WASHINGTON — When President Trump’s top advisers on Ukraine gathered in the Oval Office in May, Trump gave them a simple, clear directive: “Talk to Rudy.”
Since then, a mountain of evidence has emerged to show just how deeply Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney with no official government role, penetrated American diplomacy toward Ukraine — and turned it toward pressing the country to announce an investigation of Democrat Joe Biden.
Lengthy testimonies from two top diplomats released by House Democrats in the impeachment inquiry Tuesday paint an astonishing portrait of Giuliani’s sustained efforts to coax Ukraine into launching probes related to the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Through an intermediary, Giuliani pressed Ukraine to publicly issue a strikingly specific announcement about probing a company linked to Joe Biden’s son and a conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in trying to undercut Trump in the 2016 election.
But Giuliani didn’t appear interested in criminal corruption in Ukraine if it wasn’t related to Biden, according to testimony by Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
“I believe that Giuliani was interested in Biden [and] Vice President Biden’s son,” Volker said, adding that he bluntly told Giuliani there was no serious evidence of wrongdoing against them.
Despite that warning, Giuliani continued pushing conspiracy theories, and — judging from their own testimony — successfully roped senior American diplomats into his pursuit of dirt on the Bidens.
Volker on Giuliani
Volker said Giuliani gave him specific language about Burisma and the 2016 election for the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to announce personally.
The Ukrainians had already agreed to make such an announcement, but their proposed language, sent to Volker by a top Zelensky aide in August, wasn’t remotely clear enough for Giuliani, Volker said.
“Rudy says: ‘Well, if it doesn’t say Burisma and if it doesn’t say 2016, what does it mean? You know, it’s not credible. You know, they’re hiding something,’” Volker recalled.
Burisma employed Joe Biden’s son Hunter for a number of years as a paid board member, and the company’s name has come to be used by some members of Trump’s circle as shorthand for an investigation into Joe and Hunter.
“And so we talked,” Volker recalled, “and I said: ‘So what you’re saying is just at the end of the — same statement, just insert Burisma and 2016, you think that would be more credible?’ And he said: ‘Yes.’”
Volker sent the new language Giuliani requested to the Ukrainian aide, Andrey Yermak.
The text said:
Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States, especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future.
But Yermak was hesitant. The Ukrainian official wanted to know if the American Department of Justice had ever made an official request for an investigation. Volker said he checked with the DOJ, which said no — and so, Volker said, they both decided, at that point, the statement was a bad idea.
Volker said he ultimately warned Yermak not to make the statement, so as not to be seen as interfering with American politics.
“He [Yermak] said, I think quite appropriately, that if they are responding to an official request, that’s one thing. If there’s no official request, that’s different,” Volker testified. “And my comment back to him was I think those are good reasons. And in addition, I just think it’s important that you avoid anything that would look like it would play into our domestic politics, and this could. So just don’t do it.”
Thereafter, the idea of a statement “died,” Volker said.
Sondland on Giuliani
Trump’s EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland insisted he didn’t have as much direct contact with Giuliani — he claimed in his testimony that he’d never met the former New York City mayor in person, and only talked to him on the phone two or three times total. Most of those calls took place in August, he said, as the Trump administration intensified its pressure campaign on Ukraine.
But he made it clear he thought Giuliani was directing U.S. policy towards Ukraine the whole time.
Sondland testified that Trump directed him to work with Giuliani on Ukraine during a May 23 Oval Office meeting and that he, Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry agreed to that arrangement because they knew Giuliani was “the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine.”
Sondland also testified that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told him that Giuliani was “something we have to deal with” in Ukraine.
He repeatedly played dumb during his testimony, claiming he had no idea that Burisma had anything to do with Joe Biden for much of the summer and that as of July he still thought the push was to look into corruption generally, not investigate the Bidens specifically. But Sondland testified that things kept “getting more insidious as [the] timeline went on.”
In his previously released opening statement, Sondland testified that Giuliani said Trump wanted a statement from Ukraine pledging an investigation “into anti-corruption issues,” and that Giuliani “specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.”
In his testimony, Sondland said Giuliani played a central role in the push for Ukraine to make a public statement about investigating “corruption” in their country — including specific references to Burisma and the 2016 election According to Sondland, “whatever the Ukrainians were going to promise in any context, [Giuliani] wanted it public.”
Ultimately, Sondland testified that what he thought Giuliani was doing was “improper,” and maybe even illegal. Nevertheless, “it doesn’t sound good,” he testified.
Cover: President-elect Donald Trump calls out to media as he and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pose for photographs as Giuliani arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Bedminster, N.J.. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)