothing wrong.”
Volker has said little publicly about the unfolding drama. But the State Department has defended him in the past, saying that a Ukrainian official had asked Volker to connect him with Giuliani, which he did. Volker is a former career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to NATO who is respected among Democrats and Republicans in Washington.
Many foreign policy hands welcomed Volker’s appointment as envoy in 2017 because of his hawkish views on Russia.
Volker held the envoy position on an unpaid, part-time basis. He also works as an adviser to a lobbying firm and as executive director of a Washington think tank named for the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The implication is that aides to Zelensky — a former comedian who won Ukraine’s presidency in April — were trying to establish a link to Giuliani, given his close relationship with Trump.
It’s likely Giuliani got the new Ukrainian government’s attention in part because he spent much of this past spring talking about Ukraine and alleged wrongdoings by the Bidens.
Nahal Toosi and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.