One of the chief arguments in Trump’s defense on the Ukraine matter was that the Ukrainians might not have even understood that there was a quid pro quo involving the military aid with Ukraine. And if one of the parties to a quid pro quo doesn’t know they’re a party to it, then how the hell can a quid pro quo be said to exist? If Zelensky knows he’s getting aid and then Trump says, “We’d like you to investigate Biden,” and Zelensky says, “Sure,” and only later does he figure out that the aid is held up, well, then, his willingness to open the Biden probe can’t be linked to the aid. After all, he didn’t realize until after the fact that the aid was contingent upon him opening the probe! Trump himself has made this point as recently as this morning:
Neither he (Taylor) or any other witness has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld. You can’t have a quid pro quo with no quo.” Congressman John Ratcliffe @foxandfriends Where is the Whistleblower? The Do Nothing Dems case is DEAD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2019
I’ve never understood the argument about why the timing of the aid is important, though, I confess. Obviously Zelensky realized at some point that the aid had been held up, and he had every reason to deduce from his dealings with Trump, Giuliani, Sondland, Mulvaney, etc, that his lack of concrete action on the “corruption” investigations that the president was interested might be the cause. Whether or not he knew that Trump wanted a quid pro quo at the time of their July 25th phone call, he surely grew suspicious later, once the aid was delayed. But ultimately, what Zelensky knew or wanted is secondary to the impeachment inquiry. The question is what Trump intended, and when. If Zelensky didn’t realize until later that the aid had been held up, so what? What Congress needs to know is why Trump held up the aid. If he was trying to arrange a quid pro quo and Zelensky was a little slow in grasping the arrangement, that doesn’t refute the charge that he was abusing his power.
But the media is engaged with Trump’s argument and is sniffing around today in light of his tweet, trying to pin down when exactly the Ukrainians figured out that the aid they were expecting had been blocked. The NYT published a scoop a few hours ago: According to sources, they had reason to believe there was a mysterious delay as far back as the first week of August, just a week or two after Trump and Zelensky had their famous phone call.
The problem was not a bureaucratic glitch, the Ukrainians were told then. To address it, they were advised, they should reach out to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, according to the interviews and records…
[T]t means that the Ukrainian government was aware of the freeze during most of the period in August when Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and two American diplomats were pressing President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to make a public commitment to the investigations being sought by Mr. Trump.
The communications did not explicitly link the assistance freeze to the push by Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani for the investigations. But in the communications, officials from the United States and Ukraine discuss the need to bring in the same senior aide to Mr. Zelensky who had been dealing with Mr. Giuliani about Mr. Trump’s demands for the investigations, signaling a possible link between the matters.
“Ukrainian officials had grown suspicious that the assistance was in jeopardy because formal talks with the Pentagon on its release had concluded by June without any apparent problem,” the Times went on to say. So: In June they think they’re getting the money; in July Trump mentions to Zelensky on the call that he’s interested in CrowdStrike and Burisma; and within two weeks the aid has been frozen for reasons no one can or will explain to them except Mick Mulvaney, who told reporters last week that Trump had specifically mentioned the DNC server to him as part of the reason the money was being withheld. If — if — Zelensky hadn’t already realized a quid pro quo was on the table when he and Trump spoke, he likely figured it out pretty soon afterward as Sondland was pressing him about issuing a statement about reopening the Burisma probe.
The Associated Press has its own scoop today, though, which pushes the timeline back much further:
Volodymyr Zelenskiy gathered a small group of advisers on May 7 in Kyiv for a meeting that was supposed to be about his nation’s energy needs. Instead, the group spent most of the three-hour discussion talking about how to navigate the insistence from Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for a probe and how to avoid becoming entangled in the American elections, according to three people familiar with the details of the meeting…
The three people’s recollections differ on whether Zelenskiy specifically cited that first call with Trump [on April 21] as the source of his unease. But their accounts all show the Ukrainian president-elect was wary of Trump’s push for an investigation into the former vice president and his son Hunter’s business dealings.
Either way, the newly elected leader of a country wedged between Russia and the U.S.-aligned NATO democracies knew early on that vital military support might depend on whether he was willing to choose a side in an American political tussle.
That makes sense. Rudy Giuliani was speaking openly to American media about Trump’s interest in Ukraine’s Biden and DNC investigations by early May; the Times’s much-cited interview with him on the topic was published on May 9. Presumably Rudy and/or Trump were already in contact with Zelensky’s team by that point to impress upon them the importance of reopening the probes, and so it stands to reason that the Ukrainians would have realized that cooperation on Burisma and the DNC might be “helpful” in securing the military aid they were expecting as it made its way through the U.S. bureaucracy. With all of that as background, it becomes very hard to believe that Zelensky didn’t know or strongly suspect at the time of his July 25th phone call with Trump that the president thought the two had an understanding. Imagine Zelensky’s surprise when the aid was mysteriously delayed afterwards anyway, apparently because the Ukrainian was reluctant to issue a public statement that he was reopening the Burisma and DNC matters. In the end, it seems, Trump wanted more than an empty promise on a phone call that the probes would resume. He wanted Zelensky locked in, on the record, that they were happening.
Which itself is interesting. If Trump is telling the truth when he says that he’s only ever been interested in “fighting corruption” here, why was the White House apparently so insistent on Zelensky issuing a statement that he was reopening the probes? Why not just let him quietly investigate and then announce his findings in due time? The White House’s interest in a public declaration from Ukraine was so great that Sondland and Kurt Volker took to preparing a written statement for Zelensky involving Burisma and the DNC which they hoped/expected the Ukrainian would deliver. That doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of “fighting corruption,” which would be in America’s national interest. It does make sense from the standpoint of Trump wanting to wound a political rival by having Zelensky alert Americans to the fact that the Bidens were in trouble in Ukraine, which would be in Trump’s personal electoral interest. And ultimately that’s what the quid pro quo inquiry is all about: If, as it appears, military aid was held up to extract something from Ukraine, was it a legit demand made on behalf of the American public or was it an illicit one made on behalf of Trump personally? The emphasis on Zelensky issuing a formal statements seems to answer it.
Either way, if the AP story is correct, Ukraine was worried about its military aid being linked to the Biden and DNC probes in some sort of quid pro quo as far back as May. The “transcript” of Trump’s call with Zelensky on July 25th can only be understood in that context.