Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Evidence Against Trump (So Far)

After a week of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry, there are now mountains of transcripts regarding President Trump’s handling of relations with Ukraine. The argument for impeachment boils down to a comparatively few nuggets of information, however, and there is much chaff mixed with the grains of wheat. To that end, I thought it would be useful to identify some of the main pieces of evidence against the president.

So far, it is Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who has emerged as the key witness against the president. Sondland, a Seattle millionaire who made his money in the hotel industry, was a Trump supporter in 2016 but canceled a fundraiser for the Republican nominee after Trump attacked the Khan family, Muslim-American parents of a fallen US soldier. Sondland later donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee and was subsequently appointed ambassador to the EU in March 2018.

In his public testimony, Sondland, who said that he did not have “access to all of my phone records, State Department e-mails and many, many other State Department documents” and was “told I could not work with my E.U. staff to pull together the relevant files and information,” said that Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker “worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the expressed direction of the president of the United States.” Together, Perry, Volker, and Sondland are referred to as “the Three Amigos.”

“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said, but “We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So, we followed the president's orders.”

“Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky,” according to Sondland. “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.”

“In July and August of 2019, we learned that the White House had also suspended security aid to Ukraine. I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid,” Sondland continued. “I tried diligently to ask why the aid was suspended, but I never received a clear answer; still haven't to this day.”

After President Trump told the Three Amigos to “talk with Rudy,” Sondland says that the group kept other members of the Cabinet and White House staff in the loop, stressing that they believed that they were pursuing legitimate policy goals and were not a rogue operation. Specifically, Sondland named Secretary of State Pompeo, his Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, his Executive Secretary Lisa Kenna, Ambassador John Bolton, Dr. Fiona Hill, Tim Morrison, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Mr. Mulvaney's Senior Advisor Rob Blair. Sondland also said that he raised his concerns about the delayed aid in a meeting with Vice President Pence that included several other people. So far, all of the people named by Sondland have refused to testify with the exceptions of Hill and Morrison.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said.

As it turns out, Rudy Giuliani had been working on the Ukrainians for a while already. The New York Times reported last May that Giuliani was headed to Ukraine in hopes of pushing the Ukrainians into investigating two matters that could benefit Trump in his quest for reelection. “One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election,” The Times said. “The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.”

Sondland said he remembered the July 10 meeting with Ukrainians and recalled “mentioning the prerequisite of investigations before any White House call or meeting.” However, he disputed the accounts of NSC staffer Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Vindman that John Bolton abruptly terminated the meeting at that point.

Over the course of the negotiations, the prerequisite for an investigation evolved into the mere announcement of an investigation. “He had to announce the investigations,” Sondland testified. “He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it.”

In an answer to Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent made clear the nature of the statement that Zelensky was being asked to present. “That was not an anti-corruption statement, sir,” Kent said. The Three Amigos “shared a draft with Rudy Giuliani and Rudy Giuliani said it would not be acceptable if it didn't mention Biden, Burisma, and 2016.”

Sondland did not dispute David Holmes’ account of a phone call between Sondland and the president on July 26. He also said that he had no reason to believe that investigations were not discussed as Holmes testified. He said that the subject of the Burisma investigation likely came up because “because we had been hearing about it from Rudy and we presumed Rudy was getting it from the president.”

Sondland said that he first learned about the hold on the Ukrainian aid package on July 18. It was in this conference call that Ambassador Taylor testified that a White House Office of Management and Budget employee had said “her boss had instructed her not to approve any additional spending of security assistance for Ukraine until further notice.” The direct “boss” of the OMB is Mick Mulvaney, who also serves as chief of staff and reports directly to the president, but the term also could have referred to President Trump himself.

Negotiations had been in process with Ukraine since May regarding the phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky. Sondland said that the White House requests began as “very generic for an investigation of corruption in a very vanilla sense” but “as time went on, more specific items got added to the menu, including the Burisma and 2016 election meddling, specifically -- the DNC server, specifically.”

While Sondland says that he was not specifically told that the aid package was subject to the same conditions as the White House meeting, he says that was the implication. Indeed, Sondland said that he relayed that belief to Andriy Yernak, a top advisor to Zelensky, just after a meeting that included Pence during the vice president’s trip to Warsaw for the Sept. 1 anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Sondland also expressed his belief that release of the aid was connected to the announcement of investigations to Taylor and Lt. Col. Vindman.

Sondland also said around Sept. 9 that he finally asked the president “an open-ended question… what do you want from Ukraine?”

He said that Trump answered, “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.” However, it should be noted that Trump’s denial came as the scheme was falling apart and the White House was gearing up for damage control.

The witnesses provide important background to the summary of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. Several of the witnesses were present for the call and reported that they concerned enough to talk to legal counsel. The summary itself backs up the claims of the witnesses and is itself important evidence against President Trump.

On the call, Trump first laments that the relationship between Ukraine and the US is not “reciprocal.” Zelensky then says that Ukraine would like to buy more Javelin missiles from the US. Trump immediately responds by asking for a “favor.” Trump then specifically cites Crowdstrike, the company that investigated the DNC hack in 2016 and cites a discredited conspiracy theory that the DNC server was sent to Ukraine. Zelensky then responds that his administration has already been in contact with Rudy Giuliani on the matter. Trump next asks that Zelensky “look into” Burisma but specifically mentions “Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution… and Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution.” Zelensky promises that the new Ukrainian prosecutor “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned….”

Ambassador Sondland was not on the July 25 call and said that he only read the transcript when it was publicly released. “Looking back, I find it very odd -- very odd that neither I, nor Ambassador Taylor, nor Ambassador Volker ever received a detailed read-out of that call with the Biden references,” he mused.

If any doubt as to the motives of Trump and Giuliani remained, Giuliani admitted in a CNN interview on Sept. 20 that he asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and on Oct. 17 Mick Mulvaney told reporters at a press conference that “corruption related to the DNC server” was “why we held up the money.” Back in June, as negotiations were underway on the “anti-corruption statement,” President Trump told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, “ I think I'd take it” if a foreign country offered him dirt on a political opponent.

While it is true that no one has yet testified that President Trump directly ordered that the aid be exchanged for the Ukrainian announcement, there seems to have been no doubt among White House staff as to the president’s intent. There is an abundance of circumstantial evidence as well as the words of President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Mick Mulvaney that supports the understanding of the witnesses. There are also problems with the Republican denials.

First, only the president had the authority to delay the aid package. This is not a decision that could have been made by low-level staffers. Testimony indicates that the State, Defense, and NSC were unanimous in their disapproval of the delay even if they had the power to enact it. Even Mulvaney would not have made a call of this sort without presidential approval.

Second, the Trump Administration claimed that the aid was delayed due to concerns about corruption. In reality, the Defense Department had certified that Ukraine had met the congressional standards placed on the aid not once but twice. The first certification was in May, not long after the Times reported on Rudy Giuliani’s trip to Ukraine. The second was in July just prior to the conference call in which Sondler and Vindman learned of the hold placed by “the boss.”

Even though Ukraine had been certified as meeting the standards to receive the aid, the money was not released until more than two months later. The hold was finally removed from the aid package on Sept. 11, two days after the inspector general of the intelligence community notified Democrats and Republicans of the House intelligence committee that he had received the whistleblower complaint and found the information credible.

Finally, the Republican stonewalling lends credence to the claims of the witnesses against the Administration. So far, senior Trump Administration officials have denied the witness allegations, but have declined to do so under oath. The Administration has also refused congressional requests for documents and information. Failure to answer a congressional subpoena is itself grounds for impeachment per Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and it is fair to assume that if the Administration possessed exculpatory evidence that it would make it public.

The evidence that Donald Trump abused his office as president and bartered aid approved by Congress for an announcement of an investigation into Joe Biden that would benefit him personally is strong. The case is made stronger by the fact that Republicans who have direct knowledge of the President’s actions refuse to testify and provide exculpatory evidence. However, the president cannot escape the consequences of his actions by ordering his subordinates not to cooperate with Congress.

The Trump Administration should provide any information that could prove the president’s innocence to congressional investigators. At a minimum, Bolton, Mulvaney, and Pompeo should testify under oath so that the country can learn the truth.

To justify the president’s actions, the Trump Administration must explain why the aid to Ukraine was delayed for months and why it was not released until after the scandal broke.

If not, it’s time to impeach.

Originally published on The Resurgent

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