Let's Fix This Country

The Perfect Phone Call That Everyone Knew Was Wrong

"Can you believe that I will be impeached today by the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats? AND I DID NOTHING WRONG!". Donald Trump believes that because, hadn't he decreed that "I can do anything I want as president of the United States" just the day before he made his "perfect" July 25th phone call? He was incapable of wrong.

It was striking just how universal was the opposite reaction when one after another witness in the impeachment hearings said they knew that what they were hearing — withholding of aid to Ukraine on condition that a foreign government investigate a rival candidate — was wrong. We got a rare glimpse of our civil servants whom Republicans are wont to call "unelected bureaucrats" and the "deep state". That they across the government — the State Department, the Pentagon, the White House — so conscientiously recognized wrongdoing deserves attention as a subject on its own. It made for a strong statement against the president.

It started with a magazine article

In June, Mick Mulvaney got first wind that the president was going off course when he e-mailed from Air Force One, heading for Japan, “I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends, did we ever find out about the money for Ukraine and whether we can hold it back?” Aide Robert Blair replied that it could be done but “Expect Congress to become unhinged”.

President Trump had evidently seen an article in the Washington Examiner that said the Pentagon was readying another tranche of aid to Ukraine for military assistance that would bring the total since 2014 to $1.5 billion. Mr. Trump directed Mulvaney to place a hold on the aid. On May 23rd in the Oval Office, Trump had said , “They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people,” according to Kurt Volker, the administration's Special Envoy to Ukraine. “They tried to take me down.” Mr. Trump was apparently referring to Ukraine’s uncovering the "black ledger" that showed $12.7 million in secret payments to Paul Manafort that forced him to quit the 2016 campaign.

By July 10th the hold on the funds had not yet happened when something of an all-hands meeting took place in John Bolton's West Wing office. Joining him — he was then National Security Adviser to Trump — were Volker, Gordon Sondland, Fiona Hill, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and two Ukrainians guests, Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Alexander Danyliuk, Bolton’s counterpart in Kyiv. Sondland is our ambassador to the European Union, Ms. Hill was the National Security Council's (NSC) former senior director for Russia and Europe. Vindman is the top Ukraine expert at the NSC.

Mr. Sondland blurted out that Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, had guaranteed that Zelensky would be invited to the White House provided Ukraine announced it would conduct "investigations", which by then, as testified by Ms. Hill, were recognized by most in attendance as the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, the Bidens and the 2016 election.

Hearing that caused Mr. Bolton to stiffen, witnesses said, and abruptly call a halt to the meeting. A renowned "hawk", Bolton is a controversial figure, but he is thoroughly knowledgeable of how America should conduct its affairs abroad, and what he just heard was a wrong turn. He pulled Ms. Hill aside and told her to report what had transpired to John Eisenberg, the NSC's chief legal adviser. “Tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” he said, according to Ms. Hill’s testimony.

Eight days later on July 18, a group of top officials meeting on Ukraine policy learned from the budget office that the president had ordered a freeze on delivery of the $391 million military assistance package. “I and the others on the call sat in astonishment,” William Taylor, the top United States diplomat in Ukraine, testified to House investigators. “In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened.” The alarm was widespread. That same day, aides on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were tipped off by four calls from administration sources warning them about the hold and urging them to look into it.

Taylor, 5th in a class of 800 at West Point, did not learn until September 9th that the funds had been withheld on condition of a political favor. When he heard the substance of the July 25th call, he e-mailed Sondland and Volker, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance to help with a political campaign". Even though acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, he had been left in the dark to discover this on his own. “There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular”. The irregular channel bypassing the State Department were Sondland, Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the self-identified "three amigos", and they were ordered by Trump to take instruction from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Volker said he "opposed the hold on U.S. security assistance as soon as I learned about it on July 18". But he, too, despite his ambassador rank, was not aware that when Burisma was spoken of as the investigation target, it was code for the Bidens. “In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objection,” he said.

Mark Sandy also learned on July 18th that the Ukraine funding was to be held up, but he couldn't find out why. A graduate of Oxford and the Naval War College, a 21-year Navy reservist and veteran of a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he was in charge of moving congressionally allocated monies to their intended destinations. He repeatedly pressed Michael Duffey at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), about why Mr. Trump had imposed the hold but Duffey “simply said we need to let the hold take place — and I’m paraphrasing here — and then revisit this issue with the president.” Sandy devised what he termed "a footnote" that would hold up the movement of money, but he signaled his chain of command there could be legal issues and urged them to consult the OMB’s lawyers. Mr. Sandy said in testimony that he had never stalled a spending order in his 12 years at the agency.

Then, on July 30th, Duffey, a political appointee, took over control of the aid himself, something no one in the OMB remembers ever happening before.


It's an odd word to describe a conversation, but the president repeated ceaselessly that the July 25th call with Zelenskyy was "perfect". He meant there was nothing wrong with it, so said the media, but it seemed to us that what he really meant was that he had managed to get through the call without specifically mentioning the incriminating "quid pro quo". But the implicit transaction was clear to everyone else who heard the call.

Vindman had prepared the talking points for the call. A Purple Heart veteran of the Iraq War brought to the U.S. at the age of three by parents fleeing the Ukraine of the Soviet Union (that made him "un-American" for Donald Trump Jr.", by the way), Vindman listened in on the call as an official note-taker. He was startled to hear the president go off script. In testimony he said,

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was probably an element of shock, that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security”.

Out of a "sense of duty", Vindman headed for lawyer Eisenberg's office to read him his notes and question the propriety of the demand for investigations. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen", he would say. Eisenberg and another lawyer at the council quickly decided to move the transcript of the phone call into the White House’s most classified computer system. A few days later, a top White House lawyer directed Vindman "not to talk to anybody else". Vindman and two lawyers saw something wrong enough to be kept secret.

Eisenberg would find himself fielding complaints from at least four national-security officers alleging that the President was leveraging Ukraine policy in potentially illegal ways.

Jennifer Williams also listened in on the call. The longtime State Department employee with expertise in Europe and Russia was "detailed" to the White House on Vice President Mike Pence’s national security staff. She was not accustomed to a president discussing domestic political issues with foreign leaders, according to three people familiar with her remarks at the time. Williams had found the call "unusual and inappropriate" and "more political in nature".

As for Trump's claim that there was no quid pro quo, that the aid was not tied to Ukraine agreeing to investigations, just 90 minutes after the July 25th call, Duffey at the OMB e-mailed the Department of Defense, “Please hold off on any additional DoD obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process”. Obligation refers to the process of a government agency designating how funds will be spent. Duffey evidently recognized something untoward about the president's edict; he e-mailed further, “Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction.”

Ms. Williams recounted a September meeting between Pence and Zelenskyy in which the Ukrainian president explained how failing to provide the money was the wrong move, only helping Russia. “Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” Williams said, relaying what Mr. Zelenskyy told the vice president.

With the September 30th end of the fiscal year fast approaching, and the time needed to process the dispersal of funds diminishing, a bipartisan group of senators registered with Mulvaney "our deep concern that the Administration is considering not obligating the Ukraine Security Initiative funds for 2019".

When Timothy Morrison, a NSCl aide, heard about a September 7th conversation between Trump and Sondland, it gave him a "sinking feeling". Trump had said "I want no quid pro quo"

from Ukraine — this was well after the whistleblower complaint, meaning the president was intent on denying any such coercion — but he then went on to “insist” that Mr. Zelenskyy publicly announce an investigation into the Bidens and the fictional Ukraine interference in the 2016 election. (Republicans and their media would recite the first part non-stop and leave out the second part). Morrison found it disturbing enough that he, too, had NSC's chief lawyer Eisenberg review it. This was bad foreign policy, Morrison said. He feared Trump's demands could potentially squander a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to cement good relations with Ukraine's new anti-corruption government.

Laura Cooper, a top Defense Department official in charge of Russia and Ukraine, testified that she and Pentagon officials had warned the White House over the summer that continuing to deny Ukraine security assistance could cause the administration to run afoul of the law. As indeed it did. In January, just as the impeachment trial was beginning, the General Accounting Office said that Trump and his cohort had broken the Impoundment Control Act's law that bars the president from deciding unilaterally not to spend money appropriated by Congress.

Ms. Cooper said that throughout the summer, as Pentagon officials kept sounding the alarm about the legal perils of waiting to provide the aid, the White House, through the budget office, repeatedly "was trying to see if we could push, you know, keep planning to obligate, but keep pushing the obligations until later in the year and still complete them,” Cooper testified.

Late in August, a united front of Bolton, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thought withholding security assistance so wrong that they confronted the president face-to-face in the Oval Office. One by one each made his case why Trump should free up the money. The whistleblower complaint was by then known to Trump, so he knew he'd best make corruption the reason for the freeze. “Ukraine is a corrupt country,” the president said. “We are pissing away our money.” He would not budge.

Politico was the first to report that military aid to Ukraine had been held up. Its August 28th story surprised and angered Congress. Three House committees would shortly announce they would investigate whether Mr. Trump had withheld the aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, heard from Sondland that the aid would be unblocked only if the Ukrainians gave Mr. Trump the investigations he wanted. Johnson arranged a call to the president. When he asked Mr. Trump directly if the aid was contingent on getting investigations, Trump replied in a shower of expletives that there was no such demand and he would never do such a thing.

By mid-August, Pentagon lawyers were growing increasingly concerned about how to lawfully implement a lengthy hold. With time running out, in an e-mail to the Pentagon on September 10th, Michael Duffey tried to absolve the White House of any responsibility for not delivering the funds to Ukraine in time, that it was up to the Defense Department to do more to ensure that the aid be released to Ukraine by the September 30th deadline. Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon's acting comptroller, shot back, “You can’t be serious,” she wrote. “I am speechless.”

With the pressure of exposure coming from all sides, Trump lifted the hold the next day, September 11th.

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