US envoy to Ukraine raised alarm over Trump aid threat

The top US diplomat in Ukraine raised concerns that the Trump administration was withholding aid to pressure Kiev into helping Donald Trump find dirt on Joe Biden, according to text messages released by House committees leading the impeachment investigation into the US president.

Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Kiev, texted Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU, in early September to express his misgivings as officials were trying to set up a meeting between Mr Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president.

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH [White House] meeting are now conditioned on investigations?” he wrote. 

Mr Sondland, a former fundraiser for Mr Trump, replied: “Call me.”

The text messages were part of a tranche of exchanges released late on Thursday after Kurt Volker, the former US special envoy for Ukraine who resigned last week, appeared before the House intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight panels on Capitol Hill. 

The messages revealed that Mr Sondland and Mr Volker were part of an effort to get the Ukrainian leader to say he would investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who had Ukrainian business dealings, in exchange for a White House meeting with Mr Trump.

The revelations came on the same day that Mr Trump publicly urged China to look into Hunter Biden’s business dealings, in a move that drew universal condemnation from Democrats. Republicans have struggled to respond to the latest developments because of concerns that criticising Mr Trump would jeopardise their political careers.

The Financial Times on Thursday contacted the offices of all 53 Republican senators, but not one responded to say that they had concerns about the outreach to China, a country that the White House has labelled as a US adversary and revisionist power.

Later, Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator, said any concerns about Mr Biden’s son were a matter for US courts, and “not communist tyrants running torture camps”. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who will retire from the House next year, told CNN that Mr Trump’s comments were “terrible”.

Mr Trump defended himself in a tweet on Friday morning: “As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens. This does have to do with their corruption!”

The text messages between the US diplomats, which included exchanges with Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to the Ukrainian leader, came over a three-month period during which the White House struggled to explain why it was withholding $391m in aid that Congress had authorised to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.

A week after their first conversation, Mr Taylor texted Mr Sondland again. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he said.

His doubts prompted a rebuttal from Mr Sondland, who told him that he was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions”.

“The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind . . . I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” he continued.

The revelations come a week after the release of a whistleblower complaint by an anonymous CIA officer, which alleged that White House officials were concerned Mr Trump had pressured Mr Zelensky to investigate Mr Biden, his potential rival in the 2020 presidential race, and Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian business dealings.

That week, the White House released a partial transcript of the July 25 call between the presidents in which Mr Trump asked for “a favour”. He asked for help investigating the origins of Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. 

Mr Trump also asked Mr Zelensky to look into the former vice-president and Hunter Biden, who previously served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma — a request that helped spark the impeachment inquiry. 

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Mr Volker used a series of text messages in July with Mr Sondland and Mr Yermak to try to set up the presidential meeting. The exchanges reveal that they wanted Mr Zelensky to announce that he would help Mr Trump pursue the investigations.

In one exchange after he had just met Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Mr Volker wrote to Mr Sondland: “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation….”

Two days later, Mr Taylor texted Mr Sondland about a conversation with Mr Volker in which the two diplomats had noted that Mr Zelensky was “sensitive” Ukraine be taken seriously and “not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, re-election politics”.

Mr Volker texted Mr Yermak four days later to say the White House had said that “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”.

According to the testimony that Mr Volker gave Congress, the former diplomat said he urged Ukraine not to do anything that would be seen as interfering in the 2020 US election.

“As I was aware of public accusations about the vice-president [Biden], several times I cautioned the Ukrainians to distinguish himself between highlighting their own efforts to fight corruption domestically . . . and doing anything that could be seen as impacting US elections,” he told the House intelligence, foreign affairs, and intelligence panels.

In a text exchange with the Financial Times late on Thursday, Mr Volker denied there was an effort to investigate the Bidens. He said the name “never came up” and that any such inference was “not an accurate characterisation”. 

But in an exchange released by the House committees, in which Mr Yermak said Mr Zelensky would hold a press conference that would mention Burisma and election meddling, Mr Volker responded: “Sounds great!”

In a separate exchange with Mr Sondland, Mr Volker said they should pay “special attention” to the problem of political interference in the US because of the involvement on some unnamed Ukrainian politicians. 

After saying it was “unacceptable”, he said they would hold a “transparent and unbiased investigation . . . including those involving Burisma and the 2016 US elections”.

Mr Volker did not respond to questions about whether there were other text messages that showed his opposition to investigating Burisma. 

The heads of the three Democrat-controlled committees — Eliot Engel, Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings — asked their members to “join us in condemning in the strongest terms the president’s now open defiance of our core values as American citizens to guard against foreign interference in our democratic process”.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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