Holding Ukraine hostage: How the president and his allies, chasing 2020 ammunition, fanned a political storm

By mid-May, the U.S. relationship with Ukraine was unraveling: The U.S. ambassador had been recalled home for no apparent reason, the country’s new president was anxious about U.S. support, and President Trump’s personal lawyer was hawking Kiev conspiracy theories.

Amid this turbulence, an unexpected figure stepped forward to assert that he was now in charge of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had no apparent standing to seize this critical portfolio, nor any apparent qualifications as a diplomat beyond the $1 million he’d given to Trump’s inauguration.

But when some in the White House and State Department sought to block his power grab, current and former U.S. officials said, he rebuffed their demands to know who had granted him such authority with two words:

“The president.”

Over the next four months, Sondland worked closely with Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, to reorient America’s relationship with Kiev around the president’s political interests.

Newly released texts exchanged by Sondland, Volker and other U.S. officials during this period read like a government-sanctioned shakedown. Again and again, they make clear that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would not get military aid or the Oval Office invitation he coveted until he committed to investigations that Trump hoped would deliver damaging information on former vice president Joe Biden and undermine the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Rather than official State Department email, the text exchanges between the diplomats took place over WhatsApp, a U.S. official said.

Only if Zelensky can convince Trump that he will “ ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016” will he be granted a meeting with the president, Volker tells one of Zelensky’s top advisers in late July in a text that alludes to Trump’s belief that Ukraine sought to sabotage him in the presidential election. In a separate message weeks later, Sondland emphasizes that the president “really wants the deliverable.”

The exchanges reveal the direct participation of State Department officials sworn to serve the country in events that increasingly bear the markings of a multipronged political conspiracy.

At the same time Sondland and Volker were using diplomatic channels to press Trump’s demands, the president and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, were using other channels to deliver the same message. At the center of the scandal is a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that was exposed by a government whistleblower and triggered an impeachment inquiry.

On the receiving end of these demands was a country turning to the United States for help with legitimate desperation. Over the past five years, Ukraine has endured incursions by Russian paramilitary forces, the loss of the Crimean Peninsula after its seizure by Moscow, and a deadly and ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists — not to mention its own internal political and economic problems, and corruption.

Against this backdrop, Ukrainian officials cited in the texts released by House committees late Thursday come across as feeling abused by their American counterparts. Zelensky “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics,” a U.S. official, dispatched to Kiev after former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was removed on May 7, said in a text.

Sondland brushed aside his counterpart’s apprehension. “We need to get the conversation started and the relationship built,” he wrote back, “irrespective of the pretext.”

Although brief and cryptic, that exchange captures a more pervasive divide within the Trump administration between career national security officials disturbed by what they perceived as a dangerous decoupling of U.S. foreign policy from core national interests, and political appointees who became complicit in the president’s use of American influence to advance his electoral interests.

This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials, as well as documents released in recent days by congressional committees involved in the impeachment inquiry against the president. The officials interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the subject as well as fear of retaliation. Sondland did not respond to requests for comments.

Article URL : https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/holding-ukraine-hostage-how-the-president-and-his-allies-chasing-2020-ammunition-fanned-a-political-storm/2019/10/04/100e9868-e6a5-11e9-a331-2df12d56a80b_story.html#comments-wrapper

%d bloggers like this: