An oral history of how Trump allegedly tried to leverage a White House visit for an investigation into the Bidens

An oral history of how Trump allegedly tried to leverage a White House visit for an investigation into the Bidens

GORDON SONDLAND, ambassador to the European Union: “I think the idea was [Energy] Secretary [Rick] Perry again took the lead and said: It might be a good idea for all of us to sit in for continuity since we’ve been talking to them. And we were all included. We got a — think we got a note from [then-national security adviser] Ambassador Bolton’s assistant saying you’re all included in the meeting and we met.”

ALEXANDER VINDMAN, director of European affairs, National Security Council: “The purpose was, first of all, to build rapport, give Ambassador Bolton an opportunity to make his own assessment on the key elements of President Zelensky’s team … and allow him to make his own assessment of what these people are like. Is it worth it to pursue this engagement? You know, are these credible individuals? And then, frankly, to chart a course for bilateral cooperation. …”

“I think it’s important to note that the Ukrainians had been seeking a meeting, a White House meeting with the President, for some time already at that point. There was — and it was based on the President during the phone call [with Zelensky] on April 21st extending an offer to meet with President Zelensky and, you know, a correspondence also offering a meeting. So the Ukrainians were attempting to figure out when they could actually do this meeting.”

FIONA HILL, former deputy assistant on the National Security Council: “At one point during that meeting, Ambassador Bolton was, you know, basically trying very hard not to commit to a meeting, because, you know and, again, these meetings have to be well-prepared. They’re not just something that you say, yes, we’re going to have a meeting without there being a clear understanding of what the content of that meeting is going to be. And that is a perpetual problem for us, that many — not all leaders but some, you know, want to really just have a photo opportunity often for their own purpose. …”

“Ambassador Bolton is always — was always very cautious and always very much, you know, by the book and was not going to certainly commit to a meeting right there and then, certainly not one where it wasn’t — it was unclear what the content of the meeting would be about, what kind of issues that we would discuss that would be pertaining to Ukrainian-U.S. relations.”

VINDMAN: “What [Zelensky] was looking to do was, you know, to face off against entrenched elites, political elites, oligarchs. And in order to do this, he needed — he needed some support. In this case, what he was looking to do is, specifically, there was a Parliamentary election to be held [July] 21st, and he was looking to potentially — his team was looking to secure a meeting so it would bolster his credibility going into the Presidential — I’m sorry, Parliamentary election.”

HILL: “Secretary Perry had been talking in this context about the importance of reforming the energy structures in Ukraine in a very general sense and talking about how important that was for Ukrainian national security and that, as well as reforming their national security structures, they also have to, you know, really pay attention to their Achilles’ heel, all the places that Russia had leverage, the military sector, which Ambassador Bolton had also been talking about, and then the energy sector, which was really in some considerable disarray.”

“Then Ambassador Sondland blurted out: Well, we have an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start.”

SONDLAND: “I may have chimed in on a point or two, but I remember it being a very friendly meeting.”

VINDMAN: “When the Ukrainians raised this issue of trying to figure out what the date would be for the Presidential meeting, Ambassador Sondland proceeded to discuss the deliverable required in order to get the meeting, and he alluded to investigations.”

HILL: “Ambassador Bolton immediately stiffened. He said words to the effect — I can’t say word for word what he said, because I was behind them sitting on the sofa with our Senior Director of Energy, and we all kind of looked up and thought that was somewhat odd. And Ambassador Bolton immediately stiffened and ended the meeting. … He looked at the clock as if he had, you know, suddenly another meeting and his time was up, but it was obvious he ended the meeting.”

SONDLAND: “I think his time was up. Ambassador Bolton’s time was up. And then I think we moved to — we moved the meeting downstairs without Ambassador Bolton. I think we went out and took a big [group] picture and then went down to the Ward Room. … [Hill] wasn’t in the picture, so maybe she left and came back.”

HILL: “Ambassador Sondland said to [Ukraine special envoy Kurt] Volker and Secretary Perry and the other people who were with him, including the Ukrainians, to come down to — there’s a room in the White House, the Ward Room — to basically talk about next steps. And that’s also unusual. I mean, he meant to talk to the Ukrainians about next steps about the meeting. …”

“Ambassador Bolton pulled me back as I was walking out afterwards and said: Go down to the Ward Room right now and find out what they’re talking about and come back and talk to me. …”

“The Ward Room is located right beside the Navy Mess. It’s inside really the secure spaces of the White House. Ambassador Sondland said he had requested this room through the Chief of Staff’s Office, because I was a bit surprised that they had this room. We do meet with foreign delegations in there, but usually in a formal setting, not just for informal talks.”

VINDMAN: “Ambassador Sondland relatively quickly went into outlining how the — you know, these investigations need to — on the deliverable from these investigations in order to secure this meeting. Again, I think, you know, I may not have agreed with what he was doing, but his intent was to normalize relationships with — between the U.S. and Ukraine, and this was — as far as I understand, this is what he believed the deliverable to be. …”

“I heard him say that this had been coordinated with White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. … He talked about the investigations … he was talking about the 2016 elections and an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma.”

Burisma Holdings is a Ukrainian energy company for which Joe Biden’s son Hunter worked from 2014 until earlier this year.

SONDLAND: “I can’t say that the word ‘Burisma’ wasn’t mentioned. I don’t know if I mentioned it or if Ambassador Volker did or if Mr. Vindman — I have no idea.”

VINDMAN: “I stated to Ambassador Sondland that the statements — that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate the Bidens and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something that the NSC was going to get involved in or push.”

HILL: “Ambassador Sondland, in front of the Ukrainians, as I came in, was talking about how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff [Mick] Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations. And my director for Ukraine was looking completely alarmed. And I came in again as this discussion was underway. …”

“And I immediately said to Ambassador Sondland: Look, we can’t discuss the meeting here with our Ukrainian colleagues. Ambassador Bolton sent me down to ask you know, kind of to make sure that you understand that we’ll be talking about the meeting. We’ll obviously be looking into this, but that we can’t make any commitments at this particular juncture because a lot of things will have to be worked through in terms of the timing and the substance.”

“And Ambassador Sondland cut me off, and he said: We have an agreement that they’ll have a meeting.”

SONDLAND: “There was a difference of opinion between [Perry’s chief of staff] Brian McCormack, Secretary Perry, Volker, myself, Vindman, and Fiona. Everyone sort of had a different take on it. And it was sort of a, you know, typical discussion where not everyone is in 100 percent agreement. We were sort of going back and forth.”

HILL: “I said: Look, we cannot discuss this in front of our colleagues. You know, we have to talk about, you know, the details of this.”

“And he said: Okay, okay, I get it. And he asked the Ukrainians to basically leave the room. So they basically moved out into the corridor. …”

“When he pushed them also out of [the Ward Room], they were basically standing in a space between the Navy Mess and the White House [Situation] Room. So this was an awkward setup, to say the least. So I also expressed those concerns to John, that then foreign nationals, you know, are just standing around in the corridor outside the Ward Room by the doors into the Sit Room.”

SONDLAND: “It was a typical policy discussion where people disagree on policy.”

HILL: “I said: Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but Ambassador Bolton wants to make it very clear that we have to talk about, you know, how are we going to set up this meeting. It has to go through proper procedures.”

SONDLAND: “I don’t remember anybody being upset, dismayed, alarmed, concerned at any point in this whole — in this whole process about — about the July 10th meeting.”

HILL: “And he started to basically talk about discussions that he had had with the chief of staff. He mentioned Mr. Giuliani, but then I cut him off because I didn’t want to get further into this discussion at all.”

“And I said: Look, we’re the National Security Council. We’re basically here to talk about how we set this up, and we’re going to set this up in the right way. And, you know, Ambassador Bolton has asked me to make it completely clear that we’re going to talk about this, and, you know, we will deal with this in the proper procedures. And Ambassador Sondland was clearly annoyed with this, but then, you know, he moved off. He said he had other meetings.”

SONDLAND: “Neither Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill or anyone else on the NSC staff ever expressed any concerns to me about our efforts, any complaints about coordination between State and the NSC, or most importantly, any concerns that we were acting improperly.”

HILL: “I went back to talk to Ambassador Bolton. And Ambassador Bolton asked me to go over and report this to our NSC counsel, to John Eisenberg. And he told me, and this is a direct quote from Ambassador Bolton: You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this, and you go and tell him what you’ve heard and what I’ve said.”

VINDMAN: “After the parties broke up and I was getting ready to, if I recall correctly, escort our Ukrainian guests out, [Hill and Vindman] had a short conversation, and I think we agreed that, you know, there was something to talk about. And I do believe she told me to talk to Mr. Eisenberg. …”

“I think after I made it back into the building I went into legal to see if he was available. … What I was doing is what I normally would do in a situation where I felt uncomfortable, felt something was inappropriate. I’d voice my concerns with the appropriate, you know, people in the chain of command.”

“I thought it was wrong. I thought it was wrong to call — to basically have — to organize a situation in which you’re asking a foreign power to investigate a matter.”

The July 25 call

Before Trump’s call with Zelensky on July 25, Sondland asked Volker to call him. Shortly after that request, Volker texted Zelensky’s aide Andrey Yermak.

SONDLAND: “The only request I think we had heard at that point that I recall was that they wanted a strong public statement about anti-corruption. That’s what I had recalled knowing. And if we would have primed [Zelensky], it would have been to that degree.”

VOLKER: [reading the July 25 message to Yermak] “Heard from White House — assuming President [Zelensky] convinces [T]rump he will investigate / “get to the bottom of what happened” in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. …”

“The best of my recollection is I heard from Gordon who spoke to someone at the White House. I don’t believe I heard directly from the White House.”

SONDLAND: “Well, he says get to the bottom of what happened. I don’t know whether that means an investigation, or — I don’t know what it means. …”

“I think Volker was talking to Mr. Giuliani. I don’t remember telling Volker anything like that. Not — again, not that soon, I don’t think that happened. …”

“As I said, I spoke with President Trump before I got on the plane, I believe, to Kyiv and it was a nothing call. I said we’re headed to Kyiv to go see Zelensky and he was like, no, great, whatever. That was sort of the end of the call. We never discussed anything substantive.”

Vindman was one of a group of people who listened in on Trump’s call with Zelensky on July 25, as he had on Trump’s call with Zelensky on April 21. He took contemporaneous notes on what was discussed.

VINDMAN: “The power disparity between the President of the United States and the President of Ukraine is vast, and, you know, in the President asking for something, it became — there was — in return for a White House meeting, because that’s what this was about. This was about getting a White House meeting. It was a demand for him to fulfill his — fulfill this particular prerequisite in order to get the meeting.”

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, president of Ukraine: [from rough transcript of call released by the White House] “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”

TRUMP: [from rough transcript] “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine.”

VINDMAN: “When the President of the United States makes a request for a favor, it certainly seems — I would take it as a demand.”

ZELENSKY: [from rough transcript] “We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership. I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly. That I can assure you. …”

TRUMP: [from rough transcript] “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

VINDMAN: “What I could say is the tone in the call on the 21st of April was very positive, in my assessment. The call, the tone of the call on July 25th was not. It was — it was — I’m struggling for the words, but it was not a positive call. It was dour. If I think about it some more, I could probably come up with some other adjectives, but it was just — the difference between the calls was apparent.”

ZELENSKY: [from rough transcript] “I wanted to tell you about the prosecutor. First of all I understand and I’m knowledgeable about the situation. Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament; the next prosecutor general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved, by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”

VINDMAN: “Where it says, ‘He or she will look into the situation specifically to the company’ it shouldn’t be ‘the company.’ It should be ‘to Burisma that you mentioned.’ Because I think, you know, frankly, these are not necessarily folks that are familiar with the substance. So President Zelensky specifically mentioned the company Burisma.”

ZELENSKY: [from rough transcript] “The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case.”

TRUMP: [from rough transcript] “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call. Give us a date and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.”

VINDMAN: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the gain would be for the President in investigating the son of a political opponent.”

VOLKER: [in a text message sent after the call on July 25] “Hi Gordon. Had a great lunch with Yermak and then passed your message to him. He will see you tomorrow, think everything in place.”

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