As the Trump impeachment trial gets underway, Democrats are banging their heads and Republicans are wringing their hands over the reality that not all the facts are in. A longer investigation in the House of Representatives—and Trump’s lawful compliance—could have produced a fuller evidentiary record, especially if more witnesses had been compelled to testify. As of now, there are important questions that still remain unanswered.
Yet even in the month since the House impeachment proceedings ended, many new details have emerged in unexpected and unconventional ways. All are damaging to President Trump. Some are real doozies.
Many of the new facts came out over the holidays and early in the new year, when the nation’s attentions were elsewhere, so it is worth taking a moment to summarize what we have learned since the House approved two articles of impeachment against President Trump on December 20.
The new information falls roughly into five categories:
- Trump’s knowledge of the quid pro quo;
- the illegality of the scheme;
- Trump’s outsourcing of the State Department to Rudy Giuliani;
- the involvement in or awareness of the Ukraine scandal by other top administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Bill Barr, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and
- Russia’s ongoing interference in American elections.
Let’s discuss each of these in turn.
Trump’s Knowledge of the Pressure Campaign
The first category of new information bears on Trump’s knowledge of the Rudy Giuliani-led shakedown of Ukrainian President Zelensky, in which the withholding of a White House meeting and $391 million in Senate-approved aid was dangled in exchange for a derogatory announcement of an investigation into Trump’s rival for the presidency, Joe Biden. Congressional Republicans have carped about the purportedly thin record of Trump’s personal involvement in the scam, but that narrative is becoming harder and harder to articulate with a straight face. The new details include the following (but note that this list is hardly exhaustive):
- Two days after the articles of impeachment passed, 300 pages of new emails were made public through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the Center for Public Integrity. The material shows that 91 minutes after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, White House officials directed Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist to halt the monetary aid to Ukraine. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official who sent the email request, Michael Duffey, is among the four witnesses whom Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has asked to hear from in the impeachment trial. So far, Senate Republicans have signaled “no” to Duffey’s testimony. In a January 2, 2020 report, Just Security disclosed that it had reviewed unredacted copies of the emails, which span from June to early October 2019. In one of those emails, dated August 20, 2019, Duffey told the acting Pentagon comptroller, Elaine McCusker: “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.”
- John Bolton—a guy who, according to former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, called the Ukrainian scheme a “drug deal” that he refused be involved in—has made clear that he is willing to testify. Indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Bolton knows a lot about what happened in Trumpland.
- During their January 15 interview, Parnas told Maddow that “President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” that Parnas would never act “without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president,” and that Trump’s claims that he doesn’t know Parnas are lies. Although Parnas did not state that he had direct a conversation with Trump about the quid pro quo, he met with the president several times. Parnas instead worked through Giuliani, who told Parnas all along that he was updating Trump. Parnas told the New York Times that “I am betting my whole life that Trump knew exactly everything that was going on that Rudy Giuliani was doing in Ukraine.”
- Text messages and call logs handed over by Parnas’s lawyer to the House Intelligence Committee reveal that Parnas also communicated with Tommy Hicks, Jr., a Trump donor and family friend, and Joseph Ahearn, a pro-Trump fundraiser, about the Ukraine pressure campaign to spread unsubstantiated, damaging information about Biden and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Congress should hear from these Trump associates directly.
The Scheme’s Lawlessness
The second category of new information includes a report from a government oversight agency finding that the withholding of aid was against federal law, along with emails and text messages showing that officials within the Trump administration flagged the legal problems in real time. There is also additional information corroborating that Trump’s request for a “favor” of Zelensky in the infamous July 25 phone call had nothing to do with corruption in Ukraine and everything to do with smearing a U.S. citizen and political opponent.
- Parnas told Maddow that the quid pro quo involved more than just military aid. “It was all aid,” he said. Last week, the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report concluding that Trump’s halting of funding for Ukraine broke federal law for no good reason: “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.”
- Parnas also told Maddow that the scheme “was never about corruption” as Trump and his allies claim. “It was strictly about Burisma, which included Hunter Biden and Joe Biden.” Recall that Federal Election Commission chair Ellen Weintraub suggested in a tweet the day after release of the July 25 call summary that what Trump did was likely illegal, as “the Commission has recognized the ‘broad scope’ of the foreign national contribution prohibition and found that even where the value of a good or service ‘may be nominal or difficult to ascertain,’ such contributions are nevertheless banned.”
- Documents released through the FOIA action also show substantial efforts by Mulvaney and other alarmed officials within the Trump administration to gin up a justification for withholding the Ukraine aid after the whistleblower complaint became public. There was concern that Trump’s directive would violate the Impoundment Control Act, which requires the executive branch to notify Congress if appropriated money was held or shifted elsewhere. That never happened, as the GAO report confirms.
- In response to an email from Mulvaney inquiring “about the money for Ukraine and whether we can hold it back,” Mulvaney aide Robert B. Blair (another of the four witnesses that Schumer has requested to hear from at trial), wrote: “Expect Congress to become unhinged.” This is the same Congress that has Republicans virtually united behind Trump—despite his disregard for their own body’s constitutional prerogative to decide how taxpayer dollars are spent.
- In response to a separate FOIA request lodged by the New York Times, OMB issued a blanket refusal to turn over 40 pages of emails regarding the decision to freeze the aid. This information should be in the hands of Congress and the American public before trial starts this week. A lawsuit is now pending.
Trump’s Outsourcing of the State Department to Giuliani
The third category of information to recently come to light involves Trump’s bypassing of federal employees as he thumbed his nose at longstanding official U.S. policy towards Ukraine to instead have his private lawyer conduct foreign policy on his personal behalf.
- The documents released by Parnas’s lawyer show that, at Giuliani’s behest, Parnas was pushing not just for Zelensky’s announcement of negative information about Biden but also for the ouster of Yovanovitch. The information includes Parnas’s handwritten notes on hotel stationery, as well as communications with top aides to Zelensky and former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko.
- In the trove of documents that Parnas released is a letter from Giuliani to Zelensky, in which he states that “I am private counsel to President Donald J. Trump. Just to be precise, I represent him as a private citizen, not as President of the United States.” Giuliani then goes on to congratulate Zelensky “on a truly impressive victory in the recent election” and requests a meeting right away—the letter was dated May 10, 2019, and Giuliani asked for a meeting on May 13 or 14—with the president’s “knowledge and consent.”
- The text messages make clear that Giuliani was deeply involved in Trump’s firing of a Yovanovitch, a career U.S. diplomat. A new figure in the scandal, Republican congressional candidate from Connecticut Robert Hyde, repeatedly used expletive-filled language in discussing Yovanovitch, writing in one message to Parnas: “F— that b—-.” The texts suggest that Hyde had Yovanovitch under surveillance, although Parnas told Maddow he didn’t believe she was in danger. The day before Yovanovitch was informed that she was out of the State Department, Giuliani texted Parnas: “he fired her again.”
- Parnas’s text messages also reference Giuliani’s efforts to obtain a U.S. visa for Viktor Shokin, a former Ukrainian official who accused Biden of corruption and had been denied a visa under Yovanovitch’s watch. Giuliani wrote: “It’s going to work I have no 1 in it.” Parnas told Maddow that “no 1” referred to Trump.
- Ukraine has since announced an investigation into the possible surveillance of Yovanovitch. Secretary Pompeo weakly told one radio show host that “we will do everything we need to do to evaluate whether there was something that took place there,” and told another radio host that he’d “never heard about this at all. . . . Until this story broke, I had, to the best of my recollection, had never heard of this at all.”
The Involvement of Other Top Officials in the Ukraine Shakedown
Fourth, there is mounting evidence confirming suspicions that arose as far back as September: Trump’s top brass was either involved in or had knowledge of what he was doing. If Trump’s conduct is impeachable, these individuals on the federal payroll should be held accountable to the American people, too.
- Parnas told Maddow that the scheme involved numerous high-ranking Trump officials, including Pence and Barr, as well as Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee. Parnas said that “Barr had to have known everything. . . . Attorney General Barr was basically on the team.” As for the others, including Pence: “Everybody was in the loop.” This view corroborates the testimony of U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who said under oath in the House impeachment inquiry that “everyone was in the loop.” Recall too that the notes from Trump’s July 25 phone call to pressure Zelensky expressly referenced Barr, and Nunes’s conversations with Parnas are memorialized in AT&T call records.
- Parnas told Maddow that he told Serhiy Shefir, a top Zelensky aide, that Pence would cancel his planned trip to Zelensky’s inauguration unless Ukraine announced an investigation into the Bidens. When it was clear to Parnas that the announcement would not happen, he called Giuliani, who, according to Parnas, said, “OK, they’ll see.” The Pence trip was canceled the next day.
- Investigators from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, part of the Department of Justice, seized the documents from Parnas’s home on October 9, 2019, as part of its investigation and subsequent indictment of Parnas on federal campaign-finance-related charges. Under the leadership of Bill Barr, therefore, DOJ had this impeachment-related information from Parnas’s files for months—including prior to and during the entirety of the House’s formal impeachment proceedings—before it was finally shared with Congress. These files only came to light upon a request made by Parnas’s attorney, Joseph Bondy, to the federal judge overseeing Parnas’s criminal case.
The Danger Russia Still Poses for the 2020 Presidential Election
Oddly, the heart of the Trump impeachment has been lost in the partisanship of it all. National security depends on the the security of our elections, and Russia is clearly still at it.
- On January 13, a cybersecurity company reported that in early November 2019 the Russian government hacked the email credentials of workers at the Ukrainian oil company Burisma Holdings, which is at the center of the Trump impeachment story. (Hunter Biden served on Burisma’s board.) In his July 25 call, Trump urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and Burisma, but FBI Director Christopher Wray has said publicly that there is no evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election. In her testimony before the House, Fiona Hill called the accusations against Ukraine a “fictional narrative,” and made a plea to Congress that “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interest.”
By pushing the unsubstantiated Ukrainian corruption narrative in support of Trump’s corrupt actions, Republicans’ defense of Trump plays directly into the hands of Russian president Vladimir Putin. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller emphasized in his own testimony before the House Intelligence Committee: “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” He urged that “much more needs to be done to protect against this intrusion, not just by the Russians but by others as well,” warning Congress that “whatever legislation will encourage us . . . working together—the FBI, CIA, NSA and the rest—should be pursued. Aggressively. Early.”
People who care about the facts can only hope that all of this new evidence will be introduced at trial so that Americans get the full story they deserve. (Under Senate rules, Chief Justice John Roberts has the authority to rule on the admissibility of evidence, but could be overruled by a majority of the Senate.) Even so, the bigger hope is that Senate Republicans heed their oaths to uphold the Constitution when they each consider whether it’s worth putting a stop to Trump’s serial use of foreign governments to entrench his own power.
Alas, such hope is looking more like a fantasy. As former Rep. Carlos Curbelo—who lost his Florida district to a Democrat in 2018—explained to the Wall Street Journal in characterizing the pressures that congressional Republicans are facing: “If a member broke with the president on this issue, they’d be shouted at in public, approached in restaurants, the gym, and people would be very angry.”