Two potentially consequential things happened yesterday: First, recently-resigned State Department official Kurt Volker testified in private on the Hill for more than nine hours. Democrats are saying his sworn statements behind closed doors further confirm the nefarious nature of the Trump administration's foreign policy conduct vis-a-vis Ukraine (a "shadow shakedown," one member claimed), while the Republicans say Volker blew a "massive hole" through the Democratic narrative. Who is correct, or at least more correct? Let the people decide. The White House released the Trump-Zelensky transcript and the full whistleblower complaint. Key GOP figures are now demanding that House Democrats display the same commitment to transparency here:
.@RepMarkMeadows says of what's emerged re Volker:— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) October 4, 2019
“So much reporting of half facts with no context. It is best for all concerned to release the full transcript of today’s testimony. I call on my Democrat colleagues to join me in requesting the release of today’s interview.”
Unless there is an extremely compelling reason to keep these transcripts secret, they should be released -- especially because Democrats have been pushing out damning-looking snippets of information, which their counterparts say do not capture the full context of what was gleaned. Let's see it all. Second, we saw the release of those aforementioned damning-looking snippets of information. Based on what we can tell -- and again, recognizing that key context may be missing -- they look like much stronger evidence of a 'quid pro quo' negotiation of some kind with the Ukrainian government, with pledges of investigations at the center of the back-and-forth. Just how incriminating are these chains of messages among several US diplomats? That's open for interpretation, and may be informed by additional context. But what seems clear is that the Trump administration wanted something in return for something else.
The former 'something' was a statement from the Ukrainian government, possibly including a speech by Zelensky) about seriously pursuing in-country corruption -- including specific references to Ukraine's 2016 meddling in the US election (a real thing that many in the media are pretending doesn't exist) and/or the gas company by which Hunter Biden was paid a small fortune. The latter 'something' appears to be a Zelensky visit to the White House, although there's some indication that the 'quo' may also have entailed delayed military aid that Congress had previously approved (a delay the Ukrainians weren't aware of during the now-famous call between the two nations' leaders) and was finally sent to Kiev last month. What's also clear is that despite not being a governmental official, Rudy Giuliani was a central figure in the discussions over Ukraine's end of the would-be bargain, insisting that it explicitly address Trump's two biggest priorities on this front:
The statement was shared w/ Volker and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who then shared w/ Giuliani, according to the source. It was Giuliani who suggested to Volker that it did not go far enough and suggested inserting references to pursuing probes of Burisma and the 2016 election— Jeremy Herb (@jeremyherb) October 4, 2019
Giuliani's role in all of this has always felt very slimy and suspicious, and represents a rich, deserving avenue for legitimate investigation. As for the topics Team Trump wanted addressed in Ukraine's public statement, the previous Ukrainian government's anti-Trump, pro-Hillary electoral interference in 2016 is an entirely legitimate area of concern for the administration (even if this strand of the overall allegation is conspiratorial absurdity). It seems totally defensible, for example, for an American president to tell a foreign government, "unless and until I'm satisfied that your country is taking steps to account for and prevent the sort of underhanded meddling you engaged against my campaign last time, we're not rolling out the red carpet for your leader in Washington." A White House visit was unquestionably a major carrot being dangled. If this was the extent of the evidence, I'm not scandalized by it, beyond what we already knew. In isolation, it's not a 'wow:'
VOLKER text w/ Ukrainian official, JULY 25, ahead of the Trump-Zelensky call: “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigation/ “get to the bottom of what happened” in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”— Rachael Bade (@rachaelmbade) October 4, 2019
But there are other elements floating around. The Burisma piece, for example, is trickier. I think it's highly likely that Trump was eager to see that probe jump-started again because it could hurt the Biden family, and therefore muddy up one of his top 2020 rivals. He raised the issue himself with Zelensky, after all. This wasn't subtle. Did Burisma merit an investigation? The discredited story that Biden critics have repeated was that Vice President Biden improperly forced the firing of a prosecutor looking into the company, using US taxpayer dollars as leverage. That doesn't appear to have been the case, as the prosecutor in question was seen as corrupt by virtually the entire western world -- and it appears that he wasn't digging into Burisma at the time. That helps debunk an anti-Biden storyline (I still think the clear appearance of a conflict of interest is an ethical problem for Biden), but it doesn't settle the question of whether Burisma deserved or deserves to be investigated.
It was wrong for Trump to make such a request (on this, it looks like I'm on the same page as a majority of voters, including Tucker Carlson). Full stop. And the notion that it's somehow fine for a sitting president ask a foreign government to investigate his partisan opponents back home under the guise of anti-corruption measures, while in the process of conducting US foreign policy, is an appalling and unacceptable standard that too many in the GOP are foolishly embracing. It's especially bad if the foreign government in question is an adversary. But was Trump's 'ask' conditioned on Congressionally-appropriated military aid? Read this:
US officials spar over whether aid is being held up by the President in order to get Ukraine to investigate 2016/Bidens pic.twitter.com/iBWkByNjj4— Jamie Dupree (@jamiedupree) October 4, 2019
Trump wanted a "deliverable." One diplomat, a career official, seemed to believe there was a quid pro quo involving said "deliverable" and military assistance. The other, a Trump appointee, disagrees: "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 latter official wrote, suggesting that the conversation move off line (which also happened another time) and recommending his colleague speak with Secretary Pompeo's office for an explanation. We need more information, but there's a bit of a stench emanating from all of these communications. I'll leave you with my concern about the growing pattern of leaking the contents of presidential calls with foreign leaders:
“Raised prospects” is an interesting phrase. Trump’s relative silence on Hong Kong — IF promised — didn’t last. He weighed in clearly at the UN last month. Also: Very concerned about repeated leaks of secure POTUS calls with foreign leaders. https://t.co/pk6p7C9r9f— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) October 3, 2019
Also, read this thread from Ben Shapiro, which feels pretty plausible.