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The Origin of the Sharpie Quid Pro Quo Denial: An Effort to Craft a Cover Story on the Pages of the WSJ

Before I got caught up in Thanksgiving preparations, I started a post trying to recreate Susan Simpson’s analysis showing that the September 9 “no quid pro quo” call between Trump and Gordon Sondland never actually happened. Thankfully, she was already doing all that work, in a long post at Just Security.

[A]s shown from the testimony of other witnesses, the “no quid pro quo” call did not take place on September 9th. What’s more, the call was not prompted by any text from Bill Taylor. And lastly, Sondland’s testimony about the “no quid pro quo” call omitted the most important part: the part where President Trump informed Sondland that the security assistance would be at a “stalemate” until President Zelenskyy stood in front of a microphone and personally announced that he was opening an investigation into Trump’s political rivals.

Go read her post, which is meticulous and convincing.

Since she’s done that, I’d like to move onto where I had wanted to go from there, to unpack how that less-damning story got seeded.

The story first appears in an October 7 WSJ article purporting to preview Sondland’s testimony. The article was part of a series of articles, all involving Rebecca Balhaus, in which quid pro quo participants Kurt Volker, Sondland, Rick Perry, and Ron Johnson worked out a cover story. (I don’t fault Balhaus, at all, for reporting these stories; she killed the early reporting on this. But it’s quite clear now she was lied to in an effort to coordinate a false story, and she might consider describing how these stories came together given that these sources did lie.)

The stories are designed to take the existing record as reflected in the texts between many of them and come up with a story that denies both that by September 7, Trump had premised aid on investigations into 2016 and Biden, and the following day, Volodymyr Zelensky, agreed to that demand.

Perhaps because he was trying (unsuccessfully) to salvage his position at the McCain Institute, perhaps because he no longer had any legal tie to State, and perhaps because HPSCI got lucky, Kurt Volker testified first, after Mike Pompeo tried and failed to bully the committee into letting State sit in on what its witnesses would say to the committee.

In his statement and testimony, which was bound by the numerous texts he had reflecting discussions relating to the quid pro quo, Volker unconvincingly claimed not to know that when Rudy and the Ukrainians discussed investigating Burisma, everyone involved knew that to be code for Joe Biden. The day after his testimony, HPSCI released the texts he had shared with the committee, showing abundant evidence of a quid pro quo and setting off a bunch of reporting trying to nail down when Trump demanded the quid pro quo.

Ron Johnson then told the WSJ that he had asked Trump whether there was a quid pro quo, and Trump had angrily denied it.

Sen. Ron Johnson said that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had described to him a quid pro quo involving a commitment by Kyiv to probe matters related to U.S. elections and the status of nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine that the president had ordered to be held up in July.

Alarmed by that information, Mr. Johnson, who supports aid to Ukraine and is the chairman of a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the region, said he raised the issue with Mr. Trump the next day, Aug. 31, in a phone call, days before the senator was to meet with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, Mr. Trump flatly rejected the notion that he directed aides to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on a new probe by Kyiv, Mr. Johnson said.

“He said, ‘Expletive deleted—No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” the Wisconsin senator recalled in an interview Friday. Mr. Johnson said he told the president he had learned of the arrangement from Mr. Sondland.

That claim (which I believe Chris Murphy has challenged; I will return to Johnson’s role in this in a follow-up) in some ways necessitated the September 9 story now shown to be false.

Mr. Johnson’s account of Mr. Sondland’s description of the conditions placed on aid to Ukraine runs counter to what Mr. Sondland told another diplomat a little over a week later.

On Sept. 9, Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, in a text message to Mr. Sondland also linked the hold on aid to the investigations the president was seeking. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Mr. Taylor wrote.

Then, days later, Sondland released to WSJ what would be the first of at least three versions of testimony before he testified (along with the three versions given as testimony), though the WSJ story appears to rely heavily on leaks from Volker’s camp, too. The story appeared to be an attempt to deal with the problem presented by Volker’s testimony: that there was abundant evidence that the Three Amigos were scripting precisely what Zelensky had to say, and that even after (Volker claimed) Ukraine had hesitated, Sondland and Taylor continued to pursue such a statement.

A draft statement subsequently circulated by Mr. Volker included a line that Ukraine investigate “all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.”

Mr. Giuliani didn’t respond to a request for comment.

That statement was ultimately scuttled over concerns in Ukraine about being perceived as wading into U.S. elections, among other matters, according to the person familiar with Mr. Volker’s testimony to House lawmakers.

But Mr. Sondland and Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, continued to discuss the possibility of having Mr. Zelensky give a media interview in which he would make similar commitments about Ukrainian investigations, according to the person familiar with Mr. Volker’s testimony.

The story also tried to clean up a problem created by Johnson’s claim that Trump had denied there was a quid pro quo.

Mr. Sondland has come under fresh scrutiny in recent days after Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) told The Wall Street Journal on Friday that Mr. Sondland had told him in August that the decision to hold up nearly $400 million aid to Ukraine was contingent on an investigation desired by Mr. Trump and his allies. Mr. Johnson said the president denied any quid pro quo.

Mr. Sondland doesn’t remember his conversation with the senator that way, according to a person familiar with his activities. He understood the White House visit was on hold until Ukraine met certain requirements, but he didn’t know of a link to the military aid, this person said.

Most importantly, the story shifted the date of Sondland’s call from September 7 to September 9 to shift Bill Taylor’s role in all this.

Yet text messages released by House lawmakers last week suggest some Trump administration officials believed there was a link between the aid to Ukraine and the investigations Mr. Trump sought.

“The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance,” Mr. Taylor wrote in a Sept. 8 text message to Mr. Volker and Mr. Sondland, referring to the interview they had discussed Mr. Zelensky giving about investigations.

The next day, Mr. Taylor told Mr. Sondland: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Mr. Sondland called Mr. Trump before texting back less than five hours later, according to the person familiar with his activities.

“The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” Mr. Sondland said. He added: “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

This is when that lie was formed: after the limits imposed by Volker’s texts became clear.

Rick Perry then did an interview with the WSJ where he joined in the feigned ignorance that this was about Biden from the start, presenting the cover story Republicans would use since then, that this was just about Trump believing he was targeted in 2016.

Mr. Perry, in an exclusive interview with The Wall Street Journal, said he contacted Mr. Giuliani in an effort to ease a path to a meeting between Mr. Trump and his new Ukrainian counterpart. He said Mr. Giuliani described to him during their phone call several concerns about Ukraine’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election, concerns that haven’t been substantiated.

Mr. Perry also said he never heard the president, any of his appointees, Mr. Giuliani or the Ukrainian regime discuss the possibility of specifically investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential contender, and his son Hunter Biden. Mr. Trump’s request for a probe of the Bidens in a July 25 call with Ukraine’s president has sparked the impeachment inquiry in the House.

[snip]

“And as I recall the conversation, he said, ‘Look, the president is really concerned that there are people in Ukraine that tried to beat him during this presidential election,’ ” Mr. Perry said. “ ‘He thinks they’re corrupt and…that there are still people over there engaged that are absolutely corrupt.’ ”

Mr. Perry said the president’s lawyer didn’t make any explicit demands on the call. “Rudy didn’t say they gotta do X, Y and Z,” Mr. Perry said. “He just said, ‘You want to know why he ain’t comfortable about letting this guy come in? Here’s the reason.’ ”

In the phone call, Mr. Giuliani blamed Ukraine for the dossier about Mr. Trump’s alleged ties to Russia that was created by a former British intelligence officer, Mr. Perry said, and asserted that Ukraine had Mrs. Clinton’s email server and “dreamed up” evidence that helped send former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to jail.

Perry also floated a version of the July 10 meeting that downplays how aggressively this tied the investigation to any call.

During that meeting, U.S. officials including Mr. Volker and Mr. Perry pushed for a call to be scheduled between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky as a U.S. show of support for the new administration, according to people familiar with the conversation. Also during the meeting, Mr. Sondland brought up investigations the president was interested in Ukraine pursuing, a move that so alarmed Mr. Bolton and Fiona Hill , the top Russia adviser at the time, that Ms. Hill subsequently relayed her concerns to a National Security Council lawyer, Ms. Hill told House committees earlier this week.

After that meeting, Mr. Perry learned that administration aides had been told a call between Messrs. Trump and Zelensky didn’t need to be scheduled until they had something substantive to discuss, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Perry called Mr. Bolton on July 11 and again pressed for the two leaders to speak ahead of parliamentary elections on July 21, stressing that a call was needed to build the relationship and help counter Russian influence in Ukraine. Mr. Perry at that point also brought up investigations, reiterating that Mr. Zelensky was committed to rooting out corruption and wouldn’t prove an obstacle to any probes, the person said.

In the same interview, Perry curiously backed off previous reporting he was about to leave the Administration.

Those are the various narratives into which Sondland tried to squeeze his first sworn statement to Congress, one that he has had to revise twice.

And then Bill Taylor testified, which is when it became clear he had abundant notes that contradicted Sondland’s cover story.


October 3: Volker testimony (opening statement, deposition transcript)

October 4: HPSCI releases Volker texts; Ron Johnson claims to WSJ that Trump told him aid was not premised on an investigation

October 7: Sondland provides advance notice of purported testimony to WSJ and others that includes a fake September 9 call

October 12: Sondland releases a second version of testimony

October 14: Sondland releases a third version of testimony; Fiona Hill testimony

October 15: Leaks of Fiona Hill’s testimony creates problems around the July 10 meeting

October 16: Rick Perry interview with WSJ

October 17: Sondland opening statement, deposition

October 22: William Taylor testifies

Moron-Contra and Gordon Sondland’s Venezuela Involvement

The WaPo today clarified that the meeting Criminal Division head Brian Benczkowski took with suspected foreign agent Rudy Giuliani after SDNY started to focus on his influence peddling was not, as I and other suspected, to pitch Dmitry Firtash’s case. But it did have a tie to Rudy’s Ukraine influence peddling.

Rudy was pitching the case of Venezuelan energy executive Alejandro Betancourt López, who is an unindicted co-conspirator in a different money-laundering case.

Giuliani was one of several lawyers representing Betancourt in Washington. The lawyers met with the chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division and other government attorneys to argue that the wealthy Venezuelan should not face criminal charges as part of a $1.2 billion money-laundering case filed in Florida last year, said the people, who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The criminal complaint alleges that top officials of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, elite business leaders and bankers conspired to steal money from the company and then launder it through Miami real estate purchases and other investment schemes.

Betancourt is not one of the eight men charged in the case, a group that includes his cousin. But a person familiar with the matter said that he is referred to in the criminal complaint as a uncharged co-conspirator, as previously reported by the Miami Herald.

And when Rudy and Lev Parnas were in Madrid in early August to coach Yermak on what Volodymyr Zelensky had to do to get Trump to deliver on his promises, Betancourt hosted them.

When Rudolph W. Giuliani went to Madrid in August to confer with a top aide to the Ukrainian president and press for political investigations sought by President Trump, he also met with a previously unidentified client with very different interests.

While in Spain, Giuliani stayed at a historic estate belonging to Venezuelan energy executive Alejandro Betancourt López, who had hired Trump’s personal attorney to help him contend with an investigation by the Justice Department into alleged money laundering and bribery, according to people familiar with the situation.

[snip]

During the trip, Giuliani met with Yermak at a hotel in Madrid, according to people familiar with the trip.

But he — along with Parnas and Fruman — stayed at an expansive estate belonging to Betancourt on the grounds of an ancient castle once used by Spanish royalty, the people said.

Effectively, then, Rudy’s ability to get Benczkowski to take his meeting subsidized Trump’s effort to coerce political benefits out of Ukraine.

As I have noted, Beczkowski’s claims of ignorance of investigations into Rudy might be true, but one way or another, they make it clear DOJ really went out of its way not to investigate the whistleblower complaint involving Rudy, Parnas, and Fruman, because if they had they would have known Rudy was under criminal investigation at the time of the meeting.

This story — in which one corrupt oligarch pays for Rudy to get other corrupt oligarchs to invent dirt on Trump’s enemies — makes the name some have adopted for this scandal — Moron-Contra — even more evocative, as Iran-Contra depended on slushing cash around various countries around the world.

The WaPo’s story notes the comparison to Iran-Contra may go still further. Fiona Hill expressed concern about what the Ukrainian grifters were doing in Venezuela.

In a closed-door deposition given to congressional investigators on Oct. 14, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill alluded to the possibility of a Venezuela tie to the ongoing Ukraine saga.

“I was told that by the directors working on the Western Hemisphere. I didn’t have a chance to look into this in any way. I was told that the same individuals who had been indicted had been interested at different points in energy investments in Venezuela and that this was quite well-known,” she said, referring to Parnas and Fruman, according to a transcript later released.

She did not detail the information she had been given, only that she had learned the two were “notorious in Florida” and involved with “strange things in Venezuela.”

“Well, I was extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal, especially after, you know, people had raised with me these two gentlemen, Parnas and Fruman,” she said.

But there’s still another connection. As I noted when Gordon Sondland released his first of thus far three statements to Congress, he explicitly said that his mandate as Ambassador to the EU extended to (!!!) Georgia, Iran, and Venezuela.

My involvement in issues concerning Ukraine, while a small part of my overall portfolio, was nevertheless central to my ambassadorial responsibilities. In this sense, Ukraine is similar to other non-EU countries, such as Venezuela, Iran, and Georgia, with respect to which my Mission and I coordinate closely with our EU partners to promote policies that reflect our common values and interests.

So the way in which Betancourt ties Venezuela to Moron-Contra should raise further questions about why the Ambassador to the EU has any business in Venezuela.

Will Hurd

Will Hurd’s Sparkle Pony Approach to the Solemn Duty of Upholding the Constitution

There was yet another stunning impeachment hearing, with Fiona Hill and David Holmes laying out yet more evidence that Trump subordinated the national security of the United States to his own personal needs.

But that didn’t sway Will Hurd, who used his minutes at the end not to ask the question he has asked of many other witnesses, for a list of Ukrainians close to Volodymyr Zelensky with whom Rudy was interacting (Holmes had already made clear the list is much longer than the list Hurd had previously used to dismiss the inquiry).

Instead, he used his time to:

  • Grossly misrepresent the totality of the inquiry to two words in Trump’s call
  • Admit that this is a terrible precedent (one that Trump has already repeated with other countries)
  • Affirm that Trump’s actions harmed national security
  • Grossly misrepresent crystal clear messages to Ukraine, pretending they were unclear to the Ukrainians
  • Call willful actions for personal benefit a “bungling” foreign policy
  • Accuse Democrats (and nonpartisan witnesses) of undermining Ukraine for observing its reliance on us
  • Falsely claim there were differences of opinion about the call: no witness expressed having no concern about it
  • Call an investigation in which not a single witness was a partisan Democrat (just Tim Morrison, as a Congressional staffer, and Jennifer Williams, as a George W Bush campaign worker expressed any partisan affiliation) an extremely partisan process
  • Completely ignore Trump’s violation of the Budget Impoundment Act to create his extortion, effectively blessing the usurpation of his own power as a Congressman
  • Remain silent about the Administration’s refusal to cooperate at all in the inquiry, withholding every senior official’s testimony

Most cynically, though, Hurd blamed the focus on the President’s crimes for the distraction from Ukraine, not the President’s crimes itself. He blamed Democrats for the shift of focus, not the Administration’s refusal to respond to very simple, bipartisan requests about Ukraine, most notably on funding.

Then he suggested this investigation was rushed.

The delay is hurting Ukraine (and our own national security), but the inquiry has been rushed, said the former CIA officer.

And then, he laid out what he needed to assess whether this was really a crime: more testimony. Not from Mike Pompeo, Rick Perry, Mick Mulvaney, or John Eisenberg, all of whom can answer key questions that remain unanswered.

But from three people who should not testify:

  • Rudy Giuliani (because he is being criminally investigated for this activity and it’d be insane for him to do so–which is probably why he refused Lindsey Graham’s request for testimony)
  • Hunter Biden (because there has been no credible claim he did anything that Trump’s children aren’t currently doing)
  • The whistleblower (because every other witness has corroborated the whistleblower’s complaint and the President has already been retaliating against him for a month)

In short, Hurd offered up these three impossible witnesses, knowing that neither Democrats nor Republicans would agree to the request, as his condition to consider the matter further.

Hurd admitted in his statement that this is a gravely serious duty under the Constitution. And, having admitted that seriousness, he asked for a Sparkle Pony — something he knew he would not get — to excuse his own cowardice for refusing to do anything about Trump’s abuse of office.

Paul Manafort Knew of His Inclusion in the Black Ledger Two Months before NYT Story

In spite of Fiona Hill’s warnings not to peddle in Russian backed disinformation, the seemingly single frothy right talking point today is to embrace the claim that Ukraine, like Russia, tried to tamper in the 2016 election.

None of them have noted the fact that Paul Manafort confessed that he discussed carving up Ukraine and how to win Michigan in a meeting where he talked about how to get back on the gravy train of Ukrainian oligarchs  Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov (as well as Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska).

Instead, they’ve tried to pitch Ukrainians standing up for the territorial integrity of Ukraine as anti-Trump, in contradiction to Trump’s sworn answers to Robert Mueller. They’ve also accused Republican-paid experts doing open source research on Russian and Ukrainian corruption of being Democratic operatives. In particular, they’ve misrepresented sworn testimony to launch a claim that Sergii Leshchenko was a source for the Steele dossier and/or he said something mean about Paul Manafort, the aforementioned confessed recipient of Ukrainian influence peddling during the 2016 election.

The other day, Leshchenko debunked such claims, in part by noting that the version of the Black Ledger he released had had the Manafort related entries stripped from it.

I published the first portion of the “black ledger” on May 31, 2016. I published 22 pages from the secret manuscript of the Party of Regions, which was sent anonymously to my official email address at the parliament’s domain. The document listed under-the-table cash payments to Ukrainian politicians, lawmakers, judges and members of the Central Election Commission. However, Manafort was not mentioned there. His name was not in the 22 pages I obtained.

I did not have any other pages except for these ones, although I now know it was an excerpt from more than 800 pages that the black ledger contained. Believe me, had Manafort’s name been in the pages I obtained, I would have published it, because I think Manafort helped establish one of the most outrageously corrupt regimes in the world, headed by Yanukovych.

I learned that Manafort was featured in the full version of the black ledger only on Aug. 14, 2016 when the New York Times reported it. The day before, I was contacted by a Times’ journalist and asked if I knew anything about Manafort in Yanukovych’s records. I said I didn’t, and it was true. If I had that information, I would have been the first to publish it.

Four days after the New York Times article, on Aug. 18, 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, or NABU, officially confirmed that Manafort’s name appeared in the black ledger. According to it, he received cash payments of more than $12.7 million.

That raises the significance of something else Leshchenko notes (but which has largely escaped notice of the press here).

In a February 14, 2018 interview, member of the far right in good standing Steve Bannon told Robert Mueller that Manafort knew the story of his inclusion in the Black Ledger was coming two months before it came out in the NYT. (PDF 112-113)

Bannon told Trump he would take the position as Campaign Chief Executive.

At the time Trump was 16 points down, the campaign had no organization, no money, 75 % of the population thought the country was in decline, they were working with the “deplorables,” and Bannon had a 100% certitude that they would win . Bannon believed the big task was to give people permission to vote for Trump as commander in chief.

The next day Bannon met with Manafort, which was the same time that the news about the “Black Ledger” was breaking. Bannon was at campaign headquarters when Manafort told Bannon to come up to Trump Tower. When Bannon arrived, Manafort showed him something about a NY Times story about the ”Black Ledger” and $15 million dollars from the Ukraine. Bannon asked when t his story was coming out. Manafort replied that he had known about the story coming out for approximately 2 months and had not gotten involved in it. Bannon subsequently told Trump to keep Manafort, to not fire him, and to keep him around for a couple of weeks. Bannon called Kushner, and asked him to get back in order to do something publicity wise to counteract the negative press surrounding the story. Trump had asked Bannon at one time about “what was this thing with Manafort out of the Ukraine,” and they talked for approximately 15 minutes on it . Trump was never linked with other Russian news stories at the time, and he believed Manafort was a promoter . Trump was more worried about how they story made them look . Bannon believed that Trump talked with Manafort about the story.

There are several implications about this story, starting with the fact that Bannon didn’t think the story required Manafort to resign. Importantly, this means Manafort recognized that he would be implicated by the Black Ledger even though his name was not published in what Leshchenko released.

Significantly: If there was an impact by the story breaking in August 2016 — if it did damage to the Trump campaign — Trump has one person to blame for that. Paul Manafort, both because of his real corruption, but also because he didn’t warn the candidate.

Not Sergii Leshchenko. But Paul Manafort.

The same guy who Russian-backed Ukrainians had targeted for influence just 12 days before the story broke.

Impeachment Hearings: Day 5 – A Tough Hill Ahead?

[NB: Updates to this post will appear at the bottom. /~Rayne]

The last of this week’s scheduled hearings begins at 9:00 a.m. ET. Here’s the schedule according to NPR:

Thursday, one panel only at 9 a.m. ET

  • Fiona Hill, formerly the top Russia specialist on the National Security Council, testified last month that she registered concerns about the parallel foreign policy channel that Giuliani was using to impact policy in Ukraine. She told investigators that she discussed her concerns with then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said that Giuliani was “a hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up.”
  • David Holmes, a State Department aide who overheard a phone conversation between Sondland and the president on July 26. Holmes appeared in a closed-door interview on Friday, but several Democrats who listened to his testimony indicated that they wanted him to appear in a public hearing.

Hill’s October 14 deposition was interrupted by the House GOP loudmouth Matt Gaetz before he was booted out because he wasn’t a member of the committees in the depostion. What was it about her deposition and her anticipated testimony that encouraged Gaetz to interject himself into the closed door session?

Ditto for Laura Cooper who testified last night. Something about her role must worry them and the White House so much that they’d coordinated their SCIF-storming tantrum to suck up media bandwidth while curtailing her October 23 deposition behind closed doors.

Was it because these two women may be able to pin point when Trump dictated the hold on aid and Ukraine’s representatives became aware there was a hold for political reasons? Was it because they could detail how different this hold was from other holds, departing sharply from recent U.S. foreign policy?

You’ll recall Holmes was added to the schedule on Monday; Republicans said they were ‘shaken’ by his deposition. Holmes will be able to validate the July 26 phone call between Sondland and Trump as well as some of the content and context of the call, putting to rest GOP claims of hearsay evidence regarding this call the day after the Trump-Zelensky phone call.

~ ~ ~

To follow along via streaming:

For folks who can’t stream, you can follow these live Twitter threads:

Marcy’s live twitter thread

Brandi Buchman-Courthouse News’s thread

Aaron Rupar-Vox’s thread contains video snippets

My Trump-Russia Twitter list which includes most of the above folks.

Here’s CNN’s live update page for today’s hearings.

~ ~ ~

Trump’s minders lost control of him this morning:

Tsk-tsk. Don’t play poker, dude.

Impeachment Hearings: Big, Busy Week Ahead [UPDATE-1]

[NB: Updates will appear at the bottom of this post. /~Rayne]

Better get all your big tasks done today or hold off until Friday because the week is stacked with hearings and witnesses. These are the folks scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee (HIC):

Tuesday 19-NOV-2019

Jennifer Williams, Special Adviser on EU+Russia to VP Mike Pence (heard the July 25 phone call)
Alexander Vindman, former National Security Council Director for European affairs (heard the July 25 phone call)
Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations
Timothy Morrison, Presidential Adviser for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council staff (heard the July 25 phone call)

Wednesday 20-NOV-2019

Gordon Sondland, Ambassador to the EU
Laura Cooper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs
David Maclain Hale, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs

Thursday 21-NOV-2019

Fiona Hill, former Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Council’s Senior Director for Europe and Russia
NEW -> David Holmes, Counselor for Political Affairs in Ukraine [Added with UPDATE-1]

You’re going to want to bone up ahead of these hearings with the transcripts released so far:

Jennifer Williams’s transcript
Alexander Vindman’s transcript
Kurt Volker’s transcript
Timothy Morrison’s transcript

Gordon Sondland’s transcript (includes addendum from November 4)
Laura Cooper’s transcript

Fiona Hill’s transcript

Note the witnesses who listened in on the Trump-Zelensky call; the concentration of call observers/participants might explain why Trump has no public appearances scheduled on his calendar tomorrow. Note also I don’t have a transcript yet for David Hale; I’ll furnish a link as soon as I find one, assuming it’s been or will be released.

And do note also two of three witnesses whose depositions Matt Gaetz and other House GOP tried to barge in on are scheduled to testify this week — that’s Fiona Hill and Laura Cooper.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the GOP members of the HIC do something obnoxious and obstructive to these same witnesses again; my suspicion is that they offer particularly damning testimony.

And they’re both women.  Great optics, that, all those suited-up white dudes (except for jacketless Gym Jordan) storming around and barging into closed-door SCIF depositions to intimidate women employees of our federal government.

For the same reason the GOP deployed her against former Ambassdor Marie Yovanovitch, we shouldn’t be surprised if the GOP tasks Elise Stefanik with a substantive portion of their questions to these two and the other female witnesses. It’ll be like siccing a lipsticked pitbull on them; can’t wait to see this because Stefanik’s performance this past week helped her Democratic opponent garner +225,000 new followers on Twitter and a million dollars in campaign donations.

(Really effective program the GOP has in place to increase the number of female GOP representatives in Congress. LOL)

Get reading, get ready.

UPDATE-1 — 10:10 P.M. ET —

Transcript for David Maclain Hale’s deposition has been released — link here. Hale is the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and at present the highest-ranked serving foreign service officer.

HIC has also announced that David Holmes, counselor for political affairs in Ukraine, will testify on Thursday along with Fiona Hill. A transcript of his deposition taken in a closed door session last Friday has been released and it’s colorful (a euphemism referring to its candid language). Holmes’ deposition has ‘shaken’ GOP members, it’s said.

Thanks to community member harpie for the assist with the transcripts.

Thursday’s after-hours cocktail will need a much bigger glass.

[Photo: Emily Morter via Unsplash]

Laura Cooper’s Forgotten Deposition

[NB: Check the byline, thanks! /~Rayne]

Performance art by a couple dozen GOP House members garnered a lot of media attention last week. Their noisy assault on a House sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) during a deposition obstructed a House investigation and compromised the security of the SCIF in an attempt to cast doubt upon the House impeachment inquiry process.

Sophomore (sophomorish-?) GOP representative Matt Gaetz stood out as both a leader of the flash mob; this was his second attempt to crash a meeting though this latest one didn’t do as much for his image.

The stunt and the GOP’s whiny little pizza party and follow-up presser drew a lot of media attention with reactions running the gamut. It was pure hypocrisy for the GOP mob to claim the deposition was an attempt to prevent the public from seeing what was going on, since the committee in attendance included both Democrats and Republicans and operated to rules written and implemented by a Republican majority in 2015

But lost in all the hullaballoo was the deposition itself. This may be exactly what the House GOP intended with their performance – not just to derail the deposition, but to prevent the public from actually knowing anything about Laura Cooper’s testimony.

Projection, as always – when the GOP’s crashers said it was about a meeting Democrats were trying to keep secret, it was about secrets the GOP wants kept.

Which should make us wonder what it was that Laura Cooper had to say that was so worrying to both Trump and the GOP that they staged this intervention.

They didn’t intervene in diplomat Bill Taylor’s deposition, after all. We knew it was going to be rough for Trump because we’d already seen some of Taylor’s texts from his side, casting Gordon Sondland and the administration in a bad light.

But the last time Gaetz pulled this stunt, trying to barge into an investigative session closed to all but House Intelligence Committee members, the subject being interviewed was Fiona Hill.

Hill was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council; she announced on/around June 18 this year that she planned to leave her role at the end of August. She received a subpoena to appear on/around October 10 and appeared last Monday October 14 in a closed-door session for ten hours before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

The House parliamentarian ruled Gaetz was not eligible to attend this session; he’s not a member of these three committees. There were other Republican members of these committees in attendance though we don’t know exactly who or how many because the roll call has not been publicized.

The attempt to crash looked like interference at the time. Perhaps Gaetz intended worse, but the deposition went on.

This past week’s deposition of Laura Cooper was much shorter than Hill’s, at only three hours’ duration. It’s not clear whether Cooper’s testimony was not as broad as Hill’s given Hill’s background and role in the administration. It’s possible Cooper’s deposition was interrupted by the GOP flash mob.

This looks not only like an attempt to interfere with the conduct of the House inquiry and obstruct testimony, but witness intimidation and tampering.

Two patterns may be emerging though with only these two depositions be-bothered by GOP stunts it’s not enough data to cinch this.

First, both of these witnesses were women. GOP reps didn’t try to interfere with depositions or hearings of male witnesses like U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Bill Taylor.

Did they pick these two witnesses to intimidate because they were women?

A third woman witness had been harassed but long before she became a witness for the House inquiry; former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had been through a character assassination by right-wing horde leading up to her recall from her post in Ukraine this past May, before the key Trump-Zelensky phone call on July 25.

Second, both Hill and Cooper were not anticipated as witnesses when the whistleblower complaint became public knowledge. Diplomats and White House personnel who were involved directly in the call were expected as likely witnesses. What was it that emerged during the earliest testimony which compelled the House committees to call Hill and Cooper?

Did Hill’s departure from her role as special adviser trigger questions?

What exactly did Office of Management and Budget tell the Defense Department and when which would have made Cooper a needed witness?

What was it about Cooper’s anticipated testimony which required such a big dog-and-pony show to suck up media attention to propel the GOP’s misdirection while cutting into time alloted for Cooper’s deposition?

Cooper in particular received a letter from the DOD informing Cooper and her counsel that she as Executive Branch personnel couldn’t “participate in [the impeachment] inquiry under these circumstances” according to an administration-wide direction. There were attachments to bolster claims made in the letter with regard to the House Committees’ refusal to allow White House counsel to attend the depositions and the legitimacy of the inquiry. The letter emerged after Reuters reported on October 17 that Cooper wouldn’t testify and before her deposition.

The letter, which looks a bit odd, wasn’t from the Acting Secretary of Defense or the Office of General Counsel for DOD. Instead it was printed on letterhead from the Deputy Secretary of Defense and signed by David L. Norquist, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Why note this?

1) Because the letter wasn’t dated. It has a date stamp on it – 22 OCT 2019 – but not a date typed on the letter at the time it was printed. The stamp appears to be a Received By date but it may also be the date the letter was sent; it’s not clear who or what government entity may have stamped it, whether the Pentagon, Cooper’s attorney, or the House committee which received it though it’s likely not the committee. Note also that October 22 is the date Taylor testified before the House.

2) Because the signature on the letter is almost illegible; “David L.” is legible but the last name isn’t, save for the letter T at the end. There is no name, title, department beneath the signature. Compare this letter to the first attachment, a letter from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, signed by Robert R. Hood. You’ll see there is a name, title, department beneath his signature.

3) Because there’s no subject line, though not all government-issued letters may have them, and

4) There’s no list of attachments, except in the body of the letter, and they’re referred to as Tab A, B, etc. instead of by document title or by a URL if published and available to the public.

Why are these points important? Because someone seeking this particular communication by FOIA wouldn’t be able to find it by date or by Norquist’s name, title, or department, or by the attachments.

If someone was looking for a letter from DOD’s general counsel telling Cooper not to respond to the House committees’ subpoena, they wouldn’t find it. Ditto if they were looking for a letter from the Acting Defense Secretary. Nor would they find it by date written.

Note also, though it’s probably just a coincidence: David L. Norquist is Grover Norquist’s younger brother. Can’t pick your family.

But you can choose whether to include a date, name, title, department on a letter.

~ ~ ~

The New York Times reported last evening that the National Security Council’s authority on Ukraine, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, will testify today before the House impeachment investigation that he objected not once but twice to the context of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Colonel Vindman said in his statement. “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained.”

Vindman was present during the phone call and remains an active member of White House staff. It’s not just Vindman’s role, though, which shakes up Trump’s supporters. His credentials will be difficult to push back against — Harvard-educated Purple Heart recipient, and a still-active member of the military, who immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler when his parents fled the former Soviet Union. The right-wing horde is already scrambling to discredit Vindman, going so far as to accuse him of being a double agent and a “hostile witness” in a “kangaroo court.”

In his written statement to the House, Vindman said objected to Sondland’s statements during a post-call debriefing session; he was the third person to do so apart from the as-yet unnamed whistleblower.

Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump’s former top Russia adviser, raised concerns about Rudy Giuliani’s role in US foreign policy toward Ukraine, telling lawmakers on Monday that she saw “wrongdoing” in the American foreign policy and tried to report it to officials including the National Security Council’s attorney, according to multiple sources.

“She saw wrongdoing related to the Ukraine policy and reported it,” one source said. …(CNN, 14-OCT-2019)

With Vindman and both Hill and Bolton sharing their objections with NSC’s top legal adviser, John A. Eisenberg has heard from the most senior and most authoritative persons on U.S. policy on Ukraine. Eisenberg’s role was already in question.

It was Eisenberg to whom several alarmed White House officials turned when Trump urged Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. It was Eisenberg who then helped order the record of that call into a system used for ultra-secret classified information. And it was Eisenberg who, several reports said, consulted with political appointees at the Justice Department on how to handle a whistleblower’s complaint about the Ukraine call. (Politico, 26-OCT-2019)

Has Eisenberg also coached others on handling of correspondence related to the quid pro quo investigation, like Norquist’s letter to Cooper? Note that Norquist isn’t an attorney.

We know now that Vindman’s testimony corroborates both Hill’s and Taylor’s, and that Gordon Sondland is exposed to at least one charge of making a false statement.

It’s this corroboration with Vindman’s testimony that Matt Gaetz tried to obstruct with his first attempt at barging into Fiona Hill’s deposition.

Was it also corroboration with Vindman’s testimony that Gaetz and his flock of GOP co-conspirators tried to obstruct with their barging into the House SCIF during Laura Cooper’s testimony last week?

Among the Republicans participating in the protest was Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican. Gaetz and Scalise both suggested they might return at some point to protest further, though they did not do so Wednesday.
The storm-the-room stunt came two days after Trump said that he thought Republicans “have to get tougher and fight.” Many of the Republicans engaged in the protest were at a White House on Tuesday meeting with Trump, and a person familiar with the matter told CNN that Trump had advance knowledge of the plans to enter the space. (CNN, 23-OCT-2019emphasis mine)

Or is there something worse yet ahead which syncs with Cooper’s testimony, something serious enough to warrant Trump conspiring with Gaetz and House GOP members to deter comparison?

Is this why Former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman refused to comply with a House subpoena, filing suit instead with the D.C. district court to determine if he is required to testify? Is this suit a stunt of a more subtle nature, intended to head off the next obstructive parade of House GOP members before John Bolton is subpoenaed?

Gordon Sondland’s Statement Protects, Does Not Break with, Trump

Gordon Sondland is behind closed doors right now, trying to talk his way out of implication in crimes (he is represented, it should be noted, by the same lawyer who helped Karl Rove talk his way out of crimes in Valerie Plame’s outing, Robert Luskin).

But if Congressional staffers are doing their job, he’s going to have a hard job to spin what he did as anything but criminal. That’s true, in part, because his statement is full of obvious contradictions and evasions. But contrary to what many in the press (fed in advance with deceptive claims about his testimony) have claimed, the statement does not break with Trump, it protects him.

Who’s the boss?

Sondland’s first inconsistency pertains to one of the most important issues: why he was in charge of Ukrainian policy when Ukraine isn’t even in the EU. His general explanation for it is bullshit — and also should raise questions about what he has been doing in Georgia, Venezuela, and Iran. He studiously avoids explaining who ordered him to focus on Ukraine (as other testimony has made clear, the answer is because Trump ordered him to).

From my very first days as Ambassador, Ukraine has been a part of my broader work pursuing U.S. national interests. Ukraine’s political and economic development are critical to the long-lasting stability of Europe. Moreover, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which began nearly five years ago, continues as one of the most significant security crises for Europe and the United States. As the U.S. Ambassador to the EU, I have always viewed my Ukraine work as central to advancing U.S.-EU foreign policy. Indeed, for decades, under both Republican and Democrat Administrations, the United States has viewed Ukraine with strategic importance, in part to counter Russian aggression in Europe and to support Ukraine energy independence. My involvement in issues concerning Ukraine, while a small part of my overall portfolio, was nevertheless central to my ambassadorial responsibilities. In this sense, Ukraine is similar to other non-EU countries, such as Venezuela, Iran, and Georgia, with respect to which my Mission and I coordinate closely with our EU partners to promote policies that reflect our common values and interests. I always endeavoured [sic] to keep my State Department and National Security Council colleagues informed of my actions and to seek their input.

But the logistics of it are more interesting, particularly as it pertains to coordinating with Rudy Giuliani.

At times (at both the very beginning, after his description of the July 10 meeting, and again to explain away the July 10 meeting), he emphasizes that Mike Pompeo has approved of all this.

I understand that all my actions involving Ukraine had the blessing of Secretary Pompeo as my work was consistent with long-standing U.S. foreign policy objectives. Indeed, very recently, Secretary Pompeo sent me a congratulatory note that I was doing great work, and he encouraged me to keep banging away.

[snip]

We had regular communications with the NSC about Ukraine, both before and after the July meeting; and neither Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill, nor anyone else on the NSC staff ever expressed any concerns to me about our efforts, any complaints about coordination between State and the NSC, or, most importantly, any concerns that we were acting improperly.

Furthermore, my boss Secretary Pompeo was very supportive of our Ukraine strategy.

[snip]

While I have not seen Dr. Hill’s testimony, I am surprised and disappointed by the media reports of her critical comments. To put it clearly: Neither she nor Ambassador Bolton shared any critical comments with me, even after our July 10, 2019 White House meeting. And so, I have to view her testimony — if the media reports are accurate — as the product of hindsight and in the context of the widely known tensions between the NSC, on the one hand, and the State Department, on the other hand, which had ultimate responsibility for executing U.S. policy overseas. Again, I took my direction from Secretary Pompeo and have had his consistent support in dealing with our nation’s most sensitive secrets to this very day.

Again, the public record makes it clear he was put in this role by Trump, not Pompeo. And while I’m sure Pompeo knew of what he was doing (his suggestion that Pompeo was “supportive of it” seems most clearly on point), he was reporting directly, via a third channel of authority, directly to Trump.

That said, his suggestion that Pompeo — a former CIA Director but now in charge of diplomacy, which is not supposed to be the realm of utmost secrecy — trusts him “with our nation’s most sensitive secrets,” suggests there’s something else going on here, something about which he’s reassuring Pompeo he’ll remain silent.

The claim that he took his direction from Pompeo, bolded above, is contradicted on the matter of Rudy Giuliani’s involvement.  His description of why Rudy was involved varies slightly over time. Initially, he says he coordinated with Rudy because the Three Amigos, collectively, decided they had to involve Rudy to achieve other diplomatic objectives.

Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and I were disappointed by our May 23, 2019 White House debriefing. We strongly believed that a call and White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky was important and that these should be scheduled promptly and without any pre-conditions. We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani. Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine. However, based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.

We chose the latter path, which seemed to all of us – Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and myself – to be the better alternative.

Later, he claims that “his understanding” is that Trump ordered Rudy’s involvement, as if he didn’t get that order directly.

Mr. Giuliani does not work for me or my Mission and I do not know what official or unofficial role, if any, he has with the State Department. To my knowledge, he is one of the President’s personal lawyers. However, my understanding was that the President directed Mr. Giuliani’s participation, that Mr. Giuliani was expressing the concerns of the President, and that Mr. Giuliani had already spoken with Secretary Perry and Ambassador Volker.

Still later, he strengthens that, suggesting he was “taking direction from the President” directly.

As I stated earlier, I understood from President Trump, at the May 23, 2019 White House debriefing, that he wanted the Inaugural Delegation to talk with Mr. Giuliani concerning our efforts to arrange a White House meeting for President Zelensky. Taking direction from the President, as I must, I spoke with Mr. Giuliani for that limited purpose.

If he was taking orders from Trump on involving Rudy (which is almost certainly the case), then the claims of Pompeo’s role are just cover.

Sondland is obfuscating on both these issues: why the EU Ambassador was put in charge of Ukraine policy, and why Rudy was allowed to dictate Ukraine policy. While the press thinks Sondland has taken a big break from Trump, he has not on the key issue: that Sondland was taking orders from Trump and doing precisely what the President ordered him to.

The royal we

There are really telling passages in this statement where Sondland slips into the first person plural. Generally, he does so when describing something that he, Rick Perry, and Kurt Volker jointly believe. As noted, he does so is to explain why he and Rick Perry and Kurt Volker coordinated with Rudy.

It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani. It is my understanding that Energy Secretary Perry and Special Envoy Volker took the lead on reaching out to Mr. Giuliani, as the President had directed.

Indeed, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and I were disappointed by our May 23, 2019 White House debriefing. We strongly believed that a call and White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky was important and that these should be scheduled promptly and without any pre-conditions. We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani. Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine. However, based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.

We chose the latter path, which seemed to all of us – Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and myself – to be the better alternative.

Another place he does so is to explain why the Three Amigos moved forward on scheduling the July 25 call when John Bolton and Fiona Hill were opposed (he’s utterly silent about the second half of his July 10 meeting with the Ukrainians).

We three favored promptly scheduling a call and meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky; the NSC did not.

He also uses it to describe his meeting with Zelensky on July 26, after Zelensky had delivered on the quid pro quo, where he set up the White House meeting.

During this July 26, 2019 meeting in Kiev, we were able to promote further engagement, including discussions about a future Zelensky visit to the White House.

This is Gordon Sondland’s testimony, remember, not the Three Amigos’ testimony. But in these key passages, he claims — without explaining how he can do so — to speak for all three. He doesn’t explain if they had conversations (or WhatsApp threads) agreeing on all these issues, he just suggests he can speak for all three.

And his denials that he shared this statement with State or White House would not extend to these other people he invokes as “we.”

Perhaps a more interesting invocation of the third person plural comes where he claims that Bill Taylor, along with him and Volker, had no concerns about the push to get to Ukraine to publicly commit to an investigation that would deliver part of a quid pro quo.

First, I knew that a public embrace of anti-corruption reforms by Ukraine was one of the pre-conditions for securing a White House meeting with President Zelensky. My view was, and has always been, that such Western reforms are consistent with U.S. support for rule of law in Ukraine going back decades, under both Republican and Democrat administrations. Nothing about that request raised any red flags for me, Ambassador Volker, or Ambassador Taylor.

Taylor is still with State, so if Sondland is being honest when he says he hasn’t shared his statement, then Taylor has not bought off on this claim. I look forward to seeing whether he backs it when he testifies.

[Update, 11/20: I now believe that some of this use of royal “we” is meant to invoke Trump but not necessarily the other Amigos.]

Schrodinger’s quid pro quo

The press has been most excited about the fact that Sondland claims Trump may have had a quid pro quo, but he was ignorant of it.

But in fact, Sondland does not deny a quid pro quo. In fact, his carefully written statement admitting he knew the quid pro quo involved Burisma (which he claims he had no idea meant Biden) admits that the 2016 ask was part of it.

Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.

And his denials about knowing that the quid pro quo involved the 2020 elections are laughable. His first such denial claims he only learned later about the specific nature of (part of) Rudy’s quid pro quo, but he doesn’t describe when he learned of it, either there or later.

I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.

Later, he denies recalling having any conversations about these aspects of the quid pro quo with 1) Rudy, 2) State, and 3) any “White House official” (does that description include the President?).

Third, given many inaccurate press reports, let me be clear about the following: I do not recall that Mr. Giuliani discussed Former Vice President Biden or his son Hunter Biden with me. Like many of you, I read the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call for the first time when it was released publicly by the White House on September 25, 2019.

[snip]

Again, I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about Former Vice President Biden or his son, nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.

But he doesn’t deny talking about the nature of the quid pro quo with Volker (who’s not technically a State Department employee), Rick Perry (ditto), or the Ukrainian officials that Fiona Hill saw him discussing Burisma with on July 10.

When he denies Trump’s extortion of Ukraine, he denies only that the quid pro quo involved the 2020 election (and not Naftogaz considerations or claims about what happened in 2016 or, perhaps even more tellingly, Russian help in 2020).

Sixth, to the best of my recollection, I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President’s 2020 re-election campaign.

In denying Bill Taylor’s concern about a quid pro quo, he dismisses it as a concern about the appearance of a quid pro quo, rather than the actuality of one.

On September 9, 2019, Acting Charge de Affairs/Ambassador William Taylor raised concerns about the possibility that Ukrainians could perceive a linkage between U.S. security assistance and the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.

Taking the issue seriously, and given the many versions of speculation that had been circulating about the security aid, I called President Trump directly. I asked the President: “What do you want from Ukraine?” The President responded, “Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.” The President repeated: “no quid pro quo” multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the President was in a bad mood.

Sondland here credits Trump’s statements, as if any Trump statement ever had any veracity, as true, even though they came at a time when the White House already knew about the whistleblower complaint, which makes what would already be unreliable outright laughable, if indeed Trump actually said that at all.

But the bigger point is this: Sondland doesn’t deny a quid pro quo. Just that he knew it was the quid pro quo that the House is currently most closely focused on early on in the process.

Gaps in the timeline

Given the way he is protecting Trump in all this, there are notable key gaps in his timeline.

Sondland doesn’t answer two obvious questions: why the Ambassador to the EU was part of the delegation to Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration, and why the inauguration delegation flew back to DC, almost immediately, to brief the President on it.

On May 20, 2019, given the significance of this election, I attended the inauguration of President Zelensky as part of the U.S. delegation led by U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, along with Senator Ron Johnson, Special Envoy Volker, and Alex Vindman from the NSC. During this visit, we developed positive views of the new Ukraine President and his desire to promote a stronger relationship between Kiev and Washington, to make reforms necessary to attract Western economic investment, and to address Ukraine’s well-known and longstanding corruption issues.

On May 23, 2019, three days after the Zelensky inauguration, we in the U.S. delegation debriefed President Trump and key aides at the White House. We emphasized the strategic importance of Ukraine and the strengthening relationship with President Zelensky, a reformer who received a strong mandate from the Ukrainian people to fight corruption and pursue greater economic prosperity. We asked the White House to arrange a working phone call from President Trump and a working Oval Office visit. However, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns.

One reason those players would have flown to DC to debrief Trump is because of the scheme to take over Naftogaz led by Perry, something Sondland doesn’t mention at all.

He also plays games with his antecedent in trying to claim that a June 4 meeting involving Zelensky, Rick Perry, and Ulrich Brechbuhl (where they discussed natural gas, among other things) had been long planned.

Following my return to Brussels and continuing my focus on stronger U.S.-EU ties, my Mission hosted a U.S. Independence Day event on June 4, 2019. Despite press reports, this event was planned months in advance and involved approximately 700 guests from government, the diplomatic corps, the media, business, and civil society. The night featured remarks by the Ambassador and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs. Following the main event, we hosted a smaller, separate dinner for about 30 people. President Zelensky and several other leaders of EU and non-EU member states attended the dinner, along with Secretary Perry, U.S. State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl on behalf of Secretary Pompeo, and numerous other key U.S. and EU officials. Though planned long in advance with the focus on improving transatlantic relations, we also viewed this event as an opportunity to present President Zelensky to various EU and U.S. officials and to build upon the enhanced government ties.

He uses “this event” to refer both to the larger 700 person event and the smaller 30 person meeting, effectively making a claim — that the larger event had been long-planned — that he tries to apply to the smaller one. He also is curiously silent about Jared Kushner’s involvement.

In addition to being silent about the second part of his July 10 meeting — the part that got John Bolton worried about what drug deals he was doing — Sondland is also silent about his pre-call briefing to Trump on July 25, after Bolton’s prep.

I was not on that July 25, 2019 call and I did not see a transcript of that call until September 25, 2019, when the White House publicly released it. None of the brief and general call summaries I received contained any mention of Burisma or former Vice President Biden, nor even suggested that President Trump had made any kind of request of President Zelensky.

And his denials about the post-call summaries mentioning Burisma or Biden do not amount to a denial that his prep did. Nor does that denial address his July 26 conversation with Trump (which he addresses in a different section), which he describes as nonsubstantive without addressing whether Trump mentioned the quid pro quo.

I do recall a brief discussion with President Trump before my visit to Kiev. That call was very short, nonsubstantive, and did not encompass any of the substance of the July 25, 2019 White House call with President Zelensky.

In other words, even where denies talking about the quid pro quo, the denials don’t amount to denials in the most important conversations.

Sondland’s silence about WhatsApp

Finally, Sondland is playing games regarding what communications he has had. With the exception of his July 26 and September 9 calls, doesn’t describe what direct communications with Trump he has had.

Just as key, he is mostly silent about his conduct of diplomacy on WhatsApp, precisely the crime (doing official business on private accounts) Trump accused Hillary of to get elected (though his lawyers wrote a letter claiming that they’re helpless in the face of State’s refusal to share his comms). That’s all the more telling given the structure of Sondland’s denials of extensive comms with Rudy. His statement deals with three different kind of comms. He focuses on in-person meetings and phone calls.

To the best of my recollection, I met Mr. Giuliani in person only once at a reception when I briefly shook his hand in 2016. This was before I became Ambassador to the EU. In contrast, during my time as Ambassador, I do not recall having ever met with Mr. Giuliani in person, and I only spoke with him a few times.

[snip]

My best recollection is that I spoke with Mr. Giuliani for the first time in early August 2019, after the congratulatory phone call from President Trump on July 25, 2019 and after the bilateral meeting with President Zelensky on July 26, 2019 in Kiev. My recollection is that Mr. Giuliani and I actually spoke no more than two or three times by phone, for about a few minutes each time.

[snip]

As I stated earlier, I understood from President Trump, at the May 23, 2019 White House debriefing, that he wanted the Inaugural Delegation to talk with Mr. Giuliani concerning our efforts to arrange a White House meeting for President Zelensky. Taking direction from the President, as I must, I spoke with Mr. Giuliani for that limited purpose. In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues.

[snip]

Ten weeks after the President on May 23, 2019 directed the Inaugural Delegation to talk with Mr. Giuliani, I had my first phone conversation with him in early August 2019. I listened to Mr. Giuliani’s concerns

But he acknowledges that Volker introduced him to Rudy “electronically.”

Ambassador Volker introduced me to Mr. Giuliani electronically.

Nowhere in his statement does he explain what form of electronic communication this introduction took place over, and nowhere does he deny having WhatsApp (or any other kind of texting) communications with Rudy.

That’s all the more curious given that he claims — ridiculously — that his statements to Bill Taylor to avoid talking about a quid pro quo on WhatsApp were not an attempt to avoid leaving a record.

Fifth, certain media outlets have misinterpreted my text messages where I say “stop texting” or “call me.” Any implication that I was trying to avoid making a record of our conversation is completely false. In my view, diplomacy is best handled through back-and-forth conversation. The complexity of international relations cannot be adequately expressed in cryptic text messages. I simply prefer to talk rather than to text. I do this all the time with family, friends, and former business associates. That is how I most effectively get things done. My text message comments were an invitation to talk more, not to conceal the substance of our communications.

Immediately after saying those WhatsApp texts no not really record the truth, he points to some emails that, he says, show that he truthfully did not want a quid pro quo.

I recall that, in late July 2019, Ambassadors Volker and Taylor and I exchanged emails in which we all agreed that President Zelensky should have no involvement in 2020 U.S. Presidential election politics.

Remember: State is withholding all of Sondland’s electronic comms from the impeachment inquiry (even assuming he turned them all over to State). So his games with phone calls and texts should be assumed to be just that, claims made from the temporary security of believing the comms to check his claims will never be turned over.

Which is to say that Sondland says quite a bit in this statement. But the most important things are his silences.

Update: On November 5, Sondland unforgot some stuff laid out in Bill Taylor and Tim Morrison’s testimony. But many of the holes laid out above remain.

The Significance of Fiona Hill’s Testimony: “Whatever Drug Deal Sondland and Mulvaney Are Cooking Up”

A number of people on Twitter have asked me to elaborate on some comments I’ve made about the significance of Fiona Hill’s testimony before the Ukraine impeachment team yesterday.

It’s unclear whether she shared details of her testimony or whether most of the reporting comes from Jamie Raskin (who notably got the import of the State IG’s urgent briefing utterly wrong). But NYT has thus far offered the key description (citing at least two other people beyond Raskin).

Force Bolton to shit or get off the pot

First, the NYT describes Hill citing the abrasive John Bolton saying two fairly stunning things which were bound to make headlines. First, she described Bolton saying Rudy was a “hand grenade” who would blow everyone up (a quote Rudy has already responded to).

Mr. Bolton expressed grave concerns to Ms. Hill about the campaign being run by Mr. Giuliani. “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” Ms. Hill quoted Mr. Bolton as saying during an earlier conversation.

Then, after a July 10 meeting where it became clear Trump was withholding security assistance for campaign propaganda, according to reports of Hill’s testimony, Bolton asked her to tell Deputy White House Counsel John Eisenberg that he was not part of “whatever drug deal” Trump’s flunkies were pursuing.

“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Mr. Bolton, a Yale-trained lawyer, told Ms. Hill to tell White House lawyers, according to two people at the deposition.

It was clear even before the July 25 call that kicked off this whole scandal that Bolton was on the outs. Tellingly, Bolton was specifically excluded from the call.

But since then, Bolton has (like James Mattis) been talking about writing a book, telling his story for history, rather than for the present and the sake of the Constitution.

By including these two quotes in her testimony, Hill not only ensured that Bolton will be the target of Trump’s ire (after all, Hill didn’t say these things, Bolton reportedly did). But it will force Bolton to either deny them (if he’s certain Hill didn’t take contemporaneous notes), or take a stand against activities he clearly recognized were wrong.

And if Bolton testifies in the impeachment inquiry about his concerns, it will represent someone about whom there can be no doubts as to Republican partisan loyalty. If Hill’s inclusion of Bolton’s comments leads Trump’s former National Security Advisor to provide damning testimony to the impeachment inquiry, it will change both the profile of the inquiry and the possible response attacks.

Force Sondland to rewrite his ever-evolving testimony

Hill’s testimony about that July 10 meeting also provided damning testimony about Gordon Sondland, who is scheduled to testify on Thursday.

One of the most dramatic moments she described came in the July 10 meeting in Mr. Bolton’s office that included Mr. Sondland; Kurt D. Volker, then the special envoy for Ukraine; Rick Perry, the energy secretary; and two Ukrainian officials.

The purpose of the meeting was to talk about technical assistance to Ukraine’s national security council. The Ukrainians were eager to set up a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, who was elected on a promise to clean up corruption and resolve the country’s five-year war with Russian-armed separatists.

Mr. Bolton was trying to not commit to a meeting, according to Ms. Hill’s testimony. Mr. Sondland got agitated, Ms. Hill testified, and let out that there was an agreement with Mr. Mulvaney that there would be a meeting if Ukraine opened up the investigations the White House was seeking.

Mr. Bolton immediately ended the meeting abruptly. As the group moved toward the door, Mr. Sondland said he wanted them to come down to the ward room next to the White House mess to discuss next steps. Mr. Bolton pulled Ms. Hill aside to instruct her to go to the ward room and report to him what they talked about.

When she got downstairs, Mr. Sondland was talking with the Ukrainians and specifically mentioned Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm that had Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, on its board.

Sondland has already test driven two drafts of his intended testimony, much as Michael Cohen did two years ago before he gave false testimony to Congress. Even the most recent of those drafts appears to be rendered inoperative by Hill’s testimony.

I’m sure Adam Schiff would have preferred that Sondland not get another chance to craft his testimony (and I suspect Sondland’s lawyer is trying to convince him that the possibility of being named Secretary of State is not worth perjuring himself for, which is why he’s probably not yet planning on invoking the Fifth).

But thus far, Sondland doesn’t seem to have discovered a story that he can tell that coheres with the other known testimony.

Hill ties Sondland’s actions to Trump

Hill also provided testimony — testimony we know that is backed by other witnesses — that Sondland was playing the role he was playing because the President wanted him to be.

At one point, she confronted Mr. Sondland, who had inserted himself into dealings with Ukraine even though it was not part of his official portfolio, according to the people informed about Ms. Hill’s testimony.

He told her that he was in charge of Ukraine, a moment she compared to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.’s declaration that he was in charge after the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt, according to those who heard the testimony.

According to whom, she asked.

The president, he answered.

This will tie Trump directly to this scheme and make Sondland’s later denials about whether he knew Trump to be lying about a quid pro quo even more obviously false than they already are. This is not Rudy freelancing, or State ordering him to, but Trump ordering everyone to.

Hill implicates John Eisenberg

I noted the central role of John Eisenberg in attempts to cover this quid pro quo up weeks ago (and noted that he succeeded in preventing any record of an early quid pro quo from being being made).

Eisenberg is the guy who decided to put the transcript of the July 25 call on the Top Secret server. Eisenberg had a role in framing the crimes, as described to DOJ, such that they could shunt them to Public Integrity and dismiss them, rather than open up another Special Counsel investigation into the President’s extortion.

But Hill’s testimony makes it clear Eisenberg was told of what Bolton analogized to crimes well before the call.

Ms. Hill went back upstairs and reported the encounter to Mr. Bolton, who promptly instructed her to report the issue to John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and the chief legal adviser for the National Security Council, along with his line about the drug deal, which he meant metaphorically.

Mr. Eisenberg told Ms. Hill he would report it up his chain of command, which would typically mean Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel.

Eisenberg (whose FBI 302 from the last Trump criminal investigation DOJ is trying to withhold) would have been on the hook anyway for a clear attempt to cover up Trump’s crime. But the revelation that he had advance warning that a crime was in process — and apparently did nothing to prevent it — changes his exposure significantly.

It was the OMB Director, misappropriating funds, in the National Security Advisor’s office

Finally, Hill puts Mick Mulvaney at the scene of the crime.

As I’ve said before, one part of this scandal that has gotten far too little attention is that, to extort Ukraine, Trump withheld funds appropriated by Congress, funds about which there was bipartisan agreement.

Last week, CNN and WSJ reported that to do this, OMB changed the way the funds were distributed, putting a political flunkie in charge, also a detail that has gotten far too little attention.

Not only does that raise the Constitutional stakes of the Executive’s refusal to spend the funds Congress had duly appropriated, but it shows consciousness of guilt.

And per Hill’s testimony Mick Mulvaney, serving in the dual role of OMB chief and Chief of Staff, knew that those funds were being withheld for a quid pro quo or (as John Bolton described it) a drug deal.

Senate Republicans might not ever convict Trump for demanding foreign countries invent propaganda on his political allies. They might feel differently once it becomes clear that the crime involves refusing to do what Congress, with its power of the purse, told him to, without even telling Congress he was doing so (or why). They may not care about Trump pressing for any political advantage for their party, but they may care about Trump neutering their most important authority.

Trump Was Worried HR McMaster or Fiona Hill Would Spy on His Conversation with Putin

There were two infuriating stories earlier this week in preparation of today’s meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The Daily Beast reported that Trump’s aides wanted top NSC Russia expert Fiona Hill in the meeting between the presidents.

According to two White House aides, senior Trump administration officials have pressed for Hill—the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and Russia and the author of critical psychological biography of Putin—to be in the room during the president’s highly anticipated meeting with Putin.

If Hill is there, these officials believe, it will help the White House avoid the perception that the president is too eager to cozy up to the Kremlin. The hope is to avoid a repeat of Trump’s last meeting with top Russian officials, during which he disclosed classified intelligence to two of the country’s top diplomats—and was pictured by Russian state media looking particularly friendly with them.

But it used linguistic gymnastics to avoid stating who might decide to keep Hill out of the meeting.

Then Axios reported that just Trump, Rex Tillerson, and a translator would represent the US.

There will likely only be six people in the room when President Trump meets President Putin on Friday at the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.

According to an official familiar with the meeting’s planning, it will be Trump, Putin, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and translators.

But it, too, remained silent about who decided to keep the attendee list so small (though admittedly, that detail was a less crucial part of their story).

Thankfully, the NYT has finally revealed that it was Trump, not Putin, who chose to limit attendees.

Only six people attended the meeting itself: Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson; Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov; and two interpreters.

The Russians had agitated to include several more staff members in the meeting, but Mr. Trump’s team had insisted that the meeting be kept small to avoid leaks and competing accounts later, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the carefully choreographed meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity around the matter.

And he did so specifically to avoid leaks about what would transpire.

This means that Trump (personally, given the NYT portrayal) decided to exclude his National Security Advisor and top Russian advisor. And he did so, again, based on the NYT reporting, because he didn’t want a competing account from coming out. He basically excluded the key staffers who should have been in the meeting, in spite of the wishes of aides, to avoid having Russian critics describing what really happened in his meeting with Putin.

Remember, this is not the first time Trump has excluded McMaster from a key meeting: he also left McMaster sitting outside his meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, after belatedly inviting Tillerson in.