House Committees Hold Public Impeachment Hearing with William Taylor and George Kent
On July 25, Trump had a phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently-elected president of Ukraine. According to notes on the conversation released by the White House, Trump and Zelensky first discussed Ukraine’s reliance on U.S. military aid to combat Russia’s efforts to annex Crimea. Trump then asked Zelensky to do him a “favor” by investigating two conspiracy theories, one claiming Ukrainian government officials conspired with the Clinton campaign in 2016 and the other alleging that former Vice President (and Democratic presidential candidate) Joe Biden improperly intervened in a Ukrainian investigation into a company on whose board his son Hunter sat.
The call was part of an effort going back more than a year to pressure Ukraine into acting in Trump’s political interests. According to The New York Times, under Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine stopped cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election in part to avoid angering Trump and to ensure they would continue receiving military aid. Moreover, in March 2019, Ukraine’s prosecutor general reportedly “moved ahead on” the two investigations, which Poroshenko’s allies believed were “of intense interest to” Trump and “might elicit a show of support for [Poroshenko] from Mr. Trump, who had boosted the election prospects of other foreign governments.”
These efforts appear to have intensified in early 2019, roughly corresponding with Zelensky’s election in April. (Trump reportedly also raised the prospect of investigating the Bidens in an April 21 call congratulating Zelensky on his victory.) In May, The New York Times reported that Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and Trump’s personal lawyer, was pressuring the Ukrainian government to open the investigations on Trump’s behalf. In the process, Giuliani had met—and over the next few months, would continue meeting—with numerous Ukrainian officials to push the Biden conspiracy theory, at times with help from U.S. State Department officials like U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. (Volker ultimately resigned.)
Texts between Giuliani, Volker, and other State Department officials suggest their initial goal was to pressure Ukraine to open the investigations in exchange for a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Zelensky. In July, however, Trump introduced another variable: military aid to Ukraine. On July 18, one week before his call with Zelensky, Trump instructed administration officials to withhold military aid Ukraine desperately needed in its constant struggle against Russian aggression.
It remains unclear exactly when Zelensky learned that the U.S. government was withholding the aid. However, texts between Volker and a Ukrainian official suggest that, by late August, the Ukrainian government not only knew the Trump administration was withholding the aid but also understood they were doing so specifically to pressure Ukraine into helping Trump.
On September 5, The Washington Post became the first news outlet to report on Trump’s extortion scheme. In an editorial, the newspaper reported they had been “reliably told” that Trump was withholding military aid in an attempt to influence President Zelensky to investigate the Biden family.
The full extent of Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine has become increasingly clear thanks in part to an anonymous whistleblower. On August 12, a member of the intelligence community filed a complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky based on information about the call from conversations with several administration officials. After weeks of attempting to hide the complaint from Congress, the Trump administration released notes from the call on September 25 and the whistleblower complaint the next day, effectively confessing to their extortion scheme. The administration also confirmed that, as alleged in the complaint, the White House has a secret server they use to bury records of phone calls between Trump and foreign leaders, including not only his call with Zelensky but also conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On September 24, 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced an official impeachment inquiry into the president. Though the impeachment is expected to focus on Trump’s conduct, several other top administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and Office of Management and Budget Director and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, appear to be implicated in the scandal. Additionally, though the investigation is expected to focus on Ukraine, Trump appears intent on widening the inquiry, publicly calling for China to investigate the Bidens as well.