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US diplomat feared ‘crazy’ deal by Trump, Ukraine texts show

The president’s pressure on Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy is the subject of Democrats’ impeachment investigation.

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Donald Trump (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By Lisa Mascaro, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

Senior US diplomats encouraged Ukraine’s newly elected president to investigate Joe Biden’s family in return for a high-profile visit to Washington to meet Donald Trump, newly released texts show.

Three House of Representatives committees have released dozens of texts between US diplomats in Ukraine discussing how to handle a response to Mr Trump’s demands that the country launch an investigation into the Democratic presidential hopeful and his son.

The release follows an almost 10-hour interview with former Ukrainian envoy Kurt Volker, who provided the text messages to the committees. He stepped down as special envoy amid the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry

In the texts, Mr Volker and two other diplomats discuss how to navigate Mr Trump’s requests for the probe into his political rival.

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Kurt Volker (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

In one exchange, Mr Volker and ambassador Gordon Sondland discussed a draft statement in which the Ukraine government would announce an investigation into the 2016 US presidential election and into a company whose board Mr Biden’s son Hunter served on.

Mr Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment investigation.

The US leader’s demands soon escalated into what one feared was a “crazy” swap that risked vital US military aid.

The texts lay out the raw contours of a potential exchange — Mr Trump gets his political investigation of a top Democratic rival in return for some price to be paid by the new Ukraine leader — now at the heart of the House investigation.

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

The text messages convey a distinct campaign among the three diplomats, who — apparently against some of their stated better judgment — appear to be trying to help Ukraine reset its relationship with Mr Trump by pushing his interest in investigating Mr Biden.

Mr Volker, in a text message on the morning of a planned July 25 phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelenskiy, wrote: “Heard from White House — Assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”

An adviser to the Ukrainian president appeared to go along with the proposal, which entailed investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.

“Phone call went well,” wrote Andrey Yermak in a text to Mr Volker later that day after the two presidents spoke. Mr Yermak suggested several dates when the two presidents could meet in September.

All that planning started to unravel when Mr Zelenskiy’s aide tried to lock in a date for the Trump meeting before putting out the statement on the investigations.

“Once we have a date we will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations,” Mr Yermak wrote two weeks later.

“Sounds great!” replied Mr Volker.

I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign Bill Taylor

Mr Volker, Mr Sondland and Bill Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Ukraine, discussed the statement Mr Zelenskiy would issue in support of the investigation. As the negotiations progressed, Mr Sondland said Mr Trump “really wants the deliverable.”

Then, Mr Trump put a hold on 250 million dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, which was depending on the funds as part of its defence against Russia.

Mr Taylor conveyed his concerns and questioned whether the money was being withheld until Ukraine agreed to Mr Trump’s demand.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he wrote.

“This is my nightmare scenario,” Mr Taylor texted his colleagues days later. He said that by withholding the Ukrainian assistance, “we have already shaken their faith in us”.

House Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine matter after a government whistleblower disclosed Mr Trump’s call with Mr Zelenskiy and the push to have a foreign government interfere in US elections by digging up dirt on Mr Biden.

The text messages show that within a month of the call, Mr Trump had cancelled the visit by Mr Zelenskiy, sending the diplomats into an effort to salvage a meeting with vice president Mike Pence or possibly secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

Amid the finger-pointing that followed, Mr Taylor texted Mr Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

After a more than four-hour pause, Mr Sondland texted back that he was incorrect, and wrote that Mr Trump “has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind”.

PA

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