clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The incredibly damning Ukraine texts from State Department officials, explained

The newly released texts show a quid pro quo offer between Trump and Ukraine.

US President Donald Trump speaks as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump has turned up a major new trove of evidence: text messages, some of which Democrats released Thursday night. In the messages, State Department officials discuss the effort to pressure the Ukrainian president.

The texts are ugly. They reveal that top State Department diplomats worked with the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to try to get Ukraine to commit to politicized investigations demanded by President Trump into the gas company Hunter Biden served on the board of — Burisma — as well as into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election. Trump has been trying to drum up phony scandals on both topics, to hurt Biden’s presidential run and discredit the Mueller investigation.

The texts reveal that the pressure campaign was presented this July as a quid pro quo — if Ukraine committed to these investigations, the US would agree to a White House meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. For weeks, these State officials tried to get Zelensky to publicly announce he was conducting these investigations, in exchange for the meeting — but Zelensky apparently refused. (The Bidens are never mentioned by name in these texts, “Burisma” is used instead, but Trump was not so careful when talking to Zelensky on the phone in July.)

Kurt Volker, the special representative to Ukraine who recently resigned, provided the texts to Congress in advance of his closed-door testimony Thursday. The texts were Volker’s exchanges, or exchanges he was copied on, with State Department officials, Giuliani, and an adviser to the Ukrainian president. The House Intelligence Committee released them Thursday.

The texts get even uglier in late August and early September. That’s when Trump’s decision to hold up $400 million in military aid for Ukraine entered the discussion. One State diplomat, Bill Taylor, twice raised concerns that this was connected to Trump’s demands for investigations and with US politics. And, twice, Ambassador Gordon Sondland responded by urging him to talk on the phone rather than by text message.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote on September 1. “Call me,” Sondland answered.

Eight days later, Taylor wrote: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded by denying that this was the case — and urging him not to text about the matter anymore.

We should keep in mind that these messages are only “a subset of the full body of the materials” from House Democrats — so it’s at least possible that they could be missing some context. (Democrats say they hope to release the rest after reviewing them for personally identifiable information.) But what we have does not look good for the Trump administration.

The key players involved in these texts

Kurt Volker, who was the US special representative for Ukraine from 2017 until his resignation last week due to the scandal. (It’s unclear whether he was pushed out or quit voluntarily.) Previously a career foreign service officer before nearly a decade in the private sector, Volker somewhat oddly held the Ukraine envoy role part-time while also working for the lobbying firm BGR Group. Volker voluntarily went in to testify to House Democrats on Thursday and handed over these text messages. The messages show him as a willing participant in the effort to press Ukraine to launch the investigations Trump wanted.

Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, was a hotel company executive and a donor to Trump’s campaign and inauguration. He’s reportedly closer to the White House than Volker, and in the texts, he’s also more enthusiastic about defending Trump. Throughout the texts, he works closely with Volker on the effort to pressure Ukraine. When the topic of Trump blocking military aid to Ukraine comes up, he wants to talk on the phone rather than text about it.

Bill Taylor is currently the top US diplomat in the US embassy in Ukraine. He’s had a lengthy career in diplomacy, including a stint as ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush. In the texts, Taylor strongly expresses concerns about pushing the Ukrainians to launch investigations that would help Trump politically.

Rudy Giuliani is, of course, Trump’s personal lawyer, who has no official position in the government but whom these State officials seem to be working with or even for.

Andrey Yermak is an adviser to President Zelensky. In the texts, Yermak pushes US officials to agree to a meeting between Trump and Zelensky. He voices openness to the idea of announcing the investigations.

There are also shorthand references in the texts to “Z” (Zelensky) and “S” (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), among others. And we should note that, though dates and timestamps are listed for the texts, there is a bit uncertainty on precise timings, because it’s unclear who is in which time zone at various points.

The initial quid pro quo: Investigations for a Trump meeting

For background, Zelensky had just taken office in May, after winning as an outsider presidential candidate. He badly wanted good relations with the US, due to Ukraine’s continuing military conflict with Russia. But though Trump had called Zelensky on Ukraine’s election night, relations had seemingly cooled since then (Trump had ordered Vice President Mike Pence to cancel a planned trip to Zelensky’s inauguration).

So the texts begin in July of this year, as Volker (the US special representative for Ukraine) and Sondland (US ambassador to the EU) tried to set up a phone call between Trump and Zelensky — by involving Rudy Giuliani.

Volker texted Giuliani on July 19: “Mr. Mayor — really enjoyed breakfast this morning. As discussed, connecting you here with Andrey Yermak, who is very close to President Zelensky.”

That same day, Volker and Sondland exchanged texts. Sondland said it looks like here will be a “Potus call tomorrow,” and said he spoke “directly to Zelensky and gave him a full briefing. He’s got it.” Volker mentions his breakfast with Giuliani, and Volker writes (apparently reporting what Giuliani told him): “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues.”

Then, two days later, Taylor (the top US diplomat in Ukraine) expresses concerns, saying he’s heard that “President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”

Sondland responds that it’s important to “get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”

So what appears to be happening here is that Volker and Sondland are trying to get Trump to give the new Ukrainian regime a chance. But they have heard, including from Giuliani, that what Trump wants is clear: Zelensky’s commitment to “investigations.”

Taylor says that Zelensky seems concerned about this (because it’s related to “Washington domestic, reelection politics”), but Sondland insists that it’s important to build a relationship between Trump and Zelensky “irrespective of the pretext.”

Volker makes things even clearer in a July 25 text, apparently shortly before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky that day. Volker writes, “Heard from White House — assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / “get to the bottom of what happened” in 20-16, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”

We should note Volker doesn’t mention the Biden investigation here, but instead the other investigation that Trump would bring up (into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election and the FBI’s Russia probe). Also, the White House offer in response is a Washington visit for Zelensky, not millions of dollars in military aid. But still, it’s a very clear quid pro quo and is said to be coming from the White House itself.

Yermak, Zelensky’s adviser, understood this perfectly well — after the call (the one we’ve seen the partial transcript for), he texted Volker mentioning both dates for a Washington visit and asking for dates he could meet Giuliani in Madrid. The two are connected.

In August, State officials and Giuliani pressed Ukraine to publicly commit to the investigations

The next exchanges are dated August 9, and there’s a new topic discussed — a “statement” that Trump’s people wanted Zelensky to make. It would announce that Ukraine would conduct the two investigations Trump asked for on his call with Zelensky: one into Burisma (the Ukrainian gas company Hunter Biden sat on the board of) and one into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 elections.

“I think potus really wants the deliverable,” Sondland writes. He adds that it would be good to get a draft of the statement from Yermak in advance to “avoid misunderstandings.”

Volker then texted Giuliani, asking to chat by phone “to make sure I advise Z correctly as to what he should be saying.” Giuliani says that’s a good idea.

The next day, Yermak says it would be “possible” to make this declaration, but that it would make more sense to do it “after we receive a confirmation of date” (for Zelensky’s White House visit).

“Once we have a date,” Yermak says, he’ll call for a press briefing in which he’ll announce “among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”

Volker then sends some exact language for the statement to Sondland — mentioning Burisma and the 2016 elections — and they say they’ll send it to Yermak. (According to CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Giuliani had pressed Volker for the explicit inclusion of both topics.)

A few days later, Sondland asks Volker, “Do we still want Ze to give us an unequivocal draft with 2016 and Boresma?” Volker answers: “That’s the clear message so far...”

So it appears that Zelensky’s team did not want to explicitly commit to both of those investigations — and the “message” Volker got was that he had to keep pushing to get him to do so. The statement, it appears, was never released.

In late August, the military aid holdup comes into play

What many believe to be the most appalling part of this scandal is the allegation that Trump blocked $400 million in military aid for Ukraine as part of this pressure campaign — which would be threatening Ukraine’s security if it doesn’t help take down Biden for him.

It’s ugly stuff, and the timeline of Trump’s decision to block the aid is conspicuous — he did it in mid-July, shortly before his call with Zelensky. However, it’s been unclear when the Ukrainians learned he had done that, and this aid they expected was truly in jeopardy.

These texts appear to suggest the aid holdup entered the discussion later — but that it did indeed enter the discussion.

The first reference to it is in texts dated the early morning of August 29 (again, the time zone is unclear here), Zelensky’s adviser, Yermak, messaged Volker: “Need to talk to you.” He then sent a link to a Politico story headlined: “Trump holds up Ukraine military aid meant to confront Russia.” (This was the first day news broke about this.)

A few days later, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat at the US embassy in Ukraine, seems to have come under the impression that the aid holdup was indeed tied to Trump’s demand for investigations. “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he texted three days later, on September 1.

Sondland’s response — “Call me” — raises an eyebrow.

As many have observed, Sondland seems to want to move the conversation to a phone call — which, unlike texts, would leave no documentary paper trail. It’s also worth pointing out that, if the answer to his question was clearly “no, we’re not conditioning security assistance on investigations,” Sondland could have just ... said that. But he didn’t say that.

A week later, the situation was still up in the air. Sondland mentions “multiple convos” with Zelensky and Trump, and he wants to talk on the phone. In Taylor’s message afterward, they discuss an “interview” that the Ukrainians were apparently supposed to give. (It’s not clear what that is.) “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” Taylor writes — and he makes clear that he’d “quit’ if that happened.

About 12 hours later, Taylor was still very concerned. “Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon,” he writes, to Sondland.

Then, Taylor writes, in perhaps the most remarkable exchange of the batch: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland takes four-and-a-half hours to respond (it’s unclear if he was sleeping or doing other things). But when he does answer, it’s a doozy.

“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland writes. “The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text. If you still have concerns, I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly.”

So what happened there?

First, Taylor put something they’d talked about on the phone in writing — his objections to the idea of withholding the military aid in exchange for “help with a political campaign.” Now remember, Taylor asked Sondland whether they are now “saying” the aid was linked to investigations eight days earlier. Sondland, it seems, failed to dissuade him of the idea that these things were linked.

Then more than four hours passed. And then Sondland sent a several-sentence response that, if you can read Washington-speak, looks a lot like ass-covering — a phony attempt to make himself (and Trump) look not quite so bad should the texts leak or get into investigators’ hands.

Sondland reverts to talking points, claiming Trump truly cares about corruption in Ukraine and that there are “no quid pro quo[s]. “And, once again, he tells Taylor not to talk about this in a way that could leave documentary evidence — “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text” — and recommends the phone instead. He also suggests calling “S” — which is how State officials refer to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — or Lisa Kenna, an aide in Pompeo’s office.

And that’s the last text exchange in the batch. Two days later, on September 11, the White House released its hold on the military aid for Ukraine, allowing it to go through. Why they suddenly did so is unclear.

The big picture

Trump’s “no quid pro quo” line is no longer tenable after these texts. They make it unmistakably clear what the quid pro quo was. At first, Ukraine agrees to the investigations in exchange for Trump agreeing to host a Zelensky White House visit.

Details are still murky, however, about the holdup in military aid and how it played into this pressure campaign. Taylor’s texts raising concerns about the matter are certainly suggestive — as is Sondland’s hesitancy to discuss it by text — but we’re still missing further facts and evidence about what happened here. Testimony from Taylor could, theoretically, help with that.

More broadly, Volker and Sondland may well have believed they were in a tough position. It’s entirely possible their priority really was helping improve relations between Trump and Ukraine, and given Trump’s fixation on the investigations, they may have felt they had no other choice other than to push Ukraine on the topic. Overall, though, the texts tell the story of how top State Department diplomats were enlisted to serve Trump’s personal and political needs.

Listen to Today, Explained

In its sixth episode on the impeachment scandal, 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.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.