The House held the last of its scheduled impeachment hearings Thursday, and we know three major things: 1) that President Trump asked a foreign government to launch two investigations with obvious political benefits for him; 2) that his aides are alleged to have told Ukraine that U.S. government concessions were conditioned on those investigations; and 3) that European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who was in contact with Trump, understood this to be Trump’s will.
Whether Trump explicitly signed off on quid pro quos is something we don’t know, though, and Sondland said he hadn’t heard Trump do that. Some people argue that’s irrelevant. But as the impeachment inquiry enters a new phase, it’s worth taking stock of what we do and don’t know about Trump’s personal actions, as we hurtle toward what appears to be the third impeachment of a U.S. president.
Consider this the case against Donald Trump, as it stands. We’ll update it as new evidence becomes known.
1. The alleged quid pro quos
This is the central allegation, and more than half a dozen witnesses have testified to or spoken about there being a quid pro quo of some kind. They indicate it became clear at several junctures.
Generally speaking, this involves Sondland communicating the quid pro quo to Ukrainian officials and telling others that he communicated them. Witnesses have said there were two quid pro quos: one involving a White House meeting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky badly wanted, and another involving military aid. Both were allegedly withheld to force Ukraine to announce investigations into their own alleged involvement in 2016 election interference and also into Burisma, a company that employed former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The latter allegation is that the elder Biden forced the removal of a top Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma. Both allegations are dubious.
Sondland has testified that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani conveyed the quid pro quo involving the meeting. Sondland also said he was merely presuming — in the absence of a logical alternative — that there was also a quid pro quo involving military aid. He said repeatedly that Trump himself never stated these things to him.
Even apart from that, though, there is evidence that Trump might have personally alluded to quid pro quos in his July 25 call with Zelensky.
First, Zelensky suggested he would pursue the investigations, and then Trump quickly indicated he would schedule the meeting Ukraine had been pushing for for a very long time.
Second, Zelensky on the call brings up Ukraine’s desire to purchase Javelin antitank missiles from the United States, at which point Trump quickly follows up with, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
The “though” could be read as a rhetorical device to shift the conversation to another topic, or it could be read as alluding to a specific proposed exchange.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney also admitted the military aid was withheld in part because Trump wanted to see Ukraine investigate alleged interference in the 2016 election, before Mulvaney recanted.
2. The investigation request — regardless of conditions
Regardless of whether Trump explicitly signed off on conditioning the aid and meetings, his request of Zelensky was problematic, if not illegal.
On that July 25 call, Trump asked Zelensky to launch the two investigations, including by explicitly citing the Bidens. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me,” Trump said.
According to U.S. law, that mere request could be against campaign finance law, even if there was never any exchange and also even if the request was never granted.
“It shall be unlawful for … a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation … of money or other thing of value … in connection with a Federal, State, or local election,” the law says.
The Justice Department opted not to pursue the whistleblower’s complaint on this matter, because it determined that it would be difficult to establish the investigations as a “thing of value.”
Sondland, though, testified this week that Trump may not have even wanted the investigations — but rather just the announcements of them. That suggests Trump was looking for political talking points.
3. The Yovanovitch smear and removal, fueled by conspiracy theories
There is evidence Trump may have participated in a campaign to undermine his own ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, to create a pretext for her removal. It’s not the central reason Trump is being impeached, but many of the witnesses we heard from publicly believed her removal was a turning point that kicked off the pressure campaign.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan has testified in the Senate that Giuliani engaged in a “smear” campaign aimed at removing Yovanovitch. Included in that effort was a later-retracted claim by a top Ukrainian prosecutor, whose interview was facilitated by Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, that Yovanovitch had given him a “do not prosecute” list.
We don’t know whether Trump was directly involved, but:
- His son Donald Trump Jr. attacked her on Twitter about a month before her removal.
- Yovanovitch in her testimony indicated officials were worried that Trump would do the same and that they feared for her “security.”
- Perhaps most important, on his July 25 call with Trump, Zelensky thanked Trump for warning him about Yovanovitch. Zelensky said Trump was “the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador,” and Trump responded by saying, “Well, she’s going to go through some things.”
- Trump indicated in a Fox News interview Friday that he encouraged people to be harder on Yovanovitch, though it wasn’t clear whether he meant before or after her ouster. “I said, ‘Why are you being so kind?’ ” Trump said, to which he claims his aides told him: “Well, sir, she’s a woman. We have to be nice.”
As Sullivan and many others have noted, a president can get rid of an ambassador for any reason. But Trump’s team apparently spent considerable time crafting bad reasons for Yovanovitch’s ouster, for public consumption.
4. The alleged coverup
Trump has said the Zelensky call was “perfect,” which even many Republicans have disputed. But it’s not just Republicans who are undermining that defense; it’s also the fact that the White House — and arguably the Justice Department — sought to obscure it.
After a number of aides raised concerns about the call, the White House put it in a code-word-level computer server generally reserved for sensitive national security information. (Though current and former National Security Council aides, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Tim Morrison, both testified it wasn’t necessarily for nefarious reasons.)
As for the whistleblower complaint, it was also withheld from Congress despite an inspector general deciding that it should be shared. After the inspector general determined the matter to be of “urgent concern,” which would require such a disclosure, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel downgraded the complaint. The director of national intelligence’s counsel also indicated it was being withheld for confidential and potentially privileged communications, which was understood to mean ones involving Trump.
We have no evidence Trump was involved in either decision, but there is at least a whiff of a coverup.
5. The illogical defenses
There are a few main defenses offered by Trump and his supporters, but they generally suffer from logical flaws. Below, we examine some of them.
His interest in 'corruption’ in Ukraine is obviously self-serving
The Trump team argues that Trump has a very legitimate concern in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. The country has long struggled with it, after all, and the U.S. policy has long focused on that problem.
But Trump’s interest in corruption in Ukraine is highly selective and blatantly self-serving. He has yet to call for an investigation there that doesn’t carry benefits for him, and the two probes he has called for are either baseless or are highly speculative conspiracy theories that seem to be intended for political messaging more than anything else.
And in addition to Sondland’s testimony that this was mostly about the announcements rather than the actual investigations, Giuliani in May basically acknowledged this was about benefiting his client more than the U.S. government.
“Somebody could say it’s improper,” Giuliani told the New York Times. He added: “I’m going to give them reasons they shouldn’t stop [the investigations] because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government."
Ukraine was well aware it was being pressured when Trump and Zelensky spoke
Another core element of the GOP defense is that Ukraine didn’t know it was being leveraged. Yes, the military aid was withheld, the argument goes, but it wasn’t clear that Ukraine even knew about it.
But reporting has shown Ukraine was feeling pressure long before any quid pro quos were communicated and even before Trump and Zelensky spoke on July 25. And numerous contacts indicate U.S. and Ukrainian officials were talking abut a White House meeting as if it was connected to Ukraine announcing the investigations.
Put plainly: There are plenty of reasons to think Zelensky knew he was being leveraged:
- For one, AP reported that Zelensky met with top aides on May 7 and spent much of the three-hour meeting trying to figure out how to navigate Giuliani’s efforts.
- For two, Trump invited Zelensky to a White House meeting in a May 29 letter, but then the White House repeatedly declined to schedule it, even as Ukraine pushed hard.
- For three, the whistleblower complaint alleged Trump withdrew Vice President Pence from attending a planned trip to Zelensky’s inauguration
- For four, a series of contacts between special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and top Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak show them repeatedly linking the investigations to a White House meeting.
- And for five, Sondland in a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials indicated such a meeting was dependent upon the investigations, according to both Vindman’s and former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill’s testimony.
As for the military aid, its withholding was first publicly reported in late August (though there are signs Ukraine might have known earlier), and it was released about two weeks later. But Ukraine diplomat David Holmes summed up nicely on Thursday the argument that this was also a quid pro quo.
“President Zelensky had received a congratulatory letter from the president saying he would be pleased to meet him following his inauguration in May,” Holmes said. “And we had been unable to get that meeting. And then the security hold came up with no explanation.”
He added: “And I’d be surprised if any of the Ukrainians — we discussed earlier, you know, they’re sophisticated people — when they received no explanation for why that hold was in place, they would have drawn that conclusion.”
This isn’t limited to rogue actors such as Giuliani
There is reportedly an effort afoot in the GOP to pawn this off on others who were acting on their own, including most likely Giuliani.
But Trump was a very early proponent of the conspiracy theories Giuliani has pushed Ukraine to investigate, and in addition to Sondland saying they were acting on Trump’s will, Giuliani has said he had Trump’s explicit blessing.
Trump first espoused the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 election in April 2017 — two months before any documented Giuliani meetings with Ukrainian officials. By July 2017, Trump suggested his then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, should be investigating the matter. He said the same about now-Attorney General William P. Barr in April.
Trump hired Giuliani in April 2018. By May 2019, Giuliani’s efforts to secure investigations involving the Bidens and the 2016 election became public and immediately caused controversy. Giuliani acknowledged it looked bad but said it wasn’t illegal, and he maintained he had Trump’s full support, which Trump has never disputed.
“He basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer,” Giuliani said of Trump.