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Trump Denies Quid Pro Quo for Ukraine, but Envoys Had Their Doubts

President Trump denied again on Friday that there was any quid pro quo attached to his pressure on Ukraine to investigate his political enemies, but text messages and testimony collected by congressional investigators indicated that his own representatives saw it differently.
Envoys representing Mr. Trump sought to leverage the power of his office to prod Ukraine into opening investigations that would damage his Democratic opponents at home. They made clear to Ukrainian officials that the White House invitation their newly inaugurated president coveted depended on his commitment to the investigations.
And the senior American diplomat posted in Ukraine suspected it went even further than a trade of an Oval Office visit. He told colleagues that it appeared that unfreezing $391 million in American aid that Mr. Trump had blocked was contingent on the former Soviet republic following through on the politically charged investigations sought by the president and his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, a conclusion sharply denied by another diplomat who said there were “no quid pro quo’s.”
The text messages, provided to three Democrat-led House committees by the former special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt D. Volker, may shape the impeachment inquiry now threatening the future of Mr. Trump’s presidency. They provided new pieces of a timeline of events in recent months and a road map for further investigation by House Democrats.
The portrait that emerged from the texts and Mr. Volker’s own testimony depicted a team scrambling to satisfy a deeply suspicious president and his relentless personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, who saw the United States’ relationship with Ukraine as predicated on its willingness to look into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats.
Among other things, the messages demonstrated that the president’s team made clear to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, even before the now-famous July 25 call with Mr. Trump, that he would have to agree to the investigations to confirm a visit to the White House that had been promised and then held up for two months.
“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,” Mr. Volker wrote to Andrey Yermak, a top Ukrainian presidential adviser at 8:36 a.m. the day of the phone call.
Twenty-seven minutes later, Mr. Trump picked up the line and during a half-hour conversation pressed Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor” and investigate supposed Ukrainian efforts to help Democrats in the 2016 election, pursuing a conspiracy theory that even the president’s own homeland security adviser had told him was “completely debunked.” The president also pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Mr. Zelensky assured the president he would follow up, according to a reconstructed transcript released by the White House. The text messages indicated that the Ukrainians were then given possible dates for the White House visit Mr. Zelensky had been so zealously seeking.
“Phone call went well,” Mr. Yermak wrote Mr. Volker afterward. “President Trump proposed to choose any convenient dates. President Zelenskiy chose 20,21,22 September for the White House Visit. Thank you again for your help!”
The text messages underscored the danger to Mr. Trump as the House Democratic impeachment inquiry gains steam. So far, the House committees have interviewed only a single witness, Mr. Volker, and already uncovered information damaging to the president’s case. But the Democratic chairmen of the committees said in a letter that the texts were “only a subset of the full body of materials” that Mr. Volker turned over and that others would be released in time.
Mr. Trump has asserted he did nothing wrong and was only trying to uncover wrongdoing by Democrats. Undaunted, he doubled down on Thursday, publicly calling on Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden and adding a call to China to do the same.
“If we feel there’s corruption, like I feel there was in the 2016 campaign — there was tremendous corruption against me — if we feel there’s corruption, we have a right to go to a foreign country,” Mr. Trump told reporters outside the White House on Friday. “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign,” he added, “but I do care about corruption.”
Republican lawmakers said that Mr. Volker’s testimony, taken behind closed doors on Thursday by House investigators, did not support the sinister interpretation of Mr. Trump’s actions advanced by Democrats like Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“The facts we learned today undercut the salacious narrative that Adam Schiff is using to sell his impeachment ambitions,” Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican members on two of the committees, wrote in a letter. “We hope the American people get to read the transcript of today’s testimony and see the truth.”
Mr. Volker, a former ambassador to NATO who served unpaid and part-time as Ukraine special envoy, abruptly resigned last week after revelations of Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign. He also plans to resign as the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a Washington-based research group affiliated with Arizona State University, but a scheduled Friday announcement never came.
The institute leadership has privately expressed discontent with his twin roles and a person familiar with Mr. Volker’s views said he wanted to avoid being a distraction for the institute. For Mr. Volker, it has been a week of transitions. He is also scheduled to marry on Saturday in Washington.
Mr. Volker was not a hostile witness who went into the testimony intending to make accusations against the president. Instead, he told investigators that he was devoted to helping Ukraine resolve its grinding five-year conflict with Russian-armed separatists and tried to counter the president’s disdain for Ukraine but was never fully kept in the loop.
Mr. Volker sought in his testimony to distance himself from the pressure campaign by the president and Mr. Giuliani, noting that he was not on the July 25 call nor told that Mr. Trump had raised Mr. Biden on it. “At no time was I aware of or took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden,” he told investigators, according to a copy of his opening statement.
Likewise, he said that while he learned about the president’s decision to freeze security assistance to Ukraine, he considered it part of Mr. Trump’s general antipathy for foreign aid, not a tool to force the country to investigate Democrats. “I did not perceive these issues to be linked in any way,” Mr. Volker said.
But Mr. Volker testified that he “became concerned that a negative narrative about Ukraine” was tainting Mr. Trump’s view of the country and impeding efforts to bolster the country against Russian aggression.
“I therefore faced a choice: do nothing, and allow this situation to fester, or try to fix it,” he told congressional investigators. “I tried to fix it.”
Mr. Trump signaled during an Oval Office meeting on May 23 that Mr. Giuliani was central in shaping his view that Ukrainians were “terrible people” who “tried to take me down” in 2016, according to people familiar with the session. Mr. Volker told investigators that Mr. Trump referred specifically to conversations with Mr. Giuliani, leading him to the conclusion that Mr. Giuliani was feeding the president’s “deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine.”
Some of those who attended the Oval Office meeting were left with the impression that Mr. Trump wanted them to coordinate their efforts with Mr. Giuliani. In the next weeks, Mr. Volker and Gordon Sondland, a Trump campaign donor serving as ambassador to the European Union, did just that, according to the text messages.
The new Ukrainian government sought Mr. Volker’s help in managing Mr. Giuliani. In July, Mr. Yermak asked Mr. Volker to connect him with Mr. Giuliani. To arrange an introduction, Mr. Volker met with Mr. Giuliani for breakfast on July 19 and sought to dispel his theory about corruption involving Mr. Biden.
Mr. Volker said he told Mr. Giuliani that “it is not credible to me that former Vice President Biden would have been influenced in any way by financial or personal motives in carrying out his duties as vice president.” While Ukrainians may have acted out of corrupt motives, he said, he did not believe Mr. Biden had.
Ukraine’s newly installed government was wary of being dragged into American domestic politics. “President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, re-election politics,” William B. Taylor Jr., the acting American ambassador to Ukraine, wrote in a text message a couple of days later.
Mr. Giuliani talked with Mr. Yermak the next day and then pushed for a phone call between the two presidents. Mr. Trump had just ordered aides to hold up the $391 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine, with no explanation to the agencies involved. Then he got on the phone with Mr. Zelensky to ask for “a favor.”
A week after the call, on Aug. 2, Mr. Giuliani met in Madrid with Mr. Yermak and then told Mr. Volker that the Ukrainian president should issue a statement committing to fighting corruption. A week later, Mr. Volker spoke with Mr. Yermak and then reached out to Mr. Giuliani.
“Had a good chat with Yermak last night,” Mr. Volker wrote. “He was pleased with your phone call. Mentioned Z making a statement. Can we all get on the phone to make sure I advise Z correctly as to what he should be saying? Want to make sure we get this done right.”
Later the same day, Mr. Sondland reported that the president was ready to schedule the White House visit that Mr. Zelensky had been seeking.
Mr. Volker asked Mr. Sondland how he swayed the White House. “Not sure i did,” Mr. Sondland replied. “I think potus really wants the deliverable,” he added, using the acronym for president of the United States.
Mr. Sondland then raised the proposed statement by Mr. Zelensky. “To avoid misunderstandings, might be helpful to ask Andrey for a draft statement (embargoed) so that we can see exactly what they propose to cover,” he wrote.
“Agree!” Mr. Volker replied.
The next day, Mr. Yermak pressed for a date for the White House visit, clearly seeing it as linked to the statement. “I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things. Which we discussed yesterday,” he wrote. “But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date.”
In other words, the Ukrainians would issue their statement committing to the investigations Mr. Trump wanted only after the White House visit was scheduled. “Once we have a date, 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,” Mr. Yermak wrote.
Mr. Yermak’s first draft of the statement was a generic commitment to fight corruption and did not mention Burisma, the company that Hunter Biden served for $50,000 a month, or the 2016 election. Mr. Giuliani “said that in his view, the statement should include specific reference to ‘Burisma’ and ‘2016,’” Mr. Volker told the House investigators, otherwise there was no point.
“There was no mention of Vice President Biden in these conversations,” Mr. Volker added, but the Ukrainians clearly understood that Mr. Giuliani’s interest in Burisma was aimed at finding damaging information about the former vice president, who led Obama administration dealings with Ukraine while in office.
Hoping to satisfy Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Volker drafted more specific language for the proposed Ukrainian statement and sent it to Mr. Yermak: “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, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future.”
But Mr. Yermak objected to specifically citing Burisma or 2016 in the statement. “I agreed,” Mr. Volker testified, “and further said that I believe it is essential that Ukraine do nothing that could be seen as interfering in 2020 elections.”
The statement was shelved. Then on Aug. 28, Politico reported the Ukrainian aid freeze. Mr. Taylor, the diplomat in Kiev, saw a connection. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked Mr. Sondland in a text message on Sept. 1.
“Call me,” Mr. Sondland replied.
Mr. Taylor clearly was not convinced. A week later, he expressed fear that the Ukrainians would go ahead with the statement Mr. Giuliani wanted and Mr. Trump would still not release the aid.
“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” he wrote. “The Russians love it. (And I quit.)”
The next day, Mr. Taylor again made clear that he believed the aid freeze and the investigations were linked. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote Mr. Sondland.
“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Mr. Sondland replied. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.”
If Mr. Taylor still had concerns, Mr. Sondland added, he should give the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo “a call to discuss them directly.”
Mr. Trump eventually restored the aid under bipartisan pressure from Congress and met with Mr. Zelensky in New York. But the Ukrainian president has not yet made it to the White House.

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