Rick Perry — former Governor of Texas and erstwhile presidential candidate — is, lest we forget, also the Secretary of Energy. With the exception of a few major policy-related moments (most famously, an aborted bailout of the coal industry), he’s mostly managed to avoid the levels of scrutiny and scandal that have dogged some other members of this administration.
But all that changed in the last few days as Perry’s name has come up in relation to Ukraine, the nation at the heart of the whistleblower complaint that has led to an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
On Thursday, Politico reported that Perry plans to resign at the end of November, a move he’d been eyeing for several months. And in their subpoena of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, House Democrats also requested documents related to Perry’s activities in Ukraine.
On Friday, President Donald Trump tried to saddle Perry with the blame for the July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during which he allegedly attempted to pressure that leader to investigate Joe Biden’s family, according to an anonymous whistleblower complaint. That complaint has since sparked an impeachment inquiry into the 45th president.
All of this is likely tied to Perry’s frequent trips to Eastern Europe, which he has been undertaking to try to pitch US energy exports — or it might be little more than the latest defense Trump is throwing at the wall, in his constantly evolving attempts to see what sticks.
Trump’s found a fall guy for the July 25 call
Trump has repeatedly characterized his call with Zelensky as “perfect” and initially said that he was calling to discuss corruption more generally. But he recently came up with a new explanation for the call: Rick Perry made me do it.
On Saturday, Axios reported that Trump told House Republicans on a conference call the day before that he made the July phone call at Rick Perry’s behest.
”Not a lot of people know this but I didn’t even want to make the call,” Axios’ source says Trump said. “The only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to. Something about an LNG [liquefied natural gas] plant.”
Trump did not say that Perry told him to talk about the Bidens, corruption, or any form of investigation. In an email to the Associated Press, Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said that Perry did encourage the call, but only to discuss energy and economic issues.
“Secretary Perry absolutely supported and encouraged the president to speak to the new president of Ukraine to discuss matters related to their energy security and economic development,” wrote Hynes.
According to the White House’s memo of the call, released on September 25 in lieu of a full transcript, Zelensky — not Trump — did raise issues of energy and the economy.
“As to the economy, there is much potential for our two countries and one of the issues that is very important for Ukraine is energy independence,” said Zelensky. “I believe we can be very successful and cooperating on energy independence with United States. We are already working on cooperation.”
“Good. Well, thank you very much and I appreciate that,” Trump responded.
Perry’s visits to Ukraine seem to have been benign — but House Democrats still want to know more
Perry has indeed spent a good deal of time in and around the energy-producing regions of Eastern Europe. And on May 20, he led a US delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration that also included Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union (the same Sondland who plays a key role in the text message trove House Democrats reviewed and released Thursday).
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop said on Today, Explained, the energy secretary’s attendance may have been more of a snub to Zelensky than anything to do with Perry himself:
And then there’s another claim that Trump instructed Vice President Mike Pence to cancel his planned trip to Ukraine to attend Zelensky’s inauguration. They sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry instead, which was a bit of trade down. So this all appears to be an effort to send a message to Zelensky that he’s got to do what Trump wanted, which is what Rudy wanted, which is to pursue these investigations.
Earlier this week, Kurt Volker, the former US special representative to Ukraine, who resigned last week, testified before the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry. In his remarks, he mentioned Perry just once, regarding the inauguration trip. And as Axios goes on to note, there is no mention of Perry in the text message exchanges that Volker released as part of his testimony. Those appear to indicate that Giuliani was the call’s primary architect. In the memo of the call that the White House released on September 25, there is also no mention of either Perry or LNG.
But that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. The House subpoena served to Giuliani earlier this week also demands documents related to Perry’s connections to Ukraine (although they have not subpoenaed Perry directly). House Democrats want to see all records related to Perry’s visit to Zelensky’s inauguration and to a subsequent White House visit he made.
Perry has pledged to cooperate with the investigation into his dealings in the region. “We’re going to work with Congress and answer all their questions,” Perry told reporters on Wednesday. Speaking on the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday, he denied any impropriety.
“Not once, as God is my witness, not once was a Biden name — not the former vice president, not his son — ever mentioned,” he said. “Corruption was talked about in the country but it was always a relatively vague term of, you know, the oligarchs and this and that and what have you.”
Politico reported on Thursday that Perry plans to resign at the end of November. In the meantime, this news doesn’t seem to be scaring him away from the region: He is currently in Lithuania to ratify an energy partnership with leaders from Baltic states. On Sunday afternoon, he tweeted out praise for the work that had been done — even as #PerryMadeMeDoIt began trending.
Listen to Today, Explained
Our podcast explains how Ukraine finds itself at the center of the American political drama, yet President Trump is the least of the country’s worries.
Looking for a quick way to keep up with the never-ending news cycle? Host Sean Rameswaram will guide you through the most important stories at the end of each day.
Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts.