Washington • Top U.S. diplomats encouraged Ukraine’s newly elected president to conduct an investigation linked to Joe Biden’s family in return for a potentially high-profile visit to Washington with President Donald Trump.
That’s according to a cache of emails released late Thursday by House investigators following a 10-hour interview with one of the diplomats, Kurt Volker, who stepped down as former special envoy to Ukraine amid the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The pages of text messages convey a distinct campaign among the diplomats, who — apparently against some of their stated better judgment — appear to be trying to help Ukraine reset its relationship with Trump by pushing his interest in investigating his Democratic rival.
Volker, in a text message on the morning of a planned July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, wrote: “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.”
An adviser to the Ukrainian president appears to go along with the proposal, which entails investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of the company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv.
“Phone call went well,” wrote Andrey Yermak in a text to Volker later that day after the two presidents spoke. Yermak suggests several dates when Trump and Zerenskiy could meet in September.
But all that planning started to unravel when Zelenskiy’s aide tried to lock in a date for the Trump meeting before putting out the statement on the investigations. Trump put a hold on military assistance to the country, which was depending on the funds as part of its defense of Russia.
“Once we have a date we will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship , including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations,” Yermak wrote two weeks later.
“Sounds great!” texted Volker.
Volker and the two other diplomats _ William “Bill” Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union _ discussed the statement Zelenskiy would issue in support of the investigation. As the negotiations progressed, Sondland said Trump "really wants the deliverable," referring to Ukraine’s commitment to conduct the investigation.
Then, Trump put a hold on military assistance to Ukraine, which was depending on the funds as part of its defense of Russia.
“Need to talk with you,” Yermak wrote to Volker.
Taylor, the seasoned top diplomat in the Ukrainian embassy, conveyed his concerns and questioned whether the money was being withheld until Ukraine agreed to Trump’s demand.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he writes.
“This is my nightmare scenario,” Taylor tells his colleagues days later. Taylor says that by withholding the Ukrainian assistance, “we have already shaken their faith in us.”
House Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine matter after a government whistleblower disclosed Trump’s call with Zelenskiy and the push to have a foreign government interfere in U.S. elections.
Biden, as a Democratic front-runner, could be Trump’s opponent in the 2020 presidential election. Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani have tried, without evidence, to implicate Biden and his son Hunter in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine.
Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
Trump and Giuliani have also promoted an alternative theory of 2016 election interference, which puts Ukraine, not Russia, at the center, at odds with the 2017 findings of the U.S. intelligence community and special counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 report.
Trump has said his call with Zelenskiy was “perfect” and portrays the impeachment inquiry as a sham.
The text messages released Thursday show that within a month of the call, Trump has canceled the visit with Zelenskiy, sending the diplomats into a scramble as they try to salvage a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence or possibly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Taylor tells Sondland he is “counting on you to be right,” and Sondland snaps back, “Bill, I never said I was right.”
Sondland says they have identified the best path forward, and “let’s hope it works.”
Taylor then texts, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
After a more than four-hour pause, Sondland texts Taylor that he’s incorrect, and writes that Trump “has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind.”
He also suggests, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”