But a review of more than 2,600 pages of transcripts released this week from eight witnesses who have testified in the House impeachment inquiry over the past six weeks shows how controversy over Trump’s Ukraine policy had been brewing inside the US government for months. It roiled efforts to bolster a key strategic alliance after Trump enlisted his own personal attorney to work outside normal diplomatic channels in an apparent effort to bolster his reelection chances.
Moreover, the testimony shows a President detached from the integral role Ukraine plays in US policy against Russia — but also animated in his agitation toward Ukraine. And the testimony of at least one witness links Trump to the decision to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine until that country announced it would pursue the investigations into his political rivals.
Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate his rivals went beyond a phone call
The officials who have testified explained how the push for Ukraine to investigate the President’s political opponents was already underway well before the call occurred and for weeks after the President urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
But Sondland did not testify that Trump told him that, only that he “presumed” the aid was linked to the investigations. He contended that he couldn’t recall precisely how he learned the two were linked.
The power of Trump’s personal attorney
Giuliani has tried to make the case that his only role in Ukraine was defending his client — Trump — and fending off attacks against him.
But that’s not what senior US officials were told — or how the Ukrainians viewed him. Time and again, Trump made clear that to deal with Ukraine policy, they’d have to deal with Giuliani first, something that hamstrung their efforts with their key ally, which is battling Russian aggression and desperately needed US help.
To Sondland, Trump was even more blunt: “He just keep saying: ‘Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy.'”
Sondland then testified that Giuliani’s demands continued to get more “insidious” from May 23 until later when he “became aware that there might be a link between the White House visit and aid to the Ukraine that was being held up when I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why the aid was being held up.”
Vindman testified that the “alternative narrative” pushed by Giuliani “undermined U.S. government efforts to expand cooperation with Ukraine.”
And he added that the Ukrainians were confused by Giuliani’s role and concerned that “it could be undermining the consensus policy.”
“It wasn’t until that call that it became, that he was pulled into kind of an official role,” Vindman added, referring to the July call where Trump urged the Ukrainian President to work with Giuliani.
Yovanovitch and others described a series of “lies” pushed by Giuliani to smear her reputation and make her appear disloyal to the President, but they also contended there was little that senior State Department officials — like Pompeo — were willing to do about his efforts.
“Did anyone at the State Department try to stop those efforts?” Yovanovitch was asked. She responded: “I don’t think so, I don’t (think) they felt they could.”
Pompeo “rolled his eyes” when discussing Giuliani and said: “Yes, it’s something we have to deal with,” according to Sondland’s testimony.
Career officials: Trump-Giuliani efforts a major breach of norms
He’s hardly alone.
Kent was supposed to be in charge of Ukraine policy at the State Department, but he was sidelined. And he was alarmed at what he saw.
“I wrote a note to the file saying that I had concerns that there was an effort to initiate politically motivated prosecutions that were injurious to the rule of law, both in Ukraine and the U.S,” Kent testified.
Taylor called it an “irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy making with respect to Ukraine,” referring to the efforts led by Volker, Sondland, Giuliani and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
“Although this irregular channel was well connected in Washington, it operated mostly outside of official diplomatic channels,” he said.
Trump’s obsession with Ukraine
That long-held distrust of Ukraine fueled Trump’s view of the conspiracy theories promoted by Giuliani and in conservative media that year, which prompted him to brush off dealing with Ukraine and telling officials to speak with Giuliani about Ukraine.
Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine contributed to Giuliani’s ability to have influence over US policy in Ukraine, because Trump administration officials believed they needed to convince Giuliani to sway the President.
“It started as talk to Rudy,” Sondland testified.
But years before Ukraine was thrust into the public sphere as a scandal threatening the President with impeachment, Trump’s views on Ukraine prompted concern inside the Trump administration.
Trump also seized on the conspiracy that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election, based on the unproven claim that the Democratic National Committee server was in Ukraine. Trump alluded to the conspiracy theory on the July 25 call with Zelensky: “The server, they say Ukraine has it,” he said.
Hill explained how there was an effort to convince Trump it was a “debunked” conspiracy theory. “We spent a lot of time” with Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others, Hill said, “trying to refute this one in the first year of the administration.”
“Tom and others who were working on cybersecurity laid out to the President the facts about the interference,” she said. “I can’t say any more than that.”
Transcripts undercut GOP defense of Trump
The narrative Giuliani had been pushing was essentially a sweeping “campaign of lies,” Kurt also said.
If Trump wants to continue claiming “no quid pro quo,” Democrats appear to have the goods to prove him wrong. Some congressional Republicans have suggested acknowledging a quid pro quo, but staking out the position that it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.