Noteworthy for two reasons, assuming WaPo’s reconstruction of events is correct. First, it directly contradicts Gordon Sondland’s own testimony that John Bolton and top advisor Fiona Hill supported what he was doing on Ukraine. “We went over the entire Ukraine strategy with Ambassador Bolton, who agreed with the strategy and signed off on it,” said Sondland of a phone conference he had with Bolton in June. “Indeed, over the spring and summer of 2019, I received nothing but cordial responses from Ambassador Bolton and Dr. Hill. Nothing was ever raised to me about any concerns regarding our Ukrainian policy.”
That’s not what WaPo’s sources say, as you’re about to see.
Second, the story claims that Sondland pressed two visiting Ukrainian officials about the “investigations” Trump was interested in during a meeting on July 10 — in Bolton’s office, with Bolton sitting right there, along with Hill and Alexander Vindman. As far as I know, that’s the first time anyone’s claimed that Bolton himself had firsthand knowledge of what Sondland and presumably Trump were up to. He’s a direct witness to the “quo” side of the alleged quid pro quo.
And he didn’t react well to it.
The two [Ukrainians] were ushered into a meeting in Bolton’s office in the West Wing [on July 10] along with Sondland, Volker, Hill, Vindman and others, according to witness accounts. The American team was working through standard U.S.-Ukraine talking points, including the United States’ desire to see Kyiv crack down on corruption, when officials familiar with the meeting say Sondland went off script.
Sondland turned the conversation away from ongoing corruption probes to reviving specific investigations that were important to Trump, according to testimony from Hill and Vindman. Although the remark was cryptic, they understood Sondland to be reflecting Trump’s desire to see Ukraine train its investigative resources on an energy company, Burisma, that had hired Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, to serve as a board member for about five years.
Bolton was so alarmed by the exchange that he ended the meeting abruptly and ordered those gathered out of his office, officials said. As the group filed out, Sondland instructed the Ukrainians to follow him to the Ward Room, a space in the basement of the West Wing used for meetings by national security officials.
Bolton then told Hill to follow everyone down to the Ward Room and watch Sondland. Hill testified that she entered the room “as the follow-up meeting was already underway and heard Sondland say the word ‘Burisma’ as he resumed pressing the Ukrainians to pursue certain investigations. She then ordered that meeting to an immediate close.” Vindman reportedly corroborated that yesterday in his own testimony, claiming that after they arrived in the Ward Room Sondland pitched the Ukrainians on “investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma.” It was afterward that Vindman claims he told Sondland that those were “inappropriate” subjects to raise. And it was later, when Hill told Bolton what Sondland had said, that Bolton allegedly uttered his now-famous line about not being part of the “drug deal” that Giuliani and Sondland were working on.
Sondland claimed in his own testimony that neither Bolton nor Hill “shared any critical comments with me, even after our July 10, 2019 White House meeting.” Either that’s an outright lie or the WaPo story is false. Or, I suppose, it’s a *very* lawyerly description of what happened on July 10. Kicking someone out of your office in alarm and disgust technically isn’t a “critical comment,” is it? And are we to believe that Hill said nothing critical to Sondland even after ordering him to end the Ward Room meeting where the Bidens were being discussed?
We’re going to need to hear from Bolton. I know Democrats feel pressure to wrap this up ASAP so that impeachment doesn’t bleed into the start of the Democratic primaries but there’s now reason to believe that an official as high-ranking as the National Security Advisor saw the attempt to pressure the Ukrainians over the Bidens with his own eyes. Remember, some Democrats in the House maintain that that in itself is an impeachable offense even if it can’t be proved that Trump tried to use Ukraine’s military aid (or the prospect of a meeting between him and Zelensky) as leverage over them. He was using his office to try to damage a potential electoral opponent with help from a foreign state. A quid pro quo would make that worse, but it’s not necessary to justify impeachment.
Trump would respond (and has responded) that investigating possible corruption by a former U.S. official like Joe Biden is in the public interest. If Joe used his influence over foreign aid to get the Ukrainians to back off Hunter Biden’s company, as Trump suspects, then Americans need to know that. That’s where Bolton comes in: Why did he react so strongly to Sondland leaning on the Ukrainians about Burisma? Doesn’t he want to fight corruption by the Obama administration? Or does he suspect, or have reason to believe, that Trump’s motive really was electoral and improper?
I’d be keen to hear him, Hill, Vindman, and Sondland answer this question: When and how, exactly, did they first come to realize that investigating Burisma was a priority for the president in Ukraine diplomacy? Bolton had been on the job since April 2018. By the time the meeting in his office on July 10 of this year had occurred, he’d spent 15 months dealing intermittently with Ukraine issues. Had Burisma come up at any point in 2018? At any time during the first three months of 2019? Or, coincidentally, did the interest in exposing Joe Biden’s alleged corruption only materialize around the time this spring that Biden began moving more intently towards running for president? The earlier we can place Trump’s interest in Burisma, the more credible his “fighting corruption” motive will seem.
Although that would still leave us wondering which other former or current U.S. officials he’s asked for foreign help in investigating. The Bidens aren’t the sum total of corruption to be found within the federal government, past or present, of course. If this isn’t about damaging an election opponent, then who else is on the president’s radar right now in terms of unearthing their corrupt schemes overseas whose exposure *wouldn’t* directly serve his political interests? Any Bush administration officials? Mitch McConnell?
The July 10 meeting isn’t the only information Bolton allegedly has that might be useful to clearing up what Trump did or didn’t know. Remember that he also reportedly warned the U.S. trade representative in August that Trump would probably turn down his request to restore full trade privileges to Ukraine, although he didn’t give a reason as to why. August was when the White House was withholding Ukraine’s military aid; the timing suggests that trade privileges may also have been backburnered in order to increase the pressure on the Ukrainians to “fight corruption.” When is he going to testify?