The House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Dec. 18.
We know that Trump and his allies over months pressured officials from Ukraine, a country that is dependent on the U.S. in its war with Russian-backed separatists, to open investigations based on a stunning lack of evidence that would benefit Trump politically.
Multiple U.S. officials involved in Ukrainian foreign policy have said that Trump froze military aid to the country to pressure Ukrainian officials to open the investigations Trump sought.
Trump has directed relevant officials not to testify and blocked the release of documents in defiance of congressional subpoenas. In doing so, he’s prevented us from knowing information that could either condemn or absolve him.
Here’s the evidence against the president:
I. Abuse of power
As early as January 2019, Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani (who also was mayor of New York City on 9/11) had been pushing Ukrainian officials to open investigations into supposed Ukrainian election interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Bidens. (As Giuliani is not a public official, it was not normal for him to meet with foreign officials.) Here’s more context for both investigation requests:
Ukrainian Election Interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
The Mueller Report and U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election by hacking and publishing the emails of Democratic party officials and through a social media disinformation campaign that favored Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Trump, however, has advanced a false narrative that it was not Russia but Ukraine — a U.S. ally that is currently in a war with Russian-backed Separatists, which began when the country ousted its pro-Russian president — that interfered in the election to benefit Clinton. This narrative has roots in Russian government-sponsored propaganda. Trump’s evidence:
- A belief without support that CrowdStrike, the company that first confirmed Russian hackers leaked Democratic party emails, is hiding one of the party’s email servers in Ukraine.
- A part-time Ukrainian-American contractor for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — Alexandra Chalupa — who held meetings with officials at Ukraine’s embassy in the U.S. outside of her DNC capacity to learn information about work done by Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, for Ukraine’s ousted pro-Russian president. (Manafort is in prison for financial fraud related to this work, which was discovered by the Mueller investigation.) Chalupa was open about her research into Manafort while she was conducting it, but the DNC didn’t use any information Chalupa learned.
- Documents were published by a Ukrainian government agency as part of a broader anti-corruption effort in August 2016 that showed Manafort’s financial fraud with the ousted Ukrainian president, which caused Manafort to resign from Trump’s campaign and ultimately be sentenced to prison. Concurrently, multiple Ukrainian officials were openly critical of Trump for his pro-Russia statements.
Trump has said that Joe Biden, as vice president, forced Ukraine to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor — Viktor Shokin — who was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian company Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of. Here’s why that’s inaccurate:
- Biden was not the only person who wanted this prosecutor fired. His ousting also was supported by European countries because Shokin was widely known as corrupt.
- The alleged wrongdoing that Burisma was being investigated for happened before Hunter Biden was on the board.
- Shokin was not investigating Burisma when Joe Biden was pushing for his removal. In fact, U.S. officials during the Obama presidency criticized Ukrainian prosecutors for failing to investigate Burisma, and other entities, more robustly.
Why does all this matter? Trump’s personal ally (Giuliani) pushed Ukraine to open an investigation that would benefit a country they effectively are at war with (Russia) and another that would hurt Biden — Trump’s political rival. The lack of evidence warranting either investigation and their emergence as apparent issues a year before Trump’s re-election, despite the alleged wrongdoings occurring years prior, suggest they served to benefit Trump’s political prospects and not the public interest of the U.S.
The former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was removed from her position in April 2019 after becoming the target of a disinformation campaign spearheaded by Trump allies. This campaign was fueled in part by Giuliani’s frustration with her impeding his efforts to push Ukraine to open investigations into the false claim that the country interfered in the 2016 election and the Bidens.
As early as April 2018, Trump had expressed that he wanted Yovanovitch to be fired for supposed disloyalty to him.
During her tenure, Yovanovitch came into conflict with two American businessmen — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — who had interests in Ukraine and who were associates of Giuliani. She supported a certain Ukrainian state energy company chief executive, who rejected Parnas and Fruman’s business proposal.
Parnas and Fruman promised Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), a Trump loyalist, money toward his re-election campaign. Sessions then sent a letter with unsubstantiated evidence to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, claiming Yovanovitch was disloyal to the president. Giuliani seized on this criticism, and Yovanovitch was fired. (Sessions lost re-election, by the way.)
We know this because Parnas and Fruman were arrested in October 2019 for campaign finance violations while trying to flee the country.
In an interview with MSNBC in January 2020, Parnas said Trump was aware of these activities against Yovanovitch.
Additionally, text messages suggest that Trump allies would receive damaging information about the Bidens if Yovanovitch were fired. In March 2019 a Ukrainian prosecutor texted Parnas, “It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam [presumably Yovanovitch] — you are bringing into question all my allegations. Including about B [presumably Biden].”
Ukrainian officials announced in January 2020 that they are investigating if Yovanovitch was spied on while in Ukraine. Text exchanges among Parnas, Robert Hyde (a Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut), and others suggest someone was following the ambassador.
Why does all this matter? This supports that Yovanovitch’s firing was a result of the pressure campaign waged by Trump allies on Ukraine to open politically advantageous investigations.
Giuliani’s campaign to pressure Ukrainian officials to open politically advantageous investigations for Trump continued when the country elected a new president — Volodymyr Zelensky — in May 2019. Prior to being elected, Zelensky was an actor who played the president on television.
In anticipation of a phone call in July between Trump and Zelensky, aides for both coordinated what they would discuss. In a text exchange among Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative for Ukraine who resigned after this scandal broke, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union (Ukraine is not in the EU) who founded a hotel chain and was a major Trump donor, and Bill Taylor, a senior State Department official in Ukraine, Volker reported that “[m]ost [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation….” in the phone call with Trump.
In a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials, Fiona Hill, the former White House advisor on Russia, reported Sondland said there was an agreement with Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff, that Trump would meet with Zelensky if he opened an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian company Hunter Biden served on the board of.
On the morning of the phone call (July 25), Volker texted an aide to Zelensky that “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.”
Also, a week before the phone call Trump delayed the release of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. Multiple U.S. state and defense officials expressed concern about the held-up aid and considered it “unusual.” They were repeatedly told to be discreet about the matter.
A former aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he resigned from his position because he believed the State Department was being used to advance Trump’s political interests.
Why does all this matter? This shows that impeachment is not just about a phone call. There was a months-long multipronged effort to pressure Ukraine to open politically advantageous investigations for Trump.
During the phone call between Trump and Zelensky, Zelensky says: “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
Trump responded: “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 president then asks Zelensky to look into CrowdStrike, the firm central to the false claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
He also asks Zelensky to look into Joe Biden’s involvement in the firing of Shokin, the Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma — the Ukrainian company Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of. Although, as has been discussed, Shokin was not investigating Burisma when he was fired.
Trump also directs Zelensky to meet with Giuliani, which is unusual because he is the president’s personal attorney and not a public official.
The whistleblower, who anonymously informed the public about the phone call, was not the only individual who was concerned by Trump’s statements during this phone call. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council who listened to the phone call, registered two internal complaints.
Why does all this matter?
The lack of evidence supporting the rationales for either investigation and the timing one year before an election suggest Trump’s asks were politically motivated. It also disproves any notion that the pressure campaign on Ukraine was done without Trump’s knowledge, as he iterated requests that Giuliani had been pushing for months.
After the phone call, text messages among Volker, Taylor, Sondland, and Giuliani show they were involved in crafting a statement from Zelensky that would have opened the investigations Trump sought.
Volker, for example, texted that Zelensky should say something along the lines of: “We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections….”
Zelensky was going to announce the opening of the investigations Trump sought in a TV interview, but members of Congress pressured the Trump administration to release Ukraine’s military aid after learning about its withdrawal. When the aid was released on Sept. 11, Zelensky’s interview was canceled. This anecdote suggests that Zelensky was pressured by Trump, even though he said he wasn’t.
Trump also knew about the whistleblower complaint that alleged he held up military aid to Ukraine for political purposes prior to releasing the aid.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan agency under Congress, found that Trump’s administration broke federal law by withholding the aid.
Multiple officials have said that the release of the military aid was conditioned on Zelensky opening politically advantageous investigations for Trump:
· A Republican U.S. senator and a senior National Security Council aide said Gordon Sondland — the ambassador to the European Union and a Republican donor — told them the delay was to pressure Ukrainian officials to open the investigations Trump desired.
· After initially telling impeachment investigators the military aid’s delay was not used as leverage, Sondland revised his testimony to now say he did inform a Ukrainian official that the aid’s release was likely contingent on the Ukrainian president opening investigations Trump desired. Sondland admitted that he didn’t know for certain if this was Trump’s wish, but he presumed it was because it seemed plainly apparent to him and others and, according to him, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were all aware of the arrangement.
· Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was asked by a reporter if military funding to Ukraine was contingent on an investigation into the false claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election. He responded: “…we do that all the time with foreign policy.” Mulvaney has since said the push for the investigation and delayed military aid were unrelated. He also said Trump is interested in rooting out corruption in Ukraine, but, as evidenced by the phone call, the only supposed corruption he’s interested in affects him politically.
· William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine who was part of the text exchanges with Giuliani, Sondland, and Volker said he believed Trump blocked the Ukrainian military aid and would not meet with the Ukrainian president until he announced investigations into the matters discussed in the phone call.
· Parnas, Giuliani’s associate who was involved in the firing of the Ukrainian ambassador, said he told Ukrainian officials that all aid, not just military, would be withdrawn if the country didn’t open investigations into the Bidens and that Trump “knew exactly what was going on.” He also said Pence’s trip to the Ukrainian president’s inauguration was canceled because the country refused to cooperate with Trump’s demands. His accusations can be questioned, however, because he is under indictment for breaking campaign finance laws in connection to his work to oust the Ukrainian ambassador, and he may be trying to make a deal for reduced or no imprisonment.
· There are reports that in an upcoming book John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, alleges that Trump told him the Ukrainian military aid freeze was meant to pressure the country to open the politically advantageous investigations Trump sought.
After the phone call, Mulvaney asked officials from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) if there was a legal justification for withholding the military aid to Ukraine and how long it could be withheld. This suggests that the White House needed to justify the military aid withdrawal after the fact, which discounts the president’s claim that the delay was for innocuous reasons. Additionally, two OMB officials resigned after expressing concerns about the held up Ukrainian military aid. A clear reason for the delay in the military aid’s release still hasn’t been given by the Trump administration.
Why does all this matter?
The question of impeachment has been framed around the idea of whether there has been a quid pro quo, where a meeting with Trump and the release of military aid would occur if Ukraine opened the investigations Trump sought. The evidence suggests yes, and Bolton’s book directly ties the two matters. Trump and his allies advanced personal political interests in U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine, which presents Trump, and thus the U.S., as susceptible to corruptible influences.
A U.S. intelligence community employee filed a complaint in August 2019 that he “received information from multiple U.S. Government officials” that Trump tried to persuade the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens in a phone call.
This was not the first time the intelligence employee tried to alert officials about the phone call. He first anonymously informed the CIA’s top lawyer, who contacted officials at the White House and Justice Department. He also reached out to a House Intelligence Committee aide, who shared some of the information with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) (the committee’s chairman) but not the individual’s identity.
After doing this, he then filed the whistleblower complaint, which has been largely corroborated.
The inspector general for the intelligence community — whose job it is to review whistleblower complaints — determined the complaint was credible and of “urgent concern.” So, he forwarded it to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. (Maguire stepped into the role less than two weeks prior.)
Procedure says Maguire should have issued a report to the House and Senate intelligence committees within a week. He didn’t because he said the complaint might have been covered by executive privilege — when the president gets to keep stuff private. So, Maguire consulted with the Justice Department, which determined the complaint was not of “urgent concern” because the president is not technically a member of the national security establishment.
The inspector general for the intelligence community then bucked authority and told Congress about the whistleblower complaint. This act has led us to the moment we’re in now.
Why does all this matter?
The whistleblower complaint system was not designed for intelligence employees to accuse the president of abuse of power. This is exemplified by the Justice Department saying the complaint was not an “urgent concern” solely because Trump is not a national security employee. The whistleblower’s actions show that he was determined to alert his superiors to the phone call with the Ukrainian president, and they also show that he tried to do so in different ways.
II. Obstruction of Congress
In reaction to the whistleblower complaint and the release of notes from the call between Trump and Zelensky, House Democrats subpoenaed multiple Trump administration officials in order to ascertain if Trump committed impeachable offenses.
Trump instructed these officials not to cooperate, defying the subpoenas. He cited executive privilege.
Why does all this matter?
By doing this, Trump is preventing officials that could either absolve or condemn him from testifying.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the committees that was investigating Trump. Lev Parnas, Giuliani’s former associate who was arrested for campaign finance violations, through his lawyer accused Nunes of participating in the pressure campaign on Ukrainian officials to open politically advantageous investigations for Trump. Nunes, one of the president’s most ardent supporters, has denied this. Call records, however, show that Nunes was in contact with Giuliani and Parnas throughout the pressure campaign.
Why does all this matter?
Parnas’ accusation suggests that someone who was supposed to be investigating Trump was involved in the activity that was being investigated. It also shows how much we still don’t know because so many officials haven’t testified.
Something to consider: In October, the lawyers for the whistleblower announced they are representing a second whistleblower, who we still haven’t heard from.
This story will be updated as new developments become public.
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