Trump-Ukraine Scandal
November 26, 2019

President Trump knew about the whistleblower complaint filed in response to his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he released military aid to Ukraine in September, two people with knowledge of the matter told The New York Times.

Trump learned about the complaint in late August, when lawyers from the White House counsel's office told him they were trying to figure out if they were under legal obligation to turn it over to Congress, the Times reports. Trump's decision to hold nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine has become a central focus of the House impeachment inquiry against him. Witnesses have testified that Trump froze the aid over the summer when he was trying to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

During a July 25 phone call, Trump asked Zelensky to launch probes into the Bidens and an unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election. This conversation concerned the whistleblower, and they filed a complaint. The inspector general for the intelligence community determined that the whistleblower's complaint should be sent to Congress, but White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy, John Eisenberg, concluded otherwise, saying it was protected by executive privilege. Read more at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

November 8, 2019

House Republicans appear to have a new strategy to defend President Trump from mounting evidence that he used the U.S. government to squeeze Ukraine for politically beneficial investigations of Democratic rivals past and present: Talk loudly and throw other Trump allies under the bus. Specifically, The Washington Post reports, Trump's House defenders are effectively offering up U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney "to be fall guys" in the Ukraine scandal.

All three Trump allies played overlapping roles in the Ukraine story: Sondland informed Ukraine it had to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden to get a White House audience and unfreeze military aid; Trump told his ad hoc Ukraine team to go through Giuliani, who reportedly specified the targets Ukraine needed to investigate and was also behind the ouster of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovich; and Mulvaney was involved in freezing the Ukraine aid and admitted on camera it was tied to Ukraine investigating the Democratic National Committee, a statement he later tried to walk back.

House Republicans have now started "sowing doubts about whether Sondland, Giuliani, and Mulvaney were actually representing the president or freelancing to pursue their own agendas," the Post reports. This is just one theory Republicans are testing out — others include that Trump didn't have "corrupt intent," that quid pro quos are commonplace, and that Trump is too incompetent to carry one off. "In a sign of how the GOP is scrambling, however, many of those theories run counter to each other," the Post notes.

The blame-the-aides strategy also isn't without risks. Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen flipped after being fed under the bus, and on MSNBC Thursday night, former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner speculated to Ari Melber that if Giuliani is charged in either of the two investigations where he's a central figure, "there's nowhere to go but up," and rather than risk prison, "he's gonna sing." Peter Weber

October 19, 2019

President Trump's personal lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani reportedly attempted to secure a visa for former Ukraine prosecutor Viktor Shokin, CNN reported Friday.

George Kent, the deputy assistant of state for European and Eurasian affairs, reportedly told congressional investigators that Giuliani asked both the State Department and the White House for a visa, two people familiar with his closed-door deposition earlier this week said. The State Department reportedly objected to the request and refused to grant the visa, which led Giuliani to seek help from the White House. It's unclear what the response was there, but Shokin never did receive a visa. CNN notes that the revelation appears to reveal that Giuliani's attempts to gather information about Democrats went further than previously understood.

Shokin was pushed out of his position in 2016 when several world leaders, including former Vice President Joe Biden, voiced concerns that Shokin was not pursuing corruption cases in Ukraine. Giuliani has previously said he wanted to interview Shokin because he promised to reveal information about Democrats' actions in Ukraine. Giuliani has alleged that Biden was trying to stop investigations to protect his son, Hunter, who was sitting on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the time, though there is no evidence of wrongdoing on either of the Bidens' part. Read more at CNN and NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

October 17, 2019

Energy Secretary Rick Perry led the U.S. delegation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's inauguration in May. In a subsequent May 23 meeting in the White House, President Trump said he wouldn't agree to meet Zelensky until the Ukrainians "straightened up their act," Perry told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, adding that he later understood Trump to be referring to concerns about his 2016 presidential campaign. In order to resolve those concerns, Perry said, Trump told him to "visit with Rudy," meaning Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Perry says he agreed to call Giuliani in the hopes it would ease the way for Trump to meet with Zelensky. "And as I recall the conversation, he said, 'Look, the president is really concerned that there are people in Ukraine that tried to beat him during this presidential election,'" Perry told the Journal. "Rudy didn't say they gotta do X, Y, and Z," he added. "He just said, 'You want to know why he ain't comfortable about letting this guy come in? Here's the reason.'"

Those reasons, Perry recalled, involved three conspiracy theories: That Ukraine was responsible for former British spy Christopher Steele's dossier on Trump; that Ukraine had Hillary Clinton's email server; and that Ukrainian's "dreamed up" evidence that led to Paul Manafort's conviction and imprisonment.

Trump's former homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, said last month he was "deeply frustrated" that Giuliani had poisoned Trump's mind with those "completely debunked" conspiracy theories. Perry had a more detached response. "I don't know whether that was crap or what," he said, "but I'm just saying there were three things that he said. That's the reason the president doesn't trust these guys."

Trump finally called Zelensky on July 25, and their conversation — specifically Trump's request that Zelensky investigate Joe Biden and his son — led to a whistleblower complaint and a House impeachment inquiry. In that inquiry, several diplomats have expressed concerns about Giuliani's shadow diplomacy in Ukraine on behalf of Trump and possibly other clients. Federal prosecutors in New York are also reportedly investigating Giuliani's Ukraine business dealings. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

October 16, 2019

Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia and Europe adviser, was reportedly quite concerned that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, would accidentally divulge national security secrets while on the job, two people familiar with her private congressional testimony told The New York Times.

Hill reportedly testified on Monday that Sondland was so unprepared for his job that she considered him a national security threat, though she apparently did not accuse him of intentionally putting the country at risk. Instead, she reportedly likened him to someone driving a car without guardrails or a GPS.

The actions that are said to have concerned Hill include Sondland's use of a personal cell phone for diplomatic business and his penchant for inviting foreign officials to pop by the White House whenever they felt like it, which once reportedly resulted in Romanian officials arriving at the White House without an appointment. Sondland, Hill reportedly testified, would also provide the cell phone numbers for other American officials to foreigners.

Hill's concerns were likely enhanced by the fact that she feared Sondland was replacing Washington's previous ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, as part of the Trump administration's effort to pressure Kyiv into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, among other Democratic figures. Sondland is expected to testify before impeachment investigators Thursday, despite the White House directing him not to cooperate. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

October 16, 2019

Former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in New York for documents and other information about his interactions with Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer and fixer, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal report. Sessions said he's cooperating with federal prosecutors in Manhattan. How does a Texas congressman who lost his re-election bid last year fit into Trump's Ukraine scandal? A federal indictment unsealed last week provides some clues.

The indictment charges two of Giuliani's associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, with conspiracy and campaign finance violations, including allegedly promising an unidentified congressman an impermissibly high campaign donation as they were seeking his "assistance in causing the U.S. government to remove or recall the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine," Marie Yovanovitch.

In May 2018, about the time Parnas and Fruman pledged to raise $20,000 for the congressman, Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complaining about Yovanovitch and echoing conservative allegations that she was biased against Trump. Yovanovitch, who testified last week in the House impeachment inquiry, was abruptly recalled to Washington a year later after a concerted campaign by Giuliani, Fox News hosts, and conservative media.

Sessions said that "at no time did I take any official action" after meeting with Parnas and Fruman, adding that he wrote Pompeo because he had come to believe that Yovanovitch, a cautious career diplomat, was disloyal to Trump. Giuliani has credited Sessions with helping convince Trump that Yovanovitch was untrustworthy.

As New York Times reporter Sharon LaFraniere explains on Tuesday's The Daily podcast, Parnas and Fruman apparently wanted Yovanovitch ousted because her anti-corruption efforts were blocking a gas deal they were pursuing, Ukraine's top prosecutor wanted her gone because she was pushing him to fight corruption inside his office, and Giuliani was pushing for her departure for still-unknown reasons.

The unsealed indictment suggests the investigation is active and ongoing, and Giuliani is the focus. Giuliani denies wrongdoing. There's no evidence Sessions is under investigation. Peter Weber

October 15, 2019

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton was so alarmed by a White House–linked effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrats, he told aide Fiona Hill to alert the National Security Council's chief lawyer, Hill told House impeachment investigators in her 10-hour deposition on Monday, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal report. Specifically, Bolton told Hill, the top NSC staffer on Russia and Eurasian affairs, to notify White House lawyers that Rudy Giuliani, White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland were running a rogue operation, the Times reports.

"I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up," Bolton reportedly told Hill to relate to the lawyers, after a heated July 10 meeting with Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key player in the Ukraine pressure campaign, and Ukrainian officals. Before that meeting, Hill reportedly testified, Bolton told her that "Giuliani's a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up." Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer, is now under federal criminal investigation for his work in Ukraine, the Journal reported Monday. Sondland is scheduled to be deposed on Thursday.

House investigators are now trying to decide whether to question Bolton, The Washington Post reports.

Hill also testified that he had strongly opposed Giuliani's successful push to have Trump remove America's ambassador to Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, who had a reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine. "I don't know Fiona and can't figure out what she is talking about," Giuliani told the Post on Monday night, adding that he believes she was out of the loop when it came to Ukraine, at least compared with Sondland. "She just didn't know," Giuliani said, reiterating his assertion that he was working on orders from the State Department. Peter Weber

Update, 12:47 a.m.: This article has been updated based on a clarification by the Times:

October 13, 2019

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will reportedly testify to Congress next week that President Trump assured him he was not withholding military aid to Ukraine until Kyiv investigated former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, a personal familiar with Sondland's testimony told The Washington Post.

Sondland will reportedly say that a text message he wrote denying a quid pro quo with Ukraine came after he spoke with Trump, who told him there was no such thing, and that he is unsure as to why the aid was held up. He will also testify that he has no knowledge as to whether Trump may have changed his mind on the matter at some point, the Post reports, though he did believe Trump at the time and reportedly relied on the president's words in "good faith" when he relayed the information to William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine. Taylor had expressed concern about the ethics of withholding aid.

"It's only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth," the person familiar with the planned testimony told the Post, referring to Trump's assurances about the aid. "Whether he's deciding it's getting too hot to handle and he backs off whatever his position really was a month earlier, I don't know." Sondland plans to testify Thursday. Read more at The Washington Post and NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

See More Speed Reads