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Top diplomat described ‘crazy’ plan for Ukraine

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) speaks to a reporter after a closed-door briefing with Kurt Volker on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 3. House investigators on Thursday privately questioned Volker, the State Department’s former special envoy for Ukraine, interviewing the first witness in their growing impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump tried to bend American policy for his own political benefit. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
October 4, 2019 09:09 am

WASHINGTON — A top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine repeatedly raised concerns with colleagues about the White House’s decision to withhold $391 million in security aid from Ukraine, describing it as a “crazy” plan to withhold security assistance “for help with a political campaign,” according to texts released Thursday as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

The texts, which were turned over to Congress by Kurt D. Volker, the State Department’s former special envoy for Ukraine, come from a series of early September exchanges. They appear to show a dispute among U.S. diplomats over whether the president was trying to use security aid or a White House meeting with the country’s new leader as leverage to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on a leading political rival — a charge at the heart of the impeachment investigation.

One message, written by William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, suggested that Trump was holding back the package of military aid to Ukraine as a bargaining chip to influence the country’s president to do his political bidding.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote on Sept. 9 to Volker and Gordon D. Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Sondland replied that he believed he had “identified the best path forward” for unfreezing the assistance. But he also took issue that there is any sort of direct agreement, writing in response, “The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” He then suggested the conversation move to phone rather than text.

That exchange and others emerged as congressional investigators met privately for more than nine hours on Capitol Hill with Volker, who is the first witness in their growing impeachment inquiry into whether Trump tried to bend American policy for his own political benefit by pressuring President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats.

While the president has openly admitted that he wanted Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, a crucial question has been whether Trump tried to use the security aid or a meeting at the White House as leverage. The money was delayed until the Trump administration released it last month amid a bipartisan outcry from lawmakers.

In his text, Sondland added, “The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelenskiy promised during his campaign.”

It was not immediately clear what led Taylor to conclude that Trump was withholding aid as leverage over Ukraine. When the texts were sent, news reports about the delay in releasing the aid, and about attempts by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into investigating Biden and other Democrats, had already prompted public speculation that Trump was engaging in a quid pro quo.

But his concerns persisted. Roughly a week earlier, on Sept. 1, Taylor had asked Sondland, “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”

Sondland replied simply, “Call me.”

The next day, Taylor described a “nightmare” situation in which the Ukrainians announced they would conduct the investigations Trump wanted and still not receive the security assistance. “The Russians love it,” he wrote of that potential outcome. “(And I quit.)”

Taylor could not be reached for comment Thursday. The texts thrust him into the center of the blossoming controversy, and he is now almost certain to be called to testify by lawmakers.

Democrats leading the investigation said the messages “reflect serious concerns raised by a State Department official about the detrimental effects of withholding critical military assistance from Ukraine, and the importance of setting up a meeting between President Trump and the Ukrainian president without further delay.”

Republicans demanded a full transcript of Volker’s interview be released. “The facts we learned today undercut the salacious narrative that Adam Schiff is using to sell his impeachment ambitions,” wrote Reps. Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, the top Republicans on the Oversight and Reform and Intelligence committees, referring to the chairman of the intelligence panel.

When the Trump administration forced out Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former ambassador, before her term was up, Taylor was sent to be the chargé d’affaires, the No. 2 post in an embassy, and acting ambassador. Taylor was a former ambassador in Ukraine, serving from 2006 to 2009.

The texts among Volker, Sondland and Taylor portray Taylor as a diplomat deeply skeptical of the Trump administration’s approach to Ukraine, flabbergasted that the military assistance had been cut off — and firmly believing that the White House was asking for Ukraine to begin political investigations in return for the aid being released.

In one text, he worried about how the hold would affect Ukrainians’ view of the United States and if it would have “shaken their faith in us.”

The texts also suggest that Volker, a former ambassador to NATO, was deeply intertwined in efforts by the president and Giuliani to press the Ukrainians into action.

Volker’s name appears several times in an anonymous CIA whistleblower complaint that set off the impeachment inquiry, and Giuliani has said publicly he briefed Volker on his efforts. The complaint centers on a July call Trump had with Zelenskiy, in which he pressed him to investigate Biden, and asserts that Volker advised the Ukrainians on how to “navigate” Trump’s demands.

In his session with investigators, Volker presented himself as a diplomat caught in the middle “trying to solve a problem” and help Ukraine, but as someone who was not “fully in the loop” on the president’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate his rivals, according to a person briefed on his testimony.

Volker told investigators that even as he agreed to set up a meeting between Giuliani and Zelenskiy’s top aide, he warned Giuliani that he believed the conspiracy theories Giuliani was pursuing were unfounded. While there may have been Ukrainians interested in influencing the U.S. government, Volker told investigators that he thought it was implausible that Biden or the Hillary Clinton campaign did anything wrong.

Volker told the committee staff that he was never informed that Trump raised Biden or the 2016 election during the July 25 phone call, nor was he shown the rough transcript afterward. He was in Ukraine at the time and met the next day with Zelenskiy, who he said raised no concerns about the call with him.

In his testimony, Volker told investigators he believed Taylor was a diplomat of high integrity. But he also said he did not see the freezing of the assistance as directly linked to Trump’s interest in beginning a new Ukraine investigation as Taylor did, according to a person familiar with the testimony.

Taylor concluded that the assistance was linked to Trump’s desire for new investigations in Ukraine based on news reports, Volker testified, according to the person. While Taylor feared the aid would never come, Volker told House investigators he was sure that Congress or the Pentagon would force the administration to release the assistance and the issue would be resolved. Volker believed if he could persuade Trump that Zelenskiy was trustworthy, he could push the relationship to a better place, he said in his testimony.

Volker told the committee that he did not act at Pompeo’s behest but briefed the secretary of state who approved of his actions. He also said he kept John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, informed.

The interview, which Volker participated in voluntarily, took place out of public view. The text exchange was part of a trove of more than 60 pages of documents, many of them texts, that Volker provided before he arrived.

Volker resigned on Friday from his part-time, unpaid State Department post without public explanation. A person familiar with his thinking said the longtime diplomat concluded he could no longer be effective in the post in light of the unfolding scandal. But the resignation also freed him to appear before the House investigators without restrictions, according to people familiar with his account.