Politics

“Corruption” Is the GOP’s Code for Smearing Democrats

Republicans don’t care about malfeasance in Ukraine. Just look at the texts.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump answers questions while departing the White House on Thursday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump wants to make one thing perfectly clear: When he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, it wasn’t because Biden could be Trump’s opponent in the 2020 election. “Everything, to me, is about corruption,” Trump assured reporters at the White House on Friday morning. “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign. But I do care about corruption.” Trump went on to use the word corruption 25 times. “This doesn’t pertain to anything but corruption,” he declared. “I don’t care about politics. But I do care about corruption.”

A stack of text messages released by the House of Representatives on Thursday night shows that Trump is lying. The messages, exchanged this summer between State Department officials and Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, document a quid pro quo: The administration offered a meeting between Trump and Zelensky in exchange for a Ukrainian statement that Biden would be investigated. The texts also show that Trump and his aides weren’t interested in cleaning up corruption. Corruption has become a Republican code word for smearing Trump’s opponents.

The texts indicate that Trump’s negotiators demanded explicit concessions from Ukraine in exchange for the meeting and a restoration of military aid. In an Aug. 9 message, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told Kurt Volker, who was then a special envoy to Ukraine, “I think potus really wants the deliverable.” In a Sept. 1 message, William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, asked Sondland, “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland replied with the classic line of someone who doesn’t want a paper trail: “Call me.”

Sondland, like Trump, tried to pretend that what Trump sought in the quid pro quo wasn’t just an investigation of Biden and the Democrats, but a broader Ukrainian effort to stamp out corruption. In a Sept. 19 text, Taylor told Sondland it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland, in a pious response, denied that Trump was targeting his opponents. What Trump wanted, according to Sondland’s formulation, was a statement from Zelensky proving that Ukraine was serious about “transparency and reforms.”

We already know, from a reconstructed transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, that Trump specifically asked for investigations of two things that would help him in 2020: Biden’s (nonexistent) corruption in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s (nonexistent) possession of a server that would somehow clear Russia of having interfered in the 2016 election. The texts show that Trump’s men, backstage, were pressing Ukraine for these investigations. On July 19, six days before the call, Volker wrote to Sondland, “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation.” On July 25, just before the call, Volker wrote to Zelensky’s aide, Andrey Yermak: “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”

On Aug. 10, two weeks after the Zelensky call, Volker texted with Yermak to extract the two specified investigations in exchange for the meeting. “Let’s iron out statement and use that to get date,” he wrote. Yermak replied that Ukraine would target the two subjects Trump wanted, including Burisma, a Ukrainian company that had paid Biden’s son as a board member. “Once we have a date,” Yermak proposed, Ukraine would call a press briefing to announce a Trump-Zelensky meeting and to discuss “Burisma and election meddling in investigations.” Volker wrote back, “Sounds great!”

On Aug. 13, after consulting Giuliani, Volker sent Sondland a draft statement that would be attributed to Zelensky. The statement called for “special attention” to “interference in the political processes of the United States.” It promised an “investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.” Sondland pronounced the statement “perfect” and told Volker to send it to Yermak.

In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, Volker explained how this statement had been put together. Ukraine had initially proposed a draft that didn’t name Burisma or the 2016 election. According to Volker’s testimony, as paraphrased by CNN and the New York Times, Giuliani told Volker that Ukraine’s draft “was not sufficient to satisfy Mr. Trump’s demands” and “suggested inserting references to pursuing probes of Burisma and the 2016 election.” That’s stone-cold proof of Trump’s motive. Ukraine offered to investigate corruption, but Giuliani and the State Department insisted on explicitly targeting Biden.

The texts make clear that Giuliani was directly involved in the statement. On Aug. 9, Sondland asked Giuliani, “Can we all get on the phone to make sure I advise Z[elensky] correctly as to what he should be saying?” Giuliani replied, “Yes can you call now going to Fundraiser.” The texts also indicate that somebody other than Sondland was pressing Volker to include the two pro-Trump investigations. On Aug. 17, Sondland asked, “Do we still want Ze to give us an unequivocal draft with 2016 and Boresma?” Volker replied, “That’s the clear message so far.” Volker didn’t say where the “message” was coming from. But the obvious source is Giuliani.

Throughout this process, Giuliani and the State Department ignored signals that their demands were unfounded, political, and based on ulterior motives. According to the Times, Ukrainian officials “indicated to the Americans that they wanted to avoid becoming more deeply enmeshed in American politics.” Volker, in his testimony, said he had warned Giuliani “that Giuliani was receiving untrustworthy information” about Biden. In May, Volker and Sondland, along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, attended an Oval Office meeting at which Trump said of Ukrainians, “They’re all corrupt, and they tried to take me down.” In Trump’s mind, being corrupt and opposing Trump are synonymous.

If the text messages, the July 25 transcript, and Volker’s testimony aren’t sufficient to convince you that Trump’s talk of corruption is a front for soliciting campaign dirt, just watch the president’s Friday morning conversation with the press. In one exchange, a reporter poses this question: “Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don’t involve your political opponents?” Trump can’t think of one. “We would have to look,” he replies.

Trump and his henchmen don’t care about corruption or conflicts of interest. They don’t care that Trump secretly negotiated to build a hotel in Russia while he was running for president. They don’t care that Trump tried to save a Chinese telecom company while his daughter Ivanka sought lucrative trademarks from the Chinese government. They don’t care that Giuliani is up to his eyeballs in shady overseas business deals, including in Ukraine. They don’t care that Sondland got his job by donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. They don’t care that Volker, while working at the State Department, advocated for a missile shipment that earned millions of dollars for Raytheon, a defense contractor whose lobbying firm simultaneously paid Volker as a consultant.

When Republicans say that the president just wants to investigate corruption, what they mean is that they’ll look the other way while he colludes with foreign governments to smear his enemies. “Corruption,” as a Republican talking point, is a corruption of the word.