Although this was the first time Trump himself made those requests, others in his administration had already been agitating for them. About a week before aid was halted, Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, participated in a meeting in which he linked a possible visit to Trump’s requested investigations — a statement that prompted then-national security adviser John Bolton to quickly end the meeting.
Immediately before the July 25 call, after speaking with Sondland, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker texted a Zelensky aide and explicitly linked a meeting at the White House with Zelensky “convinc[ing] [T]rump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016.”
Zelensky agreed to the investigations in that call — but the meeting wasn’t scheduled. In August, there were repeated back-and-forths between Sondland, Volker and Zelensky’s aide, Andrey Yermak, about the meeting and what Sondland called “the deliverable” — an announcement of investigations. That announcement itself, of course, would be useful to Trump, who would be able to say that Ukraine was concerned about Biden’s behavior or that it believed that foreign interference in the 2016 election targeted Trump, not Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival. The group discussed wording and timing, but no announcement came.
Meanwhile, the aid was still on hold. No one knew why: Sondland, Volker and acting Ukraine ambassador have all testified that they were in the dark about why the aid had been stopped. Members of Trump’s Cabinet and Bolton himself were urging that it be released. Members of Congress weren’t offered an explanation.
On Aug. 28, the first news article dropped. Politico reported that the aid was on hold and quoted an administration official who insisted that it was under review. In that article, an official from the Defense Department stated on the record that no further review was necessary, the aid having gone through necessary reviews month prior. But still, no assistance was coming.
The next day, Yermak, the aide to Zelensky, texted Volker and William B. Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, with concerns about the article. While there are some indications that Ukraine knew about the aid stoppage prior to that point, it’s clear that it was the Politico article that forced the issue to the forefront. Taylor testified that he was flummoxed, not being able to give Yermak a reason the aid had been stopped.
Sondland made it clear to Yermak on Sept. 1: The aid had been stopped because the Trump administration wanted those investigations. Sondland told investigators with the House impeachment inquiry that he simply assumed this was the predicate for the aid to be released, without any specific direction from Trump. In short order, that explicit link between aid and the investigations trickled out to the rest of the United States’ Ukraine team. Taylor said that after confronting Sondland that same day, he was told that “everything” depended on an announcement of new investigations, “including security assistance,” and that Trump wanted Zelensky “in a public box” on the issue.
Sondland had actually made the link before his conversation with Yermak. On Aug. 30, he told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that the aid had been held up until investigations were announced. Johnson asked Trump if that was the case the next day, pressing him to release the aid. Trump told Johnson that it was being held in part because he wanted to know “what happened in 2016.”
Johnson and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) met with Zelensky in Ukraine on Sept. 5. During that meeting, Zelensky asked about the aid, learning that only Trump could get it approved.
Zelensky and his team struggled with a choice articulated by Andrew Kramer of the New York Times: “whether to capitulate to President Trump’s demands to publicly announce investigations against his political enemies or to refuse, and lose desperately needed military aid.”
Zelensky — who won election as an anti-corruption reformer — decided to capitulate. He’d announce the investigations in an interview with CNN on Sept. 13, Kramer said. The Ukrainians told Sondland on Sept. 8 and he shared it with Taylor.
Taylor, worried about the appearance of Ukraine taking a side in U.S. politics, pressured then-Ukrainian national security adviser Alexander Danyliuk to keep the CNN interview from happening. Kramer describes Danyliuk as the “lone holdout” among Zelensky’s team; he told Taylor that the interview wouldn’t happen. As the interview loomed, Taylor asked Zelensky’s team to confirm that no interview would take place. Yermak, he said, “looked uncomfortable in response to the question.”
By then, though, the second article had come out. The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote on Sept. 5 that it had been “reliably told” that the aid was on hold to pressure Ukraine to initiate investigations helpful to Trump. That was a Thursday; by Monday, Sept. 9, Democratic lawmakers had announced an inquiry of the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine. That same day, the House and Senate intelligence committees were informed about a whistleblower complaint filed in response to Trump’s July 25 call, although it’s not clear whether they were informed about its focus.
Two days later, after Zelensky had agreed to the CNN interview but before it was set to occur, the administration released the aid. Zelensky’s team canceled the interview, leaving Ukrainians to wonder what he might have said.
Within days, the entire effort to persuade Ukraine to announce new investigations became public, with a slew of news reports digging into Trump’s interactions with Zelensky. Two months after it occurred, Trump released a rough transcript of his call with Zelensky, arguing that it revealed no effort to pressure Ukraine to open new inquiries.
There is a scenario in which all of this worked as planned: that Ukraine released the statement about new investigations that Trump quickly dropped into tweets and campaign fundraising emails. That the aid was released shortly afterward and the pressure on Zelensky within his own country eased. That the whistleblower complaint, initially withheld from Congress despite the rules governing such things, and the call transcript, tucked into a top-secret storage system, never saw the light of day. Hints would have leaked out, like that mention in The Post on Sept. 5. But enough might have stayed in the shadows to make Trump’s gambit successful, an apparently independent inquiry by Ukraine that served Trump’s political goals.
On the same day that the rough transcript was released, Trump and Zelensky met in person for the first time during the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York. Zelensky pointedly raised a subject that the two had discussed on the call: the promised meeting in Washington.
“I want to thank you for invitation to Washington,” Zelensky said. “You invited me, but I think — I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I think you forgot to tell me the date.”
“They’ll tell you the date,” he said, pointing to the news media.
“Oh, yes,” Zelensky replied, “they know before us.”