Dispatch, Explainers October 4, 2019

Anatomy of an Extortion Plot


The Volker Texts Reveal What Appears to be an Extensive Plot to Extort the Ukrainian Government for Trump’s Political Benefit

The release of Trump Ukraine Envoy Kurt Volker’s text messages on Ukraine reveal what appears to have been an elaborate extortion plot on the part of the Trump administration. Trump wanted the new Ukrainian government to interfere in the U.S. electoral process by opening investigations designed to damage a political opponent and to create a counter-narrative to rebut the Mueller-Russia investigation. This apparent plot unfolded over months and was designed to turn the screws on Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was resisting interfering in U.S. politics.

Trump knew that Zelensky wanted two key deliverables: a White House meeting and military aid. The stakes were high for Zelensky. He wanted the meeting with Trump to signal to the Kremlin that his new administration was backed by the United States. U.S. security assistance was also vital to the war in eastern Ukraine. The Trump administration used both the meeting and aid as leverage, with Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland acting as the heavies.

Here’s how the plot appears to have unfolded based on the text messages.

  • First, the White House used a presidential meeting to extort Ukraine.
  • Then, after Ukraine balked, they used the hold on security assistance to apply additional pressure.

The Trump administration pushes Ukraine to launch the investigations: On July 19, a day after the White House put a hold on security assistance to Ukraine, Volker connects Giuliani with a Zelensky aide. Sondland briefs Zelensky and says, about Zelensky, “He’s got it.” Volker stresses that Zelensky has to say he “will help investigation.”

Then, Ukraine has misgivings. They share them with a career official, Bill Taylor, but Sondland brushes them aside and communicates a subtle threat:

 

The White House says that if Zelensky will initiate the investigations, he’ll get a visit to Washington.

 

Zelensky has a call with Trump, where Trump makes clear what he wants and offers the desired meeting: Trump mentions Biden, his son, Giuliani, and Attorney General Barr numerous times during the call [screenshots of the call transcript below]

A few weeks later, Trump officials discuss that Trump “really wants the deliverable” (the investigations).

 

Ukraine is worried about the deal, and says they will not announce the investigations until they have confirmation of the meeting with Trump. Volker responds that this is fine, but they need to work out a statement about launching the investigations in exchange for the meeting.

  

Trump officials share drafts of the statement they want Ukraine to issue.

 

It’s clear that no one wants to go first. The Trump team doesn’t want to commit to a meeting without a public commitment to the investigations, and Ukraine doesn’t want to announce the investigations without a meeting. The Trump team is looking for a way to force Ukraine’s hand.

 

The Trump team forces Ukraine’s hand. Eleven days later, Politico publishes this article citing a “senior administration official”: 

 

Ukraine panics:

 

Other officials are starting to notice the quid pro quo. Trump’s own diplomat in Ukraine recognizes it:

 

Pence meets with Zelensky to shake him down.

  • Pence meets with Zelensky in Warsaw on September 2 after Trump canceled his trip there. Pence tells Zelensky about the hold on the aid and reportedly emphasizes that it was due to corruption (Pence denies all wrongdoing).

“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Trump’s top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, spells it all out for us. Nearly five hours later, Sondland responds in an effort to clean up the record. But it’s too late.

The Trump administration used Giuliani, and his direct line to Trump as his personal lawyer, to deliver the message to Ukraine about which investigations the Trump administration wanted them to open (Giuliani and Trump have denied all wrongdoing).

The extortion appears to have started with a refusal to announce a date for a meeting between Zelensky and Trump without a signed statement saying that Ukraine would investigate Trump’s political rival and a conspiracy that Trump has been pushing about the 2016 election. When that wasn’t producing results fast enough, the Trump administration made it clear that they would withhold military aid to Ukraine until the investigations were announced.