Quid pro quo, the next battleground

In discussing President Trump’s famous phone conversation with Ukraine’s president, I have distinguished between a president asking a foreign government to cooperate in a U.S. investigation of that president’s political rival and a president asking a foreign government to launch its own investigation. In my view, the former request is okay in itself, but the latter request is problematic. The latter is what Trump called for yesterday.

John describes what seems to be a third category of request — asking a foreign government to “participate” in a U.S. investigation. However one feels about such a request, it seems clear that this isn’t what Trump was asking for yesterday when he said that China should conduct its own “major” investigation of the Bidens.

However, I don’t see any of these three forms of request as warranting impeachment. Thus, the question of their propriety, though perhaps interesting, is largely academic.

Now, though, we may be moving on to a question of more import, the question of quid pro quo. Did Trump (1) condition any aspect of U.S. policy towards Ukraine on its willingness to investigate the Bidens or (2) communicate to Ukraine that there might be such a link?

Last night, congressional Democratic leaders made public a document excerpting text messages exchanged between government officials working on the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. In one excerpt, Kurt Volker, until recently a special enjoy to Ukraine, texted Andrey Yermak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president Zelensky. Volker told Yermak:

Heard from White House, assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate/‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.

Volker sent this text a few days before the phone conversation between Trump and President Zelensky. It seems to convey that the White House was conditioning Zelensky’s visit to Washington on his agreement to investigate matters relating to the 2016 election (or perhaps to the firing of the chief Ukrainian prosecutor at Biden’s insistence). What’s not clear is who at the White House told Volker this.

Further texting shows Ukraine and the U.S. to be jockeying over which would come first, the setting of a date for the visit or the announcement of the investigation (referred to in one message as “the deliverable”). The one seems clearly tied to the other.

More important than the question of whether the White House made Zelensky’s state visit to the U.S. hinge on agreeing to one or more investigation into U.S. political matters is whether it conditioned military aid to Ukraine on such investigation[s]. At one point, Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, asked Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” (Emphasis added). Sondland replied: “Call me.”

It seems that Sondland did not want to commit his answer to writing. This raises the suspicion that the answer was that this is just what “we are now saying.” If not, there was no reason not to so state in writing.

After Sondland and Taylor talked, Taylor wrote in a text to Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Taylor thus understood there to be a quid pro quo.

Five hours later, Sondland texted back:

Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.

This response has a “cover your ass” feel to it, though perhaps Taylor really was wrong about Trump’s intentions. In any case, Sondland added: “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

Good idea.

“The back and forth” doesn’t conclusively establish a quid pro quo or that, if there was one, it came at Trump’s insistence. But it brings the issue of quid pro quo front and center.

House Democrats will have plenty of questions, legitimate ones in my opinion, to ask the participants in the back and forth, as well as others who were acting behind the scenes.