We now have a fuller understanding of how the effort to pressure Ukraine unfolded
What isn’t agreed upon — however sincerely — is the meaning of those requests. Trump’s defenders suggest that they reflect Trump’s concerns about corruption (the Biden ask) and interference in the 2016 election by Ukraine (the hacking), though Trump’s asks were specifically not about either of those things. They were, instead, about specific theories that are and always have been broadly lacking in evidence — which, of course, is likely why his defenders are looking to recontextualize what Trump asked. Trump’s opponents argue that Trump’s goal was instead self-serving, to undermine a possible 2020 election opponent and to undercut the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which was a nuisance to Trump for much of his presidency.
It is also understood that Trump declined to finalize a meeting at the White House with Zelensky (something the Ukrainian eagerly sought) and that he blocked the disbursement of congressionally approved aid to the country. Here, the disagreement is on the significance of those acts: Trump’s defenders claim they were either unimportant or a natural extension of Trump’s opposition to foreign assistance; his critics note that each offered points of leverage that could be used to push Ukraine to announce the aforementioned investigations. According to multiple witnesses, that’s in fact what happened.
It is nonetheless up to observers to determine which line of argument to accept, a theoretically necessary underpinning to answering the fundamental question at stake in impeachment: Did Trump behave in a way that necessitates his impeachment?
(We say “theoretically” because the evidence at hand strongly suggests that views of impeachment are driven far more by party identity than by the evidence presented.)
Three months ago, we simply didn’t know enough about what happened to answer that question definitively (or much of anything at all about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, really). We now know more, though it’s often the case that the various details overlap and obscure one another. It’s also been true that there have been gaps in what we know.
With the release of the House impeachment inquiry report on Tuesday, a number of significant gaps have been filled. We now know, for example, when precisely the aid to Ukraine was stopped, necessary for understanding how Ukraine was viewing the constant push for Trump’s investigations. We know, too, how discussions of a possible White House meeting were repeatedly conflated with those investigations. We know how that evolved into a specific discussion of a public statement about the investigations and how that then became centered on an interview on CNN.
Using existing information and details from the report, we’ve created the following timeline articulating how those two main tracks — aid to Ukraine and the White House meeting — were or could have been used to pressure Ukraine into announcing the investigations Trump sought.
Three things happened on June 18 that shaped what followed.
One was fairly abstract. On that day, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had an encounter with National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill in which he declared that he was in charge of Ukraine policy. Taken aback, Hill asked him who had made that determination. Trump, Sondland replied, making explicit the secondary channel for Ukraine policy through which the apparent effort to pressure Zelensky would flow.
That same day, the Department of Defense announced $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, aid that had been approved by Congress months earlier. The next day, after having seen press coverage of the announcement, Trump began asking questions about the spending, according to the testimony of Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy. Sandy received a request for more information about the aid from a political appointee within OMB.
Meanwhile, the three officials (the “three amigos”) tasked by Trump in late May with leading policy on Ukraine — working with Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani — met at the Department of Energy. The three, Sondland, then-Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry, discussed a Trump-Zelensky meeting at the White House. They were joined over the phone by acting Ukraine ambassador William Taylor, who’d begun work the previous day. Volker and Sondland would later inform Taylor that Trump “wanted to hear from Zelensky” before the meeting moved forward, an apparent reference to the investigations.
On June 27, Sondland was more explicit, telling Taylor that Zelensky needed to make clear to Trump that he wasn’t standing in the way of investigations.
The next day, Sondland, Taylor, Perry and Volker spoke with Zelensky by phone. David Holmes, an aide to Taylor in Kyiv, later testified that Zelensky was told that action on a Biden-related investigation was a precondition for a meeting at the White House. This appears to be the first point at which Ukraine was informed that a meeting was conditioned on investigations.
On July 2, Volker and Zelensky spoke again at an event in Toronto. There, Volker again linked a White House meeting to the investigations, referring to them as the “Giuliani factor.”
The next day, July 3, government officials learned that congressional notification of the aid to Ukraine — a step in disbursing the funds — had been placed on hold. This was the first indicator that the aid would not move forward.
A week later, on July 10, a number of members of the administration, including Sondland and Volker, met with Ukrainian officials at the White House. The Ukrainian delegation included Andriy Yermak, an aide to Zelensky, and Oleksandr Danyliuk, a top defense official. During two meetings, Sondland explicitly linked a White House meeting to the desired investigations, frustrating Hill and others present.
The halt to aid was formalized on July 12, according to the House report. It was announced broadly within the administration during a conference call on July 18, which is when staffers in Kyiv first learned about it. Over the rest of the month, there were a number of meetings in which stakeholders sought to move the aid forward, without success. When the Defense Department argued that it would need to begin disbursing funds by Aug. 6 to get them out the door by the end of the fiscal year, a deadline for the review (which OMB cited as the cause of the halt) was set for Aug. 6. That deadline, and several others, were missed.
On July 19, Volker, Giuliani and Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas had breakfast at Trump’s hotel in Washington. Volker later reported back to Sondland and Taylor that it was critical “for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues — if there are any” in a conversation with Trump. Sondland spoke with Zelensky and conveyed that message, later reporting back on the conversation and its contents to Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
The next day, Taylor had a conversation with Danyliuk in which the Ukrainian grumbled about his country being made into a pawn for the 2020 election.
Trump and Zelensky spoke for the first time on July 25. Trump asked Zelensky for the two investigations he sought, identifying the one related to the DNC hacking as being a favor he was requesting of Ukraine after Zelensky mentioned wanting to purchase military equipment. Before the call, Trump and Sondland spoke, with Sondland then asking Volker to send a message to Zelensky’s team: You’ll get the meeting if you agree to the probes. Zelensky agreed to the probes, and, afterward, Trump extended an invitation to the White House.
That afternoon, staffers at the Defense Department received emails indicating that both Congress and Ukraine were to some extent aware of the hold on military aid. A former deputy foreign minister in Zelensky’s government told the New York Times this week that she knew with certainty by July 30. This is the clearest indication to date of when Ukraine knew about the aid freeze.
The next day, July 26, Sondland and Volker held a number of meetings with Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky and Yermak. Sondland testified that he believed he raised the investigations with Yermak in a one-on-one conversation. Later, he would call Trump and assure the president that the investigations were moving forward.
After their breakfast at Trump’s hotel, Volker had introduced Yermak to Giuliani, and the two of them set up a meeting in Madrid on Aug. 2. There, a new strategy emerged.
“The Madrid meeting set off a ‘series of discussions’ among Mr. Giuliani, Ambassador Volker, and Ambassador Sondland,” the report states, “about the need for President Zelensky to issue a public statement about the investigations into Burisma”— the company for which Biden’s son worked in Ukraine — “and the 2016 election conspiracy theory to secure a White House meeting with President Trump.”
That desired statement became the focus of discussion between Sondland, Volker, Giuliani and Yermak for the early part of August. On Aug. 9, Sondland felt they were close, with Trump willing to set a date for the meeting because he really wanted the “deliverable” — that statement about the probes.
The next day, Aug. 10, Yermak proposed releasing the statement only after the date for a White House meeting was set, recognizing the inherent quid pro quo. It didn’t work. He sent a draft statement on Aug. 12, but it didn’t include specific mentions of the investigations Trump wanted to see.
Sondland, Volker and Giuliani agreed on revisions that included specific references to those probes and sent them to Yermak on Aug. 13. Yermak was hesitant, asking if there had been a formal request for an investigation made by the U.S. government. There hadn’t.
On Aug. 17, the group confirmed that they were still seeking a statement including the two probes. Ultimately, though, the statement was tabled, because Ukrainian officials were worried that including the specific probes would make it look as though they were playing politics. But Volker worried that Giuliani would consider the language too weak if the probes weren’t included. That Zelensky was planning to replace the prosecutor general added an additional layer of complication.
On Aug. 22, Sondland suggested to Pompeo that Trump and Zelensky meet when both were in Poland for a planned event the following month. Zelensky, he hoped, could tell Trump that he’d address the issue when the new team was in place, a conversation that he hoped could break “the logjam” with Zelensky’s team. Trump ended up not going due to Hurricane Dorian.
In the meantime, though, word of the halt in aid became public with a Politico article on Aug. 28. Yermak contacted Volker and Taylor on Aug. 29. As the State Department’s Catherine Croft testified, there was no reason for Ukraine to make the halt public as it would send a message that U.S. support was softening. Once it was made public otherwise, the calculus apparently changed. That same day, Taylor sent a memo to Pompeo objecting to the halt in aid, a halt that he would soon connect to the desired investigations.
In Poland on Sept. 1, Sondland met with Yermak. Having come to the conclusion (without prompting, he testified) that aid was contingent on the desired investigations, he told Yermak that “the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” Taylor, getting wind of the conversation, raised concerns with Sondland.
Holmes testified that Sondland’s assertion was probably redundant. Ukraine, having been pushed for months to announce new investigations and aware that aid was being withheld for no publicly stated reason, would independently have come to the same conclusion that Sondland did.
On Sept. 5, The Washington Post editorial board reported that it had learned that aid was being withheld to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation focused on Biden.
Two days later, on Sept. 7, Trump and Sondland spoke, with the president denying a quid pro quo on aid but insisting that Zelensky announce the investigations. After speaking with Trump, Sondland “promptly” spoke to Zelensky, according to the report, at which point Zelensky agreed to announce the probes — in an interview with CNN later in the month.
On Sept. 9, Taylor again expressed concerns about tying aid to the announcement of new investigations. Sondland denied any quid pro quo, something he later testified was simply a recitation of what Trump had claimed. That same day, House Democrats announced an investigation into Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine and the hold on aid. On Sept. 11, Trump released the aid.
Ukraine appeared to still be planning to move forward with the CNN interview however, despite concerns expressed by Taylor and others. On Sept. 13, Zelensky met with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who was going to conduct the interview; as of then, it was still on. It was only several days later, on Sept. 18 or 19, that the interview was canceled.
By then, there was broad attention being paid to what happened in Ukraine. Within days, the administration released the rough transcript of the July 25 call in an effort to show that Trump had behaved properly and, in the president’s phrasing, that there had been no quid pro quo at stake.
With the timeline above, Americans can now better evaluate that for themselves.