| October 04, 2019 12:45 AM
Updated Oct 04, 2019, 01:34 AM
Text messages released by House Democrats show that a top U.S. diplomat warned a Trump appointee that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign” from Ukraine.
The text messages, made public late Thursday, are largely those sent by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, former State Department envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Chargé d’Affaires William Taylor before and after the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that became the focus of an intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint. Of the three, Taylor repeatedly displayed a sense of anxiety at what was transpiring.
As Volker testified before three House committees engaged in an impeachment inquiry on Thursday, snippets of the text messages were leaked to the media. One exchange was from Sept. 9, in which Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, indicated he thought Trump was doing just what he has vociferously denied in the past few weeks: asking for a favor.
“The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario,” Taylor said. “Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon.”
Sondland replied, “Bill I never said I was ‘right’. I said we are where we are and believe we have identified the best pathway forward. Lets hope it works.”
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor responded. Sondland denied there being a “quid pro quo” and said Trump instead was evaluating whether Zelensky was “truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms” that were promised during his campaign.
Upon the completion of Volker’s nine-and-a-half-hour testimony, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel announced “selected portions of these texts were leaked to the press out of context” and released more of the exchanges “to help correct the public record” in a letter to colleagues. They also acknowledged the texts are only a portion of the materials they have received.
In response, Republicans called the disclosure “cherry-picked” and argued the full context of the information could not be fully understood without Volker’s explanations from his testimony.
Among the texts was a message on the morning of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that Volker sent to top Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak that indicated Zelensky visiting Washington was conditional, a trip that could give the newly elected leader an opportunity to solidify his standing with a key ally amid Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression.
“Good lunch — thanks. Heard from White House — 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! See you tomorrow — Kurt,” Volker wrote.
The message offers a possible explanation for why Zelensky first brought up an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter during his call with Trump. Ever since the White House released notes of the call, Trump and his allies have harped on how it showed that Zelensky, not Trump, first mentioned the Bidens to dispute the notion of a quid pro quo. Trump then urged Zelensky to work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr to investigate matters related to the Bidens and alleged collusion between the Democrats and Ukraine in the 2016 election.
Trump claims he did not say anything wrong and as recently as Thursday morning openly called on Ukraine as well as China to investigate the former vice president’s son, who had business ties to both countries. Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, shot back, tweeting, “Mr. President, you cannot extort foreign governments to help you win re-election. It’s an abuse of power.”
Elsewhere in the text message disclosure, serious questions arose concerning Trump’s explanation for why nearly $400 million in security aid was approved by Congress but held by his administration until Sept. 11: namely, that they needed to be certain that there was no corruption. One exchange in late August shows Ukraine growing concerned about the Trump administration delaying the aid meant to help with the conflict against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
On Aug. 28, Yarmak shared a Politico story with Volker entitled “Trump Holds Up Military Aid Meant to Confront Russia” and said “Need to talk with you.” Volker texted back: “Hi Andrey — absolutely. When is good for you?”
Other text messages involve discussions pertaining to Giuliani and also show Taylor becoming increasingly unnerved by what appeared to be an effort to put the squeeze on Ukraine. On Sept. 1, right after Trump canceled a trip to Poland in which he would have met Zelensky and sent Vice President Mike Pence to go in his stead, Taylor texted Sondland about any requirements Ukraine might need to meet for a White House visit to happen. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor asked. Sondland replied by telling Taylor to call.
In their letter, the three Democratic chairmen who released the messages said they are investigating what roles Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may have played in a possible pressure campaign on Ukraine, as recent reports indicated they had knowledge of the July 25 call — leading Pompeo to confirm he listened in on the conversation — and raised questions about whether there was a particular motive behind Pence skipping Zelensky’s inauguration in May.
By Sept. 8, Taylor appeared exasperated as pressure mounted from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill for Trump to unlock the security aid. “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.),” he told Volker and Sondland.
The Trump administration finally said it would release the almost $400 million in military aid after Trump had a call on Sept. 11 with Sen. Rob Portman in which the Ohio Republican asked the president to release the funds.
The text messages add texture to the Aug. 12 whistleblower complaint alleging that a meeting between Trump and Zelensky would need to be predicated on the Ukrainian leader agreeing to “play ball” on the investigations that Giuliani had undertaken. Trump has since lashed out at the whistleblower and his or her sources and stated he intends to find out the identity of this official.
Last week, Trump acknowledged Biden had been discussed during his call with Zelensky, which prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce a formal impeachment inquiry. In the ensuing days, Democrats demanded Volker, who abruptly resigned on Friday, and other State Department officials to testify and provide material to assist their investigations. They also subpoenaed Giuliani for documents.
State Department Inspector General Steve Linick briefed Congress earlier this week, which Democratic Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin said turned out to be “nothing” related to Trump’s conduct, but rather the transfer of documents containing unproven claims about the Bidens.
After Volker testified on Thursday, Republicans claimed the impeachment effort took another hit. “The facts we learned today undercut the salacious narrative that Adam Schiff is using to sell his impeachment ambitions. We hope the American people get to read the transcript of today’s testimony and see the truth” said Reps. Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, the top Republicans on the House Oversight and Intelligence Committees, in a joint statement.
But Democrats argued the first production of materials make it “apparent why Secretary Pompeo tried to block these officials from providing information.”
“These text messages reflect serious concerns raised by a State Department official about the detrimental effects of withholding critical military assistance from Ukraine, and the importance of setting up a meeting between President Trump and the Ukrainian President without further delay. He also directly expressed concerns that this critical military assistance and the meeting between the two presidents were being withheld in order to place additional pressure on Ukraine to deliver on the President’s demand for Ukraine to launch politically motivated investigations,” Schiff, Cummings, and Engel said.