Why does this matter? Remember that Gordon Sondland testified last week that when he finally confronted Trump about what was going on with Ukraine, Trump told him there was no quid pro quo and that Zelensky should simply do the right thing in weighing whether to reopen the Burisma probe. That was a great soundbite for the president; Trump himself touted it after Sondland’s hearing was over, saying that it had gone fantastically for him.
But like I said at the time, the *date* of that conversation is key. It happened on or around September 9, after months of wrangling with the Ukrainians and in the last few days before the military aid was finally released. Rumors had already appeared in the Washington Post on September 5 about Trump orchestrating a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Members of Congress had begun to ask about the missing aid too. All of which raised a question: When Trump told Sondland that there was no quid pro quo, did he already know that his handling of Ukraine was being scrutinized (or would soon be scrutinized)? If not, then his statement is a valuable insight into his true intent. If yes, then he might simply have lied to Sondland to try to cover up what he’d done knowing that he’d soon be accused.
It’s the difference between how a criminal suspect talks to an associate on the phone before he has reason to believe that phone is being tapped by police versus after. Or, if you prefer, deciding that you don’t want to buy drugs because that would be illegal versus flushing the drugs you’ve bought down the toilet because you just saw police cars pull up outside your home.
The NYT’s sources tell them that yes, Trump knew that the whistleblower complaint was floating around by late August, more than a week before he and Sondland had that conversation.
Lawyers from the White House counsel’s office told Mr. Trump in late August about the complaint, explaining that they were trying to determine whether they were legally required to give it to Congress, the people said.
The revelation could shed light on Mr. Trump’s thinking at two critical points under scrutiny by impeachment investigators: his decision in early September to release $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine and his denial to a key ambassador around the same time that there was a “quid pro quo” with Kyiv. Mr. Trump used the phrase before it had entered the public lexicon in the Ukraine affair.
Mr. Trump faced bipartisan pressure from Congress when he released the aid. But the new timing detail shows that he was also aware at the time that the whistle-blower had accused him of wrongdoing in withholding the aid and in his broader campaign to pressure Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to conduct investigations that could benefit Mr. Trump’s re-election chances.
Ron Johnson has made a big deal of the fact that when he spoke to Trump about the arrangement with Ukraine and asked if there was a quid pro quo, the president was indignant: “(Expletive deleted) — No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” But that conversation happened on August 31, (presumably) also after the president had been briefed by White House lawyers about the whistleblower complaint. He would have had good reason not to be candid with Johnson at that point too.
There’s one mystery to the timing, though. If Trump found out about the whistleblower complaint in late August, why didn’t he release Ukraine’s aid immediately instead of waiting until September 11 or thereabouts? A suspect typically doesn’t continue to carry out a conspiracy once he has reason to believe police are surveilling him. That’s a point in Trump’s favor and will doubtless be cited in his defense. But don’t forget: The White House spent weeks during September trying to block the intelligence community’s inspector general from handing over the whistleblower complaint to Congress. White House lawyers argued that it was a matter of executive privilege and that, in any case, Trump wasn’t an “intelligence official” and therefore a complaint about him wouldn’t properly be filed with the IG. So maybe the plan after POTUS first learned of the complaint was to stay calm, try to keep it bottled up indefinitely, and continue to squeeze Zelensky on the Biden probe — especially since he was beginning to yield at that point. There was a CNN interview scheduled for September 13 in which he’d formally announce the reopening of the investigation.
The X factor, it seems, was Congress, with members of both parties twisting Trump’s arm about the aid in early September. There was a deadline looming, after all: If the money wasn’t handed over by September 30, the appropriation would lapse. And the State Department needed a few weeks before that to comply with legal notification to Congress of the disbursement. With senators breathing down his neck, and knowing that there was already a formal written accusation of wrongdoing in the IG’s hands, maybe Trump finally gave up — coincidentally just a day or two before Zelensky was set to do that interview. Presumably Trump also reasoned that even if he succeeded in keeping the whistleblower complaint away from Pelosi and Schiff, he wouldn’t be able to stop leaks about it and the Ukraine matter to newspapers. Better to hand over the money, however grudgingly, and then point to his “willingness” to release it as evidence that there was never any quid pro quo.
Two weeks later, probably figuring that the complaint itself would eventually leak, the White House allowed the IG to give the complaint to House Democrats. But Trump reportedly hasn’t forgiven the IG for creating this problem for him.
Here’s the president’s latest impeachment tweet, by the way:
“OMB Official: Ukraine Aid Held Up Because Other Countries Weren't Giving” https://t.co/nYwMq3M5SB
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2019
It may well be that that was the reason given to the OMB official to justify putting a hold on the aid, but it’s just not true that the Europeans have been cheapskates when it comes to Ukraine. Just like it’s not true that Ukraine had a problem with corruption that was somehow unique to recipients of U.S. foreign aid. They’d actually gotten better recently in fighting corruption and Trump’s own government confirmed it.
Exit question: Did Trump *ever* actually authorize the release of Ukraine’s military aid? This bombshell report from Bloomberg two weeks ago claimed that the State Department released the aid on September 9, two days before Trump supposedly did, and that it did so on the authority of some unspecified official in the White House who may or may not have been John Bolton. That is, Bolton (or someone else) may have gone behind Trump’s back to release the aid when the president had no intention of doing so. Bolton was out of a job a few days later. Coincidence or not?