Newly released text messages between State Department officials provide the clearest evidence yet that President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not “routine,” and that it was organized specifically to pressure the Ukrainian government to undertake politically motivated investigations.
The White House’s reconstruction of the July 25 call released earlier this month showed Trump asking Zelensky for a “favor” and repeatedly pressing him to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden for “corruption.” The readout galvanized calls for Trump’s impeachment, but it didn’t explain how the call came about in the first place.
The intelligence community whistleblower complaint that first drew attention to the call suggested that Trump’s request came in the midst of an ordinary diplomatic exchange. “The officials I spoke with told me that participation in the call had not been restricted in advance because everyone expected it would be a ‘routine’ call with a foreign leader,” the complaint reads.
But text messages from Kurt Volker, the State Department’s former special representative for Ukraine negotiations, say that the “most important” priority for Trump’s phone call with Zelensky was getting the Ukrainian leader to commit to an investigation of the Bidens.
“Most imp[ortan]t is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any personnel issues — if there are any,” Volker texted Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on July 19, less than a week before the call took place, according to text messages released Thursday night by House investigators.
On July 22, three days before the Trump-Zelensky call, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani spoke with Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to Zelensky. Later that day, Volker texted that “Rudy is now advocating for a phone call” between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Giuliani’s push for the call suggests that it was in line with his goal of digging up dirt on the Bidens.
On the morning of July 25, before the Trump-Zelensky call, Volker texted Yermak, strongly implying that a future White House visit for Zelensky was conditional on the Ukrainian president committing to an investigation of “‘what happened’ in 2016,” an apparent reference to a widely debunked conspiracy theory alleging Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election.
In Trump’s call with Zelensky later that day, in addition to pressuring him to investigate the Bidens, the U.S. president asked Zelensky to “get to the bottom” of a CrowdStrike server he falsely alleged was in the Ukraine.
The texts released by investigators also contain protests from Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. On multiple occasions, Taylor asked Sondland and Volker, both Trump appointees, whether diplomatic channels or military aid was being leveraged to press Ukraine to push politically motivated investigations.
In one text, Taylor relayed to Sondland something a Zelenksy aide had told him: that “President Zelensky is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”
One contrast revealed in the texts is between the response of Taylor, a veteran State Department employee, and that of Sondland and Volker, both political appointees. Sondland was a major donor to Trump’s campaign, while Volker previously served as U.S. ambassador to NATO before leaving for the private sector in 2009. Taylor is a longtime diplomat who served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
On September 1, after Trump canceled a scheduled visit to Poland where he was scheduled to meet with Zelensky, Taylor texted: “Are we now saying that security assistance and a [White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland responded: “Call me.”
Republican talking points have focused on denying that there was an explicit quid pro quo in Trump’s phone call, even though the White House readout has him saying, “The United States has been very, very good for Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily” and asking for a “favor.” But Taylor’s texts indicate that, as the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, he interpreted Trump’s message as an invitation to trade a politically motivated investigation for U.S. assistance and a White House visit.
During a conversation later in September, Taylor reiterated that he thought the notion of such a trade was inappropriate. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded that Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions” and “the President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s [sic] of any kind.”