Explainer

What We Know About the Trump-Ukraine Investigation

Much remains unclear, but the latest revelations from U.S. diplomats tend to corroborate the whistleblower’s account of how the Trump team sought to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden.

Kurt Volker departs House Intelligence Committee meeting
Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, departs following a closed-door deposition led by the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 3. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

A selection of text messages released late Thursday night revealed how U.S. State Department officials dangled the promise of a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage Kyiv to open investigations that could aid Trump’s reelection campaign.

The messages, released by the House committees spearheading the impeachment investigation, appear to corroborate the account of the still anonymous whistleblower who touched off the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s alleged efforts to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating the president’s 2020 Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Here is a summary of what is known so far.


How did it start?

Before the scandal burst out into the open two weeks ago, when the Washington Post revealed that the whistleblower complaint centered on Ukraine, much of the shadow diplomacy carried out by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was conducted in public view. But reporters could only see bits and pieces of what was happening, not the whole effort.

The first sign came in May, when former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch—who has thus far remained silent but is expected to testify before Congress next Friday—was unexpectedly recalled in what Democratic lawmakers described at the time as a “political hit job.” 

“It’s clear that this decision was politically motivated, as allies of President Trump had joined foreign actors in lobbying for the Ambassador’s dismissal,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement released earlier this year. 

At the time, the State Department said she was concluding her assignment “as planned” and that her departure date aligned with the start of a new administration in Ukraine. But she lost her job a little over a month after she came under attack from then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko—who has met with Giuliani on a number of occasions—as well as right-wing figures in the U.S. media. 

The timing did seem to suggest that these two things were related, but it was only this week that these suspicions were confirmed when the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump recalled the ambassador after his allies outside the administration, including Giuliani, claimed that she had undermined efforts to investigate Biden and had criticized the president abroad. Yovanovitch’s former colleagues have strongly disputed these claims.

It turned out that Yovanovitch was the canary in the coal mine of the Ukraine affair. Her firing was the first sign of how extensive the efforts made by Giuliani and other Trump aides, including senior U.S. diplomats, were to force the Ukrainian government into investigating what the U.S. president wanted it to investigate, which included not only the role of Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, but also what Trump believed to be the role that Ukrainian operatives might have played in 2016 election efforts against him. 

The attack against the ambassador stemmed from an interview that Lutsenko gave over Skype to John Solomon, a contributing opinion writer at the Washington news site the Hill who previously ran its Hill.TV video platform. The wide-ranging interview provided the basis for a series of articles published in the Hill in March and April and served as the first comprehensive outline of the Ukraine thesis that was later picked up by mainstream media outlets in the United States: that the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation lay in Ukraine and the unfounded claim that Biden had sought to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired in a bid to protect his son. 

It wasn’t until this week, when a packet of documents was handed over to lawmakers from the State Department inspector general, that we got a glimpse of the ties between Solomon and Trump allies who were working to try to find compromising information on Biden. Among the documents, some of which originated with Giuliani, was an email, obtained by the Daily Beast, between Solomon, a Ukrainian American businessman, and two lawyers close to the Trump administration who Fox News has reported worked “off the books” with Giuliani.

Included in the body of the email was the draft of an unpublished article based on the Lutsenko interview. In a tweet on Wednesday night, Solomon claimed he was fact-checking the article, but the head of the Ukrainian anti-corruption group at the center of the article said on Friday that she had never been contacted as part of the fact check.


Who else do we know was involved, and was there an obvious quid pro quo demanded by the Trump team?

During a closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, sought to distance himself from efforts to pressure Ukraine and said in his opening testimony that he did not believe there was a connection between the security aid package that was temporarily withheld and the president and his allies’ request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens. 

But the tranche of messages exchanged between Volker; Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union; and Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine—which were released late Thursday night by House committees after Volker’s nearly 10-hour deposition—paint a more complicated picture of his role. Some messages suggested that Volker was actively aware that a meeting between Zelensky and Trump depended on whether the Ukrainian president could convince Trump that he would open the investigation. 

In a message to Andriy Yermak, a top aide to the Ukrainian president, Volker writes, “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.”

According to the New York Times, Sondland and Volker even worked on a draft statement for the Ukrainian president in which Zelensky would commit to pursuing the investigations sought by Trump and his allies. The statement was never released. 

Another issue was whether Trump was holding back military aid to Ukraine in exchange for cooperation on investigations. Taylor, a career diplomat, apparently was concerned that Trump was demanding a frank quid pro quo. In a Sept. 9 text that Taylor sent to Sondland, he writes: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland, a major Republican donor who was a political appointee, responds: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” He then suggests they stop texting about the matter. It is not clear why Sondland, who as ambassador to the EU would not normally play a direct role in dealing with Ukraine (which is not an EU member), was involved in the matter.

But those messages appear to support the case that even within the administration, some officials suspected that Trump was making his policy toward Ukraine contingent on cooperation with the investigation demanded by the U.S. president, thus backing up the most damning allegations in the whistleblower complaint. The complaint revealed significant details about Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky and subsequent efforts by White House lawyers to limit access to the transcript.

Key aspects of the complaint were based on the whistleblower’s own conversations with senior officials, but it also draws heavily on media reports that had documented Giuliani’s adventurist diplomatic efforts in Ukraine, much of which he has been quite open about, telling the New York Times in May, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation.”


What don’t we still know?

Key questions remain, such as the degree to which Trump was aware of Giuliani’s efforts and how his narrative about Ukraine began to appear on the Hill. It’s only now that congressional testimony and news reports have begun to corroborate and put some meat onto the outline of the conspiracy that first began to emerge in the spring. 

Congressional Democrats dialed up their inquiry further on Friday, issuing a request for documents from Vice President Mike Pence as his role pressuring Ukraine comes under the spotlight. 

While new revelations are coming thick and fast in this rapidly developing story, there are still more questions outstanding than have been answered. It is unclear who stood to benefit from the U.S. ambassador, Yovanovitch, being shoved out; what Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who was on the original call with Zelensky) know; and why Giuliani decided to go to Ukraine in pursuit of opposition research in the first place. 

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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