WASHINGTON - Some of President Donald Trump’s allies have argued that his motivation for holding up almost $400 million in aid to Ukraine was his deep-seated concern about corruption - and that he needed to test the new Ukrainian administration’s dedication to rooting it out.
In persistent questioning during the House hearings, Republican lawmakers and their staff lawyer have pressed witnesses to agree that Ukraine has long had a corruption problem and to portray Trump's desire to have Kyiv investigate his political rivals as fitting within that broader worry.
“Corruption is not just prevalent in Ukraine. It’s the system. Our president said time out, time out, let’s check out this new guy,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said last week, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But while there is widespread agreement that Ukraine has long struggled with corruption, recent congressional testimony, along with interviews with officials who worked closely with the president, raise questions about how much Trump cared about corruption broadly in Ukraine as opposed to investigations that stood to benefit him politically.
The president "doesn't give a s--- about Ukraine," E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland told colleagues in Kyiv after getting off a July 26 phone call with Trump, according to testimony given to Congress this week diplomat David Holmes. Sondland added that the president only cared about politically motivated investigations, like having Zelensky launch a probe into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, according to Holmes.
Four former administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, shared Sondland's view and said Trump's main contention was that Ukrainians had "tried to take me down," in the words of one former senior administration official.
Trump angrily complained, this official said, that they had Hillary Clinton's email server, a reference to an unfounded theory that Democrats conspired with Ukrainians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Sondland and other officials said in testimony that that view was shaped by Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer.
Officials said Trump described Ukraine as a problem because it caused tensions with Russia and sucked security money out of the United States. He begrudgingly approved the military aid in 2017 after being repeatedly pushed by national security officials.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that early in the Trump administration, he met with then Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who testified as part of the impeachment inquiry last week about her ouster from her post earlier this year.
"My sense was she was not operating within the daily oversight of the State Department, of Foggy Bottom. She had discretion. Folks in D.C. weren't paying attention," Murphy said during a September interview. "For much of the past two years, the Trump administration couldn't care less about Ukraine."
Current and former aides say Trump did not understand the specifics of endemic corruption in the country and did not care to learn - only caring about the "big stuff," also in the words of Sondland, according to Holmes, who serves as a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
"I noted that there was, quote, unquote, big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant, quote, unquote, 'big stuff' that benefits the president, like the, quote, unquote, 'Biden investigation' that Mr. Giuliani was pushing. The conversation then moved on to other topics," Holmes testified. The president was more interested that day, he said, in helping free hip-hop artist A$AP Rocky from a Swedish jail as a favor to son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Kardashian family.
When officials pushed for Trump to question the Ukrainians on corruption in his first call in April with Zelensky, he did not raise the topic from Air Force One, even though a White House readout of the call said he did.
"To the best of my knowledge, he did not," Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified Tuesday when asked if Trump followed "talking points" urging him to bring up the issue of corruption during the April call.
Instead, he touted the strength of the U.S. economy and brought up his previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant.
"When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people," the president said. "Ukraine was always very well represented."
In the July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump does not bring up broader Ukrainian corruption, but instead mentions "CrowdStrike, the server," a reference to his belief that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, and investigating the Bidens - issues tied to his political fortunes.
"I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair," Trump said of Yuri Lutsenko, a Ukrainian prosecutor who was providing information to Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. "A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved."
Yovanovitch and others shared a different view of Lutsenko. When asked if he was corrupt, she said, "That was our belief."
"It was disappointing, it was concerning, it wasn't certainly based on anything that the State Department would have reported, or frankly anybody else in the U.S. government," she said of Trump's comments about Lutsenko. "Frankly, there was an interagency consensus that while when Mr. Lutsenko came into office we were very hopeful that he would do the things he would set out to do, including the prosecutor general's office, but that did not materialize."
Other officials who have testified in the impeachment inquiry described Lutsenko as part of an effort joined by Giuliani to get rid of Yovanovitch through a smear campaign because of her focus on corruption.
Time and time again, U.S. officials have said anti-corruption efforts were part of U.S. policy in Ukraine.
"The leaders agreed on the importance of expanding bilateral trade and investment, and the Vice President underscored the need for continued reforms to fight corruption, increase transparency, and improve the business climate," read the March 2018 readout of Vice President Mike Pence's call with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
But Trump has rarely voiced similar concerns, even when meeting with Ukrainian officials.
When officials met with him in the Oval Office in May after Zelensky's inauguration, Trump was fixated on what he believed the Ukrainians had done to him, The Washington Post has reported, and was not interested in discussing much else.
"All I remember was being incredibly frustrated that we couldn't have a dialogue with the president about our findings," Sondland told lawmakers, according to a transcript released by House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry." He said he and the other officials who met with Trump that day wanted to tell the president that Zelensky was a promising leader who could change the country and tackle its corruption problem.
Holmes, the State Department official who dined with Sondland in Kyiv, described Trump as delivering a "blow" to the United States' anti-corruption effort by removing Yovanovitch, who has been praised by U.S. officials for her focus on cleaning up Ukraine.
Vindman wrote the official readout saying Trump spoke to the Ukrainians about corruption on the April call where the president did not, officials said. Asked about that Tuesday, he said the government wanted to send a message even if it wasn't delivered by the president.
“Our whole commitment was to get rid of corruption and stop that Russian aggression,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said during Tuesday’s hearing with Vindman. “The Giuliani, Sondland, Trump policy was not about that, it was about investigations into a political opponent.”