TIME

Trump Envoys Pushed Ukraine to Commit to Investigations



WASHINGTON — Two of President Trump’s top envoys to Ukraine drafted a statement for the country’s new president in August that would have committed Ukraine to pursuing investigations sought by Mr. Trump into his political rivals, three people briefed on the effort said.

The drafting of the statement is new evidence of how Mr. Trump’s fixation with Ukraine and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories began driving senior diplomats to bend American foreign policy to the president’s political agenda in the weeks after the July 25 call between the two leaders.

The statement was drafted by Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt D. Volker, then the State Department’s envoy to Ukraine, according to the three people who have been briefed on it.

Mr. Volker spent Thursday on Capitol Hill being questioned by House investigators as Democrats pursued their impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’s actions. He disclosed a set of texts in September in which William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, alluded to Mr. Trump’s decision earlier in the summer to freeze a military aid package to the country. He told Mr. Sondland and Mr. Volker: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

After speaking with Mr. Trump, Mr. Sondland texted back that there was no quid pro quo, adding, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

It was not clear if the statement drafted in August by Mr. Sondland and Mr. Volker came up in the closed-door session on Capitol Hill.

The statement was written with the awareness of a top aide to the Ukrainian president, as well as Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and the de facto leader of a shadow campaign to push the Ukrainians to press ahead with investigations, according to one of the people briefed on it.

The statement would have committed Ukraine to investigating the energy company Burisma, which had employed Hunter Biden, the younger son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. And it would have called for the Ukrainian government to look into what Mr. Trump and his allies believe was interference by Ukrainians in the 2016 election in the United States to benefit Hillary Clinton.

The idea behind the statement was to break the Ukrainians of their habit of promising American diplomats and leaders behind closed doors that they would look into matters and never follow through, the people briefed on it said.

It is unclear if the statement was delivered to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, but no statement was released publicly under his name. Around that time, the Ukrainian officials indicated to the Americans that they wanted to avoid becoming more deeply enmeshed in American politics.

The drafting of the statement, which came in the weeks after the July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, was an effort to pacify Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani and normalize relations between the two countries as Ukraine faced continuing conflict with Russia. Mr. Sondland and Mr. Volker believed that Mr. Giuliani was “poisoning” Mr. Trump’s mind about Ukraine and that eliciting a public commitment from Mr. Zelensky to pursue the investigations would induce Mr. Trump to more fully support the new Ukrainian government, according to the people familiar with it.

ABC News on Thursday published portions of text messages between Mr. Volker and Mr. Sondland referring to the writing of the draft statement.

The topic of the investigations came up during the July call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, and Mr. Zelensky appeared open during the conversation to Mr. Trump’s request that he coordinate with Attorney General William P. Barr and Mr. Giuliani. But that was apparently not enough for Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani, and within weeks Mr. Volker and Mr. Sondland were working on the draft statement.

Mr. Giuliani said he was aware of the statement but that it was not written at his behest.

Mr. Giuliani said that the statement was being handled by Mr. Sondland and Mr. Volker, and that he was not sure if Mr. Trump was involved in it.

“I don’t have any information that would suggest that it was at his request, but I can’t tell you it wasn’t, either,” he said.

He said he thought that the statement was intended to be delivered as part of a series of announcements by Mr. Zelensky’s government about the confirmation of new prosecutors and other officials.

“He was supposed to do something, or say something, to assure everybody — meaning our people — that he was going to take serious action about corruption,” said Mr. Giuliani. “I know that the investigations — which would be the collusion, the Burisma investigation — would be included in it, but it would have been part of an overall statement about dealing with corruption in an aggressive way.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Aides to Mr. Zelensky did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent in the overnight in Ukraine.

Despite Mr. Trump’s accusations of corruption on the part of the Bidens, no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president knowingly took any steps to help his son or his son’s Ukrainian employer.

Mr. Trump’s regular suggestions that Ukraine, rather than Russia, was responsible for the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee have been thoroughly debunked. While some Ukrainian officials expressed support for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, claims by Mr. Trump and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, that documents released in Ukraine that year implicating Mr. Manafort in financial fraud were falsified or doctored have similarly proven to be baseless.

But Mr. Trump’s continued efforts to press Ukraine to investigate those matters has drawn in a growing number of his aides, including Mr. Volker, who stepped down last week at the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine, and Mr. Sondland, who has taken an increasingly prominent role in dealing with Kiev.

Mr. Sondland, 62, made a fortune in luxury hotels, and has been a prominent Republican donor and fund-raiser for years.

He backed out of his role as a host of a fund-raiser for Mr. Trump in 2016 citing Mr. Trump’s disparaging comments toward immigrants and the family of a slain Muslim American soldier.

But Mr. Sondland donated $1 million through his companies to the inaugural committee for Mr. Trump, who subsequently tapped Mr. Sondland last year to be United States ambassador to the European Union.

The role traditionally has not focused on Ukraine, which is not part of the European Union, but Mr. Sondland increasingly worked to establish himself as a central figure in Ukraine policy, administration officials said.

Mr. Sondland came to be seen in the administration as more loyal to Mr. Trump than was Mr. Volker, an acolyte of the late Senator John McCain, an outspoken critic of the president.

Mr. Sondland told reporters last month that he saw Ukraine as among a handful of “low-hanging fruit” policy areas where the European Union could work together with Washington to improve relations.

Mr. Sondland raised some hackles at the State Department and in the National Security Council when he asked to be included in the United States delegation that attended Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration, according to people familiar with the events. They said Mr. Sondland pushed for an Oval Office meeting afterward for the delegation — which also included Mr. Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin — to brief Mr. Trump on the delegation’s impressions of Mr. Zelensky.

When the delegation praised Mr. Zelensky and urged Mr. Trump to fully support the new Ukrainian government, the president was dismissive. “They’re terrible people,” Mr. Trump said of Ukrainian politicians, according to people familiar with the meeting. “They’re all corrupt and they tried to take me down.”

Mr. Sondland continued building a relationship with Mr. Zelensky, inviting him to a June dinner at the United States mission to the European Union in Brussels, and meeting him again in Kiev in July with Mr. Volker on the day after Mr. Trump’s phone call with Mr. Zelensky.

And Mr. Sondland kept in contact with Mr. Zelensky’s aides, who have told people that Mr. Sondland urged them to encourage the Ukrainian president to push forward with investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.
Powered by Blogger.