State Department's Ukraine Text Messages: 5 Major Takeaways From Communications Between Top U.S. Diplomats and Rudy Giuliani

Three House committees released a series of text messages between top U.S. diplomats, a senior aide to Ukraine's president, and Rudy Giuliani to shed more light on behind-the-scenes dealings under scrutiny in the impeachment inquiry.

They center on the discussions around President Donald Trump's efforts to persuade Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations that could harm the Democratic Party's chances in the 2020 election.

One would be into the debunked CrowdStrike conspiracy theory that a Ukrainian company framed Russia for election interference in 2016 at the behest of the Democrats; the other is into dubious corruption allegations leveled at former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.

In a July 25 call, Trump asked a "favor" of Zelensky in that he open investigations into CrowdStrike and the Bidens. The Democrats began an impeachment inquiry, accusing Trump of abusing his office to get a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election.

There are also allegations—denied by Trump—that he used America's military aid to Ukraine, which is battling Russian-backed separatists in its east, as leverage to get the investigations in a quid pro quo deal.

This all came to light when it emerged that an intelligence whistleblower had filed a complaint to the inspector general about Trump's conduct towards Ukraine and alleged efforts by the administration to cover up the president's controversial actions.

The newly released State Department texts include communication between former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, who resigned last week; U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who was a significant donor to Trump's 2016 campaign; the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires for Ukraine Bill Taylor; senior aide to Ukraine's President Zelensky, Andrey Yermak; and President Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

The three House committees releasing the texts were intelligence, oversight, and foreign affairs following closed-door testimony by Volker. The Democratic committee chairman—Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings, and Eliot Engel—wrote a letter to their colleagues after Volker's testimony.

"These text messages reflect serious concerns raised by a State Department official about the detrimental effects of withholding critical military assistance from Ukraine, and the importance of setting up a meeting between President Trump and the Ukrainian President without further delay," their letter said.

"He also directly expressed concerns that this critical military assistance and the meeting between the two presidents were being withheld in order to place additional pressure on Ukraine to deliver on the President's demand for Ukraine to launch politically motivated investigations.

"Earlier today, selected portions of these texts were leaked to the press out of context. In order to help correct the public record, we are now providing an attachment with more complete excerpts from the exchanges.

"The additional excerpts we are providing are still only a subset of the full body of materials, which we hope to make public after a review for personally identifiable information."

Here are five major takeaways from the texts released by the House committees.

Zelensky feared the Trump administration was using him for 2020 election politics

On July 21, just four days before the call between Trump and Zelensky, Taylor raised the Ukrainian president's concerns about being used as an "instrument" for the 2020 election.

"Gordon, one thing Kurt and I talked about yesterday was Sasha Danyliuk's point that President Zelenskyy is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics," Taylor wrote.

Sondland replied: "Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative."

So did Ambassador Taylor

On September 1, several weeks after the Trump-Zelensky call, Taylor asked Sondland directly: "Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?"

"Call me," Sondland replied.

Then on September 9, Taylor again suggested that he thought the U.S. withholding military aid from Ukraine was conditional on it aiding Trump's re-election campaign.

It is not clear from the messages if this is about the $391 million of aid temporarily withheld earlier in the year or future assistance.

"As I said on the phonecall, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote in a conversation with Sondland.

There were possibly two quid pro quos discussed

The September messages from Taylor imply there was at the very least the perception on both sides of a quid pro quo around military aid in exchange for investigations that could damage Democrats in the 2020 election.

Another message on September 8 from Taylor about an unspecified "interview" also mentions the withholding of help from Ukraine: "The nightmare is they give the interview and don't get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit.)"

Another potential quid pro quo was over the issue of a White House meeting, which can be seen in discussions between the U.S. diplomats and Andrey Yermak, a senior aide to Zelensky.

The messages suggest that a White House meeting for Zelensky was in exchange for his commitment to launch the investigations Trump wanted.

On July 25, before the call, Volker texted 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."

Zelensky committed in the call to looking into the investigations proposed by Trump. Yermak texted Volker once the call was over with Zelensky's preferred dates in September to visit the White House: "Thank you again for your help!"

In August, the U.S. diplomats discussed a draft statement by Zelensky announcing the investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma.

On August 10, Yermak pressed Volker to confirm the date for Zelensky's visit before any statement on the investigations was made public.

Yermak wrote: "I think it is possible to make this declaration and mention all these things. Which we discussed yesterday. But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date. We inform about date of visit and about our expectations and our guarantees for future visit. Let discuss it."

Volker replied: "I agree with your approach. Let's iron out statement and use that to get date and then PreZ can go forward with it?"

Yermak later wrote: "Once we have a date, will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations."

It does not appear that Ukraine ever delivered such a public statement, and the White House visit did not take place, though the two leaders held a bilateral meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

When asked by the press at that meeting if he ever felt pressure from Trump to investigate the Bidens, Zelensky replied: "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to democratic, open elections—elections of USA… nobody pushed me."

Ambassador Sondland gives Trump some space for plausible deniability

Trump has said repeatedly that there were no quid pro quos and that he was merely asking Ukraine to investigate what he believes to be credible allegations. One text message from Sondland gives President Trump some plausible deniability in this regard.

Replying to Taylor's message on September 9 that it was crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign, Sondland said Trump's intentions were misunderstood.

"Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions," Sondland wrote. "The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign."

Giuliani was working closely with the State Department

The former New York City mayor has for several days been showing text messages between himself, Volker, and Sondland in an attempt to prove that his activities in Ukraine were endorsed by the State Department.

The messages show Volker connecting Giuliani with Yermak back on July 19. Then on July 22, Volker said he "orchestrated a great phone call w Rudy and Yermak. They are going to get together when Rudy goes to Madrid in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Rudy is now advocating for [Trump-Zelensky] phone call."

On August 9, text messages show Volker and Sondland soliciting Giuliani's advice on the draft Ukrainian statement about the investigations.

State Department Ukraine text messages Volker Sondland
Former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker departs following a closed-door deposition led by the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on October 3, 2019 in Washington, DC. Volker resigned from his position on September 27. Zach Gibson/Getty Images