Did President Donald Trump commit an impeachable offense by using his office to solicit Ukraine’s help in the 2020 U.S. election? Republicans say the evidence is insufficient. They argue that Trump, based on legitimate concerns about corruption, had every right to do what he did in a July 25 phone call: ask Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. And although Trump made this pitch while withholding congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine, Republicans point out that Trump never told Zelensky he was blocking the money. In short, they say, there was no quid pro quo.
This defense is weak, in part because the two central pieces of evidence against Trump are damning. One is an official, reconstructed transcript of the phone call. The other is a whistleblower complaint, written by someone in the U.S. intelligence community, that documents efforts by Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to enlist Ukraine’s help in investigating Trump’s domestic enemies. But there’s a lot more to the story. The full sequence of events—Trump’s gripes, Giuliani’s machinations, and the suspension of the aid—shows that the president is lying and that his motives were corrupt. Here are the key episodes.
1. The Lutsenko retractions. Trump claims that he pressed Ukraine for the investigations because he sincerely believed—and believes today—that Ukraine had information implicating Biden and other U.S. Democrats in conspiracies. But Trump escalated these allegations even as Yuri Lutsenko, the Ukrainian prosecutor on whose statements the president relied, was admitting that they were false. In April, Lutsenko, who is seen as corrupt by many Ukrainians, retracted his claim that the Obama administration had ordered him not to investigate a list of possible suspects. Despite this, a week later, Trump hyped Lutsenko’s work as “big stuff” that could expose a Democratic plot. In May, Lutsenko retracted additional allegations: that he had evidence of misconduct by Biden or his son and that the family was under investigation. Again, a few days later, Trump repeated the allegations. He wanted dirt on Biden, regardless of whether it was true.
2. The Pence cancellation. On May 11, Giuliani canceled a trip in which he had planned to lobby Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden and the Democrats. He announced on Fox News he was calling it off because he had discovered, to his dismay, that he would be “walking into a group of people that are enemies of the president, and in some cases, enemies of the United States.” What was Giuliani talking about? According to a Ukrainian journalist and a former U.S. ambassador, Giuliani canceled the trip because Zelensky had declined to meet with him to discuss the investigations Giuliani sought.
The whistleblower’s complaint reports what happened next: On May 14, Trump “instructed Vice President Pence to cancel his planned travel to Ukraine to attend President Zelenskyy’s inauguration.”
No connection has been proved, but the timing is suspicious: Zelensky stiffed Giuliani, Giulani alerted Trump, and Trump stiffed Zelensky. The whistleblower’s complaint adds evidence to this theory: It says that during this time frame, U.S. officials were told that Trump “did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy ‘chose to act’ in office.” The complaint also indicates that Ukraine, based on messages it received from the administration, thought Trump’s coldness was connected to Giuliani’s pressure campaign. From late May to early July, says the whistleblower, “multiple U.S. officials told me that the Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelenskyy would depend on whether Zelenskyy showed willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues that had been publicly aired by Mr. Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani.”
3. The aid suspension. On May 23, the Defense Department issued a letter certifying that Ukraine had taken anti-corruption measures sufficient to warrant the military aid Congress had approved. But on June 11, Zelensky asked Ukraine’s parliament to dismiss Lutsenko. That irked Trump and Giuliani. On June 21, Giuliani tweeted that Zelensky still wasn’t playing ball. “New Pres of Ukraine still silent on investigation of Ukrainian interference in 2016 election and alleged Biden bribery,” Giuliani wrote. “Time for leadership and investigate both.” Three weeks later, on July 11, Giuliani spoke to Andriy Yermak, a senior aide to Zelensky. In the call, arranged with help from the State Department, the two men discussed what Giuliani wanted—investigations of Democrats—and what Zelensky wanted: a meeting with Trump.
We don’t know what happened between Trump and Giuliani after the tweet. But this is when Trump decided to block the aid. Trump’s decision was disclosed to the State Department and the Defense Department on July 18, with a clarification that he had issued the decision “earlier that month.” Ukrainian officials later told Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, that they suspected the aid was being withheld over Ukraine’s refusal to investigate the Bidens.
4. The phone call. A reconstructed transcript, released this week by the White House, details what Trump said in his July 25 call with Zelensky. He noted that “we do a lot for Ukraine” and complained that Ukraine wasn’t giving him “reciprocal” consideration. Then he asked Zelensky for “a favor”: to help Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr investigate Biden and discredit the U.S. probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump repeatedly asked Zelensky to cooperate with Giuliani and “the attorney general,” sending a clear signal that American support for Ukraine depended on Ukraine’s cooperation with Giuliani against Trump’s domestic enemies.
5. The non-explanations. The excuses Trump now offers for suspending the aid—that Ukraine was corrupt or that Europe should have shouldered more of the financial burden—weren’t offered until a month and a half after Trump blocked the money. Initially, according to the Washington Post, “Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an ‘interagency process’ but to give them no additional information.” Meanwhile, according to the whistleblower, “During interagency meetings on 23 July and 26 July, OMB officials again stated explicitly that the instruction to suspend this assistance had come directly from the President, but they still were unaware of a policy rationale.” The Post reports that officials, in interviews, “said they did not know why the aid was being canceled.”
6. The non-communication. If Trump were seriously concerned about Ukrainian abuse of American aid, somebody in the administration would have raised that concern with Ukraine. But according to Ukrainian officials, nobody did. Unless Trump can produce evidence of such communications, the simplest explanation is that “corruption,” for him, is a euphemism for Zelensky’s refusal to investigate Biden.
7. The release of other money. Trump attributes the aid suspension in part to his longtime gripe that the United States gives too much foreign aid and Europe gives too little. But that story doesn’t fit the record. On Aug. 22, the administration gave up on its push for across-the-board cuts in foreign aid. A week later, it was still blocking the Ukraine money. “Pentagon officials tried to make a case to the White House that the Ukraine aid was effective and should not be looked at in the same manner as other aid,” says the New York Times. “But when those arguments were ignored, and when the other aid was allowed to move forward, the Pentagon officials began to wonder” why the money for Ukraine was being blocked.
In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about what Trump and Giuliani were doing. We might even find a smoking gun that links the aid cutoff explicitly to the Biden investigation. But the record is already incriminating. It shows that Trump explicitly used the power of his office and the authority of his attorney general to pressure a foreign government to investigate a political rival. And it shows that the president’s stated reasons for demanding the investigation—and for withholding military aid—are lies.