Impeachment inquiry offers view inside White House on day of Ukraine call
Washington – The forecast for July 25 was typical for Washington: sunny, mid-80s. President Donald Trump had good reason to be feeling bright and sunny himself.
It was the morning after Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony at the conclusion of the Russia investigation, and Trump and his allies were expressing relief, thinking the rumblings about impeachment would at last fade, even if the special counsel hadn’t offered the president the total exoneration Trump claimed.
By 7:06 a.m., Trump was tweeting positive reviews from his favorite TV show, “Fox & Friends,” where co-host Ainsley Earhardt declared, “Yesterday changed everything, it really did clear the president.”
An hour later, Trump moved on to a tweet talking up his approval ratings, the stock market, unemployment and more. “Country doing great!” he wrote.
But a reconstruction of what started as an unremarkable summer Thursday reveals that even before daybreak, anxiety was coursing through the White House about a coming phone call that didn’t appear on the president’s public schedule.
By nightfall, Trump had set in motion events that would trigger only the fourth impeachment inquiry in history, imperiling his presidency and further calcifying divisions in a polarized nation.
At the time, it seemed no one had a complete picture of what was afoot. But through weeks of congressional investigation and hearings, a timeline of the day’s events has emerged, offering a portrait of one of the most consequential days of Trump’s presidency.
Trump was scheduled to talk with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy at 9 a.m. Zelenskiy, a former comedian fond of showing off his bulging biceps, was angling to lock in a visit to the White House, a valuable currency that he hoped would demonstrate to Russia that he had Trump’s backing.
Trump and Zelenskiy had gotten along just fine during their first chat in April, basically an exchange of pleasantries. National security officials were worried that this time would be different.
There were “some concerns that, you know, there could be some stray voltage,” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, testified later.
He was referring to growing indications that Trump was fixated on baseless conspiracy theories that Ukraine had tried to take down candidate Trump in the 2016 elections. There was talk that Zelenskiy would only get a White House visit if he agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s top Democratic rivals, and the 2016 U.S. elections.
None of that was in the National Security Council’s “call package,” with its suggested talking points for Trump’s conversation. Nor was any of that in the prewritten “readout” of the call, laying out what was expected to happen.
Both of those turned out to be merely aspirational.
Shortly before the call, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, got on the phone with Trump to offer his own advice.
Sondland, working with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, had put together a plan under which Ukraine would get its White House meeting only in exchange for agreeing to investigations of Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine, and the 2016 election, when Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
At 8:36 a.m., Kurt Volker, then Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, texted a Zelenskiy aide after talking to Sondland: “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. Good luck!”
Dour v. obsequious
The half-hour call started with pleasantries but quickly took a sharp detour.
Trump, his voice lower than normal, was “dour,” according to Vindman, who was among a dozen or more people listening in from the U.S. side.
Zelenskiy, overly eager to please, was “obsequious,” according to Tim Morrison, Vindman’s boss and one of the other sets of ears on the call.
Zelenskiy’s attempts at humor fell flat. They “just didn’t seem to carry with the president,” Vindman recalled.
Soon, Trump was stressing how much the U.S. had done for Ukraine and grousing about Europe’s failure to do more.
And then came 10 words from Trump that triggered the impeachment investigation: “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
Trump asked Zelenskiy to look into Crowdstrike, part of a debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to benefit Clinton. From there, Trump segued to pressing for investigation of another discredited notion – that Biden had ousted a Ukrainian prosecutor who was looking into Hunter Biden’s dealings with Burisma, the energy company where he was on the board.
Zelenskiy, speaking a mix of Ukrainian and choppy English, had one mission: find as many ways as possible to say yes, yes and yes again. Four times he said “yes.” Twice, he assured Trump he was “absolutely right,” and “not just 100% but actually 1,000%.”
“I agree with you 100%,” he added later.
More important to Trump, though, Zelenskiy promised that “all the investigations will be done openly and candidly.”
Yet Zelenskiy wasn’t committing precisely to the investigations of Democrats that Trump wanted. He was speaking generally of his commitment to clean up corruption in his country.
He was short one very important “yes.”
‘It was wrong’
Trump would later insist the call was “perfect,” but some of those who listened were gravely alarmed. Even while Trump was still speaking, there were some worried glances among those taking notes in the Situation Room.
The call ended at 9:33 a.m., and within an hour, Vindman was in the office of NSC lawyer John Eisenberg.
The idea of an American president pressuring a foreign leader to investigate his political foes was “troubling and disturbing,” Vindman told congressional investigators. “I thought it was wrong.”
Acting separately, Morrison, a Trump political appointee, also made his way to Eisenberg’s office that day. Morrison was worried that details of the call would leak and damage Ukraine’s bipartisan support in Congress.
Jennifer Williams, an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who was also on the call, told legislators she found the call’s detour into domestic politics “unusual and inappropriate.”
By that night, NSC staff had finished editing a rough transcript of the conversation. and Eisenberg made sure that access to it was more closely restricted than usual to keep details from leaking.
A readout is a description of a private conversation or meeting, prepared for public consumption. It’s often written before the event because such phone calls, and scripts, are typically choreographed in advance.
The NSC’s prewritten readout of the phone call, though, was worthless. It turned out there had been little discussion of the anticipated topics, and Trump had said a lot of things that weren’t expected.
“Basically we struck almost all the materials from that statement because we hadn’t covered any of the terrain that we thought we were going to,” Vindman told legislators.
The bland three-sentence statement issued by the White House at 12:51 p.m. gave no hint of what had really happened.
A six-sentence statement issued by the Ukrainians at almost the same time wasn’t much more illuminating – and seemed to be yet another highly aspirational take on the matter.
“Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA,” it read.
‘What was going on?’
The inbox for Laura Cooper’s staff at the Defense Department filled in more pieces of the puzzle that afternoon.
A pair of emails from the State Department – one at 2:31 p.m., the second at 4:25 p.m. – made it clear that the Ukrainians were already worried about whether they would get hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military assistance that had been approved by Congress. It wasn’t just about a White House visit.
The Trump White House wanted to hold up the aid until Zelenskiy made a public pledge to conduct investigations. Republicans have argued there was no “quid pro quo” – a pledge of investigations in exchange for military aid – because the Ukrainians weren’t aware the aid was on hold when Zelenskiy spoke to Trump. But these emails indicate the Ukrainians knew or suspected the aid was frozen when the call took place.
Cooper, a deputy assistant defense secretary, also testified that her staff got a question that day from a contact at the Ukrainian Embassy asking “what was going on” with the assistance.
Talk about delaying the military aid had been percolating for weeks by then.
But that night, at 6:44 p.m., a staffer in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget signed a document that officially put the money on hold. All it took was a footnote stating that the money was “not available for obligation” while its use was under review.
The document was signed by Mark Sandy, OMB’s deputy associate director for national security, who told lawmakers that he had been handling aid apportionments for years and had never before been told to put one on hold. He had asked his bosses repeatedly why it was being done. He didn’t get an answer.
Sunglasses and umbrellas
While fallout from the call ricocheted within the White House, much of Washington went about its business unaware of the looming threat to Trump. So did Zelenskiy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who months later would give a green light to an impeachment investigation, was meeting with House Democrats when the call took place. Then she strode down the steps at the Capitol for an outdoor news conference. Whipping off her sunglasses, she pledged to make August “too hot to handle” for Republican senators who were blocking Democratic legislation.
On a rainy day in Ukraine, Zelenskiy’s social media team posted a photo of the president holding his own umbrella – and contrasted it with a photo of his predecessor relying on someone else to hold one.
Trump had plenty more to say that day. He spoke at a sunlit Pentagon ceremony for new Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He also made a State Dining Room appearance to help his daughter Ivanka promote the administration’s job training initiatives.
Down the drain
Trump ended his day as he began it, in his comfort zone with Fox News.
On Sean Hannity’s show, the president said he’d been “through hell” during the Mueller investigation. Hannity declared that with that investigation over, impeachment fantasies had been “totally completely flushed down the drain.”
Eighteen days later, a whistleblower sent a nine-page complaint to Congress about the president’s July 25 call.
On Sept. 27, Pelosi announced the impeachment investigation.