Get ready for another round of Partisan Rorschach. Overnight, three House Democratic committee chairs released texts between State Department officials to show that the Trump administration leveraged aid and access to Ukraine in exchange for dirt on Burisma and by extension Hunter and Joe Biden. Those inclined to agree with Adam Schiff, Eliot Engel, and Elijah Cummings will see these as damning evidence of corruption, while those inclined to support Donald Trump will see normal diplomatic maneuvering in pursuit of, well … that one might be a bit harder to explain.
The three chairs emphasize how seriously we should all take this, in their opinion:
We’ll get to the text message itself, but the last paragraph in the excerpt is curious. The trio are unhappy that “selected portions” of the texts were leaked, claim it didn’t put the messages in the correct context, and so have leaked … other selected portions. “More complete” does not equal “fully complete,” after all; if these chairs weren’t prepared to release the full set, why are they releasing any at all? Given the tenor of this letter, in which the three accuse Trump of being “unethical, unpatriotic, and wrong,” doesn’t exactly boost confidence in the context the trio chose to present in this “subset.”
Or, maybe that’s too harsh. The text message at the basis of their claim from Taylor is pretty much as advertised, but their letter also includes Sonderland’s responses, which rebuke Taylor. Taylor’s convinced that Trump is using aid to Ukraine as extortion for dirt on the campaign, but Sondland strenuously objects to that characterization. The day before, Taylor had threatened to quit over it, a week after having accused Trump of setting up a quid pro quo:
“The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” Sondland tells the charges d’affaires in Kyiv. That would comport with the Trump-Zelensky call, where no such quid pro quos were demanded or even asked in relation to aid or anything else. The tenor of these texts suggest that the call itself may have been held out as the quid pro quo for a Burisma probe, but Sondland’s description of Trump’s position is pretty similar to that which Biden claims was his in 2015/16 when he threatened aid to Ukraine.
These texts look more like smoke than fire. The only thing supporting the notion that this reveals a quid pro quo arrangement are Taylor’s texts, and Taylor was well away from the White House as the charges d’affaires in Ukraine. The texts themselves show that Taylor was taking his cues from Sondland and Volker, not directly from the White House or Mike Pompeo, which is why he keeps asking Sondland for clarification. The suggestion of a quid pro quo is Taylor’s analysis — which may well have been correct, but disconnected analysis is not evidence, and barely qualifies as hearsay.
Of course, that’s if one believes Sondland is telling the truth and are inclined to think that Trump is being unfairly attacked. If one is inclined to think that Trump is out of control and corrupt, then Taylor’s messages look pretty compelling. Do we have a set of ink blots for you!
The Wall Street Journal, which has spent considerable time defending Trump in Ukraine-Gate, reports that these texts do show a significant amount of attention on opportunities that would tend to turn up dirt on Trump’s potential 2020 opponent:
The Trump administration sought to use a potential meeting between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart as leverage to press Kyiv to investigate Joe Biden, newly released text messages showed, as President Trump called on China to also investigate his political rival.
The president’s efforts to persuade Ukraine in a July phone call to investigate Mr. Biden have already set off an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats, who are looking at whether the president abused the power of his office for political gain.
Text messages released by House committees late Thursday revealed that Trump administration officials sought to use a White House meeting between Mr. Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart as leverage to press the Ukrainian government to pursue an investigation into Mr. Biden and other matters. The messages show that U.S. officials coordinated with aides to the Ukrainian president and Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s private lawyer, on a draft statement in which Kyiv would announce an investigation into Mr. Biden and the 2016 U.S. election—at the same time as announcing a visit by the Ukrainian president to the White House.
The messages also reveal concerns by a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine that Mr. Trump was seeking to use a hold on nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine—which the president imposed a week before his July call with his Ukrainian counterpart—for political purposes.
It’s not difficult, in other words, to see why Taylor worried about the intentions of the Trump administration. Rudy Giuliani kept coming around to push Ukrainian officials to dig into Burisma, and Volker and Sondland seemed interested in facilitating his efforts. There does seem to be an inordinate focus on corruption investigations rather than the defense of an ally with an invading force occupying its eastern provinces, but one could also say the same thing about the Obama administration’s attitude toward Ukraine after 2014, too. It doesn’t help those impressions to have Trump openly ask Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens either. That certainly makes it look like Taylor’s analysis was hardly unfounded.
Republicans are now complaining that these excerpts are taken out of context too, and want the entirety of Volker’s testimony released. That reportedly contradicted much of what Schiff has claimed about Ukraine, but that depends on whether one believes Volker’s telling the whole truth, too. Do we have a whole new set of ink blots coming for you!