According to ABC, the text was provided by — although not sent by — Kurt Volker, who had served as Trump’s special representative for Ukraine until resigning a week ago. He’s on the Hill today being deposed as part of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
That is to say, this is highly likely to be a Democratic leak, possibly shorn of context that would reveal it as less damning than it really is. And ABC has already had a Ukraine story blow up in their faces after overhyping it. Last week they reported that an advisor to Zelensky claimed that Trump would only agree to speak to the Ukrainian president if Ukraine agreed in advance to reopen the Biden investigation. In reality, the advisor no longer worked for Zelensky. And he told a different reporter that he had *not* told ABC that there was a precondition involving Biden for Trump’s conversation with Zelensky.
So let’s proceed, but cautiously. What ABC claims here is potentially a big deal as evidence of whether key U.S. diplomats themselves believed Trump was demanding a quid pro quo from Ukraine.
In newly disclosed text messages shared with Congress, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine writes to a group of other American diplomats that “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”…
In the exchange, obtained by ABC News, the concerns are expressed by Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine [i.e. acting U.S. ambassador]. Gordon Sondland, the United States Ambassador to the European Union, responds to Taylor, saying that charge is “incorrect,” insisting the president has been “crystal clear no quid pro quo of any kind”.
Sondland then suggests to the group take the conversations off line, typing “I suggest we top the back and forth by text.” It’s unclear if the conversation continues, based on the material obtained by ABC News.
A key question: When exactly were these texts between Taylor, Volker, and Sondland sent? ABC will only say that “The texts came just days before the White House released the military assistance to Ukraine.” The aid was released under pressure from Congress on September 11 so it must be sometime between the 1st of the month and that date. The reason the date is important is because it’ll give us a clue as to whether the three diplomats were speaking candidly or whether they already expected there would be some sort of probe of Trump’s actions on Ukraine that might involve scrutiny of their communications. For instance, Sondland’s line that there’s been no quid pro quo of any kind weighs strongly in Trump’s favor *if* Sondland was speaking candidly, not suspecting that the ICIG or Adam Schiff would eventually be reading through his texts.
But if he already had reason to know that the ICIG and/or Schiff would probably come sniffing around then it begins to smell like spin, something he’s saying for the record to cover his and Trump’s asses. Which would be buttressed by the fact that he immediately took the conversation off the record by asking Taylor and Volker to move it offline, where there wouldn’t be a written trail of their communications.
Another question: When exactly did Trump make it “crystal clear” that there was no quid pro quo of any kind with Ukraine before the whistleblower story broke big in late September? The text in which Sondland makes that claim was sent no later than September 11th if ABC’s reporting is accurate. I don’t remember Trump commenting on Ukraine before then, though, or at least not publicly. If he really had been “crystal clear” about it, why was Taylor seemingly under the impression that Ukraine’s military aid was being held up until the U.S. side received “help with a political campaign”?
There actually *was* a noteworthy public reference to Trump and Ukraine right in the timeframe of the text conversation between Taylor, Sondland, and Volker — not from the president himself but from the Washington Post, which published this curious editorial on September 5th. I mentioned it in the very first post I wrote about the Ukraine saga, before we even knew for a fact that Trump’s “troubling” conversation with an unknown foreign leader waswith Zelensky. What makes it curious is that the editorial cited unnamed sources for the explosive proposition that the president was leaning on Ukraine to reopen the Biden investigation. Normally a claim like that would go in the news section, not end up buried in an editorial.
Not only has Mr. Trump refused to grant the Ukrainian leader a White House visit, but also he has suspended the delivery of $250 million in U.S. military aid to a country still fighting Russian aggression in its eastern provinces.
Some suspect Mr. Trump is once again catering to Mr. Putin, who is dedicated to undermining Ukrainian democracy and independence. But we’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.
I’m gonna guess that WaPo’s “reliable” sources were House Democrats who had learned the basics of the whistleblower’s allegations, possibly even a source whose name rhymes with “Madam Miff.” Anyway, maybe the text conversation was nothing more than chatter among the three diplomats about the WaPo editorial, in which case there’s really nothing to it at all. It could be that Taylor read it, told the others he was surprised at the allegation, and meant that it’s crazy to withhold Ukraine’s aid in return for Biden help if in fact WaPo is right that that’s what happened. In that scenario, Taylor’s not accusing Trump of anything based on his own personal knowledge. He’s just reacting to some newspaper piece. Who cares?
The more damning scenario is that the texts don’t involve the WaPo editorial at all, or — if they do — that the editorial is being mentioned because it jibes with Taylor’s own personal knowledge of what’s going on with Trump and Ukraine. Obviously, the more the texts reflect nonpublic information known to the three diplomats, the more damning Taylor’s allegation is.
The in-between possibility is that the three weren’t reacting to the WaPo editorial but rather to the fact that a whistleblower complaint had been filed and that it had to do with Trump and Ukraine. How they would have known that is unclear in early September is unclear, but remember that the whistleblower initially went to the top lawyer at the CIA with his accusation and then the CIA’s lawyer had to notify White House counsel. Maybe word got around within the White House after that and the information somehow made its way to Taylor, Volker, and Sondland. That might explain Sondland’s caution in wanting to take the conversation offline. If they knew there was whistleblower activity by the time they had this text chat then yeah, of course they would have had reason to believe that some legal authority might eventually end up reading their communications. Which makes Taylor’s text about a quid pro quo that much more interesting and baffling. Did Sondland know something about the scrutiny to come to make him cautious about what was being said whereas Taylor didn’t know?
By the way, according to WaPo, today Volker “turned over a number of documents to congressional staffers including a chain of text messages with Giuliani,” as well as “physical documents, white papers and correspondence with other officials, the person said.” If there’s anything to the quid pro quo allegations, Volker might end up as the Dems’ star witness in substantiating them. In fact, he reportedly already gave them something useful in testimony today:
The former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine told House investigators on Thursday that he warned President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that Giuliani was receiving untrustworthy information from Ukrainian political figures about former vice president Joe Biden and his son, according to two people familiar with his testimony.
Kurt Volker, who resigned last week after being named in a whistleblower complaint that sparked the House impeachment inquiry of Trump, said he tried to caution Guiliani that his sources, including Ukraine’s former top prosecutor, were unreliable and that he should be careful about putting faith in the prosecutor’s stories, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed door meeting.
The more evidence there is/was that the Biden allegations were thin and that Trump and Giuliani had reason to know it, the harder it’ll be for Trump to argue that he was interested in a meritorious corruption investigation of a former U.S. official, not a smear campaign aimed at casting suspicion on the Democratic quasi-frontrunner. Volker’s just one guy, though. We’ll see what other witnesses have to say about the strength of the Biden allegations.