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Texts Detail Top U.S. Diplomat's Concerns About Possible Trump-Ukraine Quid Pro Quo

Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, arrives for a closed-door interview with House investigators on Thursday. House Democrats are proceeding with the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
J. Scott Applewhite
Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, arrives for a closed-door interview with House investigators on Thursday. House Democrats are proceeding with the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.

Updated at 10:01 a.m. ET

Senior U.S. diplomats debated the propriety of a White House strategy aimed at pressuring Ukraine for political investigations in exchange for assistance and engagement with President Trump, new documents show.

The Democratic chairmen of three House committees investigating President Trump released dozens of text messages late Thursday from top State Department officials handling European and Ukrainian affairs.

The messages depict a plan to to tie aid to Ukraine and engagement with Trump to promises by Kyiv to launch investigations that might benefit Trump's 2020 reelection campaign.

Reps. Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel released text messages provided by Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who spent more than nine hours on Thursday testifying behind closed doors as the House impeachment inquiry's first official witness.

I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.

"Based on the first production of materials, it has become immediately apparent why Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo tried to block these officials from providing information," the chairmen wrote Thursday in a letter to their colleagues on the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees.

The letter did not indicate whether the partial release of text messages was representative of the complete texts in possession of the committees; a full accounting might still take place.

Republicans pushed for the release of the full transcript of Volker's deposition.

The White House did not respond immediately but Trump earlier wrote on Twitter: "As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!"

Trump later added that he had what he called "an obligation" to that end.

'I think it's crazy'

The texts cover a period from July 19 to Sept. 9 and discuss dates and conditions for a White House visit by Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Officials taking part are Volker; William Taylor, who was interim chargé d'affaires in Kyiv is the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine; Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union; and Andrey Yermak, a top aide to Zelenskiy.

In some of the exchanges, Trump's personal attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, also participates.

In one exchange dated Sept. 9, in a text Taylor sent to Sondland, the career diplomat says: "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Sondland responds: "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."

Sondland continues, "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."

In another exchange, Sondland writes that a call between Ukraine's president and Trump appeared to be in the works. Sondland writes that he spoke directly to the Ukrainian leader and "gave him a full briefing. He's got it."

One facet of House Democrats' investigation is what messages were delivered to Ukrainian officials before Trump's July 25 phone call and by whom.

An anonymous whistleblower complaint, which sparked the Ukraine affair, suggested that Ukraine's president had been primed before hand to expect the next to "play ball" with Trump, likely on the Biden investigations.

The Ukraine affair

Volker resigned last week after being named in the whistleblower complaint

Biden's son, Hunter, held a seat on the board of Burisma, a prominent Ukrainian energy company, while his father led U.S. policy on Ukraine during the Obama administration. Trump has asserted without evidence that Hunter's relationship with the company was unlawful.

Trump's personal attorney, Giuliani, has made a Biden investigation — and an inquiry that dovetails with conspiracy theories about interference in the 2016 election — the focus of his outreach to Ukrainians for months.

His efforts, and apparently those of official diplomats, were part of the groundwork laid before the July 25th call.

In a rough transcript released by the White House, Trump asks on that call for a "favor" from the Ukrainian president — that he undertake an investigation of Biden.

That followed texts dated July 19, involving discussions about the upcoming call, in which Volker writes Sondland: "Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation."

Taylor, another diplomat involved, served as ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush and was appointed interim chargé d'affaires in June after the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

In the messages, he cautions Sondland that Zelenskiy "is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics."

Sondland replies that they need to proceed with establishing a relationship "irrespective of the pretext."

'POTUS really wants the deliverable'

Sondland, a hotel developer with no previous diplomatic experience, donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Trump nominated him to be EU ambassador in 2018, and he was approved with a bipartisan Senate vote.

In a July 25 message between Volker and Yermak — the aide to Ukraine's president Zelenskiy — which occurred just ahead of the Trump-Zelenskiy call, Volker writes:

"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."

Weeks later, on Aug. 9, Sondland and Volker exchange texts as they try to establish a date for Zelenskiy's visit:

Sondland: "Morrison ready to get dates as soon as Yermak confirms."

Volker: "Excellent!! How did you sway him? :)"

Sondland: "Not sure i did. I think potus really wants the deliverable"

The next day, in an exchange between Yermak and Volker, Yermak writes that when a date for a visit is established, he "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"

In other words, Zelenskiy's camp intended to do what Trump asked.

The statement and the weapons

On Aug. 13, Volker sends Sondland what appears to be a proposed draft of a Ukraine statement in which Kyiv pledges to pay "special attention" to U.S. election interference, "especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians."

In the proposed draft, Kyiv would further agree to investigate "Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections."

"The alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians" in U.S. elections appears to be a reference to a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 presidential election. But it's a storyline that Trump and Giuliani have insisted on pursuing.

Sondland replies: "Perfect. Lets send to Andrey after our call."

On Aug. 17, Sondland asks Volker: "Do we still want Ze to give us an unequivocal draft with 2016 and Boresma?"

Volker: "That's the clear message so far ..."

In an exchange on Aug. 29, Yermak texts Volker, "Need to talk with you," and then sends a link to a Politico story headlined "Trump holds up Ukraine military aid meant to confront Russia."

On Sept. 1, Taylor, apparently seeking clarification on the Trump-Zelenskiy meeting in Washington, texts Sondland: "Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?"

Sondland replies: "Call me."

Translation: The officials did not want more text messages giving an account of their conversation. They preferred to discuss the Ukrainian military assistance over the phone.

A week later, Taylor writes to Volker: "The nightmare is they give the interview and don't get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)"

The next day, Taylor writes to Sondland: "The message to the Ukrainians (and Russians) we send with the decision on security assistance is key. With the hold, we have already shaken their faith in us. Thus my nightmare scenario."

Taylor: "Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon."

Sondland: "Bill, I never said I was 'right'. I said we are where we are and believe we have identified the best pathway forward. Lets hope it works."

What follows is the exchange in which Taylor says it's "crazy" to withhold security assistance and Sondland tries to assure Taylor there's no quid pro quo.

At the end of that exchange, Sondland advises "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text ..."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Mark Katkov