Politics

The Ukraine Depositions Have Destroyed Trump’s “Corruption” Defense

Republicans say the president wanted to clean up Ukraine. Witness testimony shows he didn’t.

Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump stand outside in front of a door.
Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, on Nov. 20, 2016
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

According to Republican senators, President Donald Trump had a very good reason to press Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats. The president’s reason, they explain, was his deep concern about corruption. Republicans think they can get away with this preposterous lie because there’s no way to disprove it. But there is. Text messages released last month showed that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was never about corruption. And this week, Congress unveiled additional evidence to debunk the “corruption” defense: more than 1,000 pages of testimony from the three men at the center of Trump’s extortion campaign.

The testimony comes from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; and Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine. It shows that Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani—who was essentially deputized by Trump to run U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine—consistently pursued Trump’s personal interests. They never did what anyone who cared about corruption would have done.

One test of sincerity, for instance, is whether you target corruption wherever it exists, or only in countries where it suits your interests. Trump flunked this test. Volker, during his Oct. 3 testimony, was asked whether he had ever heard Trump express “concerns about corruption in any other country besides Ukraine.” He said no. Sondland, during his Oct. 17 deposition, was asked whether he knew of “any aid being withheld to the other 28 countries in your portfolio under President Trump in 2018 or 2019.” He said he didn’t.

Another test is whether you call politicians corrupt when they’re actually corrupt, or only when they do something you don’t like. Again, Trump flunked the test. Sondland couldn’t recall any attempt by Trump to withhold aid from Ukraine last year, when the Kyiv government was plagued by corruption. By contrast, Taylor testified that Volodymyr Zelensky, who took office as Ukraine’s president this year, “appointed reformist ministers,” opened an anti-corruption court, abolished lawmakers’ immunity to prosecution, and “supported long-stalled anti-corruption legislation.” On May 23, Sondland and other U.S. officials personally told Trump about Zelensky’s anti-corruption initiatives. An American president who cared about corruption would have been moved by this presentation. But Trump wasn’t. “He didn’t want to hear about it,” Sondland testified.

The U.S. government has an official process, enshrined in the National Defense Authorization Act, to assess whether countries receiving military aid are doing enough to fight corruption. Taylor testified that Ukraine had passed this assessment. During Sondland’s deposition, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida pointed to a May 23 letter from the Department of Defense that certified Ukraine’s compliance with the anti-corruption requirements for getting military aid. Trump ignored the letter and blocked the aid anyway.

Trump and Giuliani have attacked or defended various figures in the Ukraine story based on whether they were useful to Trump, not on whether they were corrupt. One example is Marie Yovanovitch, Taylor’s predecessor as the U.S. ambassador. Taylor testified that Yovanovitch consistently pressed Ukraine to crack down on corruption. Trump and Giuliani responded by ousting her. Another example is Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s former chief prosecutor. Volker testified that Biden, when he was vice president, demanded Shokin’s removal because Shokin, according to every Western government, “was not pursuing corruption cases.” Trump and Giuliani responded by lambasting Biden and defending Shokin.

Taylor, in his Oct. 22 deposition, made an important point. When Republican interrogators argued that Trump was right to ask Ukraine to open specific investigations, the ambassador explained that real reform is about building institutions, not about targeting certain people. Official U.S. policy in Ukraine, he observed, was aimed at cleaning up “the selection process for judges, the selection process for prosecutors, the institutions.” And that’s what Zelensky was doing. “He pushed that very hard,” said Taylor.

That’s what bothered Taylor about Giuliani’s meddling. According to Taylor, while official U.S. representatives focused on “institution building,” Giuliani “wanted to focus on one or two specific cases, irrespective of whether it helped solve the corruption problem.” When Ukraine offered a statement pledging to crack down on corruption, Giuliani said that wasn’t enough. Volker testified that Giuliani, in a phone call, explicitly “said that [the statement] needs to mention Burisma [a company connected to Biden’s son] and 2016. And if it doesn’t do that, it’s not credible.” Sondland, who was also on the call with Giuliani, corroborated this account. When the House Intelligence Committee’s general counsel asked whether Giuliani had demanded these two investigations “to serve Donald Trump’s political interests and not the national interests,” Volker answered, “Yeah.”

Sondland’s testimony exposed the same insincerity on Trump’s part. During the ambassador’s deposition, Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey pointed out that the U.S. State Department has a long-standing list of anti-corruption measures it has sought from Ukraine. One request is “to strengthen the prosecutor’s office.” Another is “to clean up corruption in the defense sector.” Malinowski asked Sondland whether, to his knowledge, anyone in the Trump administration had ever proposed to withhold meetings or aid based on these institutional requests. Sondland said no. Trump used those levers only to get the two investigations he wanted.

In private, Trump made clear that when he spoke of Ukraine’s corruption, he meant behavior that threatened him personally. Volker recalled that in his May 23 meeting with Trump, Sondland, and other officials, the president “gave the example of hearing from Rudy Giuliani that they’re all corrupt, they’re all terrible people, that they tried to ‘take me down’—meaning the president—in the 2016 election.” When the intelligence committee’s director of investigations asked Volker whether Trump gave “any specific examples other than the fact that they tried to ‘take him down,’ ” Volker said no. Sondland told the same story. “He kept saying that over and over,” Sondland recalled. “They tried to take me down. They tried to take me down.”

That’s what “corruption” meant to Trump. It wasn’t about cleaning up Ukraine. It was about using American power, including nearly $400 million in military aid, to hurt his enemies. And that behavior—the abuse of power for selective prosecution—is exactly the quagmire Ukraine was trying to escape. “That’s the way ‘anti-corruption’ was played out in Ukraine for decades,” Volker testified. “It wasn’t about just fighting corruption. It was about who are my enemies and who are my friends.” Instead of pulling Ukraine out of that quagmire, Trump plunged America into it.

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