US envoy to Ukraine raised alarm over Trump aid threat
The top US diplomat in Ukraine raised concerns that Washington was withholding military aid to pressure Kiev into helping Donald Trump investigate Joe Biden, according to text messages released by House committees leading the impeachment proceedings into the US president.
Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Kiev, wrote to Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU, to express his misgivings as officials tried to set up a meeting between Mr Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH [White House] meeting are now conditioned on investigations?” he wrote in September.
Mr Sondland, a former Trump fundraiser, replied shortly afterwards: “Call me.”
The text message exchange came as the White House was struggling to explain why it was withholding $391m in aid that Congress had authorised to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.
A week later, Mr Taylor texted Mr Sondland again. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he said.
His doubts prompted a rebuttal from Mr Sondland, who told him that he was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions”.
“The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind . . . I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” he continued.
The revelations come a week after the release of a whistleblower complaint by an anonymous CIA officer, alleging that White House officials were concerned Mr Trump had pressured Mr Zelensky to investigate Mr Biden, his potential rival in the 2020 presidential race, and the Ukrainian business dealings of his son Hunter.
That week, the White House released a partial transcript of the July 25 call between the president in which Mr Trump asked for “a favour”. The president explained that he wanted help to investigate the origins of the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Mr Trump also asked Mr Zelensky to look into the former vice-president and his son Hunter, who previously served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma — a request that helped spark the impeachment inquiry.
Kurt Volker, then US special envoy for Ukraine, used a series of text messages in July with Mr Sondland and Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to the Ukrainian leader, to try and set up the presidential meeting. The exchanges reveal that the US diplomats wanted Mr Zelensky to announce that he would help Mr Trump pursue the investigations.
In one exchange after he had just met Rudolph Giuliani, the personal lawyer to Mr Trump, Mr Volker wrote to Mr Sondland: “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation….”
Two days later, Mr Taylor texted Mr Sondland about a conversation with Mr Volker in which the two diplomats had noted that Mr Zelensky was “sensitive” Ukraine be taken seriously and “not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, re-election politics”.
Mr Volker texted Mr Yermak four days later to say the White House had said 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”.
Mr Volker denied that there was an effort to investigate the Bidens in a series of texts with the Financial Times, saying they “never came up” and that any such inference was “not an accurate characterisation”.
But in an exchange released by the House committees, in which Mr Yermak said Mr Zelensky would hold a press conference that would mention Burisma and election meddling, Mr Volker responded: “Sounds great!”
In a separate exchange with Mr Sondland, Mr Volker said they should pay “special attention” to the problem of political interference in the US because of the involvement on some unnamed Ukrainian politicians.
After saying that it was “unacceptable”, he said they would hold a “transparent and unbiased investigation . . . including those involving Burisma and the 2016 US elections”.
Mr Volker did not respond to questions about whether there were other text messages that showed his opposition to investigating Burisma.
Mr Volker resigned from his position last week in the wake of the whistleblower report and testified behind closed doors to Congress on Thursday.
The heads of the three Democrat-controlled committees — Eliot Engel, Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings — asked their members to “join us in condemning in the strongest terms the President’s now open defiance of our core values as American citizens to guard against foreign interference in our democratic process”.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi