the national interest

The Ukraine Scandal Is Not One Phone Call. It’s a Massive Plot.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

On July 25, President Trump held a phone call in which he repeatedly leaned on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and Paul Manafort’s prosecutors. The episode is so blatantly inappropriate even Trump’s most fervent apologists are, with a few exceptions, having trouble defending it. What they are trying to do, instead, is define this phone call as the entire scandal. Trump emphasizes that he “didn’t specifically mention the explicit quid pro quo” of military aid in return for the investigation.

That is true, as far as it goes. The quid pro quo in the call, though perfectly apparent, is mostly implicit. But the real trick in Trump’s defense is framing the call as the entire scandal. The scandal is much more than that. The call is a snapshot, a moment in time in a months-long campaign that put American policy toward Ukraine at the disposal of Trump’s personal interests and reelection campaign.

Last spring, Rudy Giuliani was openly pressuring Kiev to investigate Joe Biden. Giuliani told the New York Times, “We’re meddling in an investigation … because that information will be very, very helpful to my client.” The key word there was “we’re.” The first-person plural indicated Giuliani was not carrying out this mission alone. A series of reports have revealed how many other government officials were involved in the scheme.

When Trump ordered military aid to Ukraine to be frozen, he went through his chief of staff and budget director Mick Mulvaney. Congress had passed the aid, and Ukraine was under military attack from Russia, a fact that made the halting of the assistance worrisome to numerous officials in two branches of government. As the Times reported, lawmakers and State Department staffers were asking why the money hadn’t gone through.

They were given cover stories: Lawmakers “were first told the assistance was being reviewed to determine whether it was in the best interest of foreign policy,” the Times reported this week. “Other administration officials said, without detail, there was a review on corruption in Ukraine, according to current and former officials. Then, as August drew to a close, other officials told lawmakers they were trying to gauge the effectiveness of the aid, a claim that struck congressional aides as odd.”

Lots of officials were involved in disseminating these cover stories to hide the fact that Trump held back the aid to leverage Ukraine to investigate Biden. One of them was Mike Pence, who told some confused officials that the aid was being held up “based on concerns from the White House about ‘issues of corruption.’” Pence knew perfectly well what this really meant — asked point blank if the aid was being held up over Ukraine’s failure to investigate Biden, he replied “as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.” In other words, yes, Ukraine needed to investigate Biden if it wanted the money.

Giuliani, though is the central figure. He has employed very little subterfuge. Giuliani told the Washington Post he kept Trump informed of his work in Ukraine for months, and declared, “My narrow interest is for the benefit of my client.” The apparent reason for his candor was to make it known to Ukraine that he was not a goofy cable-television blatherer but the president’s designated representative for Ukraine policy. If Ukraine wanted to get anything done, it had to work with Rudy.

Ukraine got the message. Its officials “expressed concern to U.S. senators that the aid had been held up as a penalty for resisting that pressure” to investigate Biden, reports the Wall Street Journal.

American foreign policy operates in regimented and bureaucratized ways. Turning over the machinery to the president’s personal attorney, who is not a foreign-policy expert or even a government employee, distorted the entire process, in ways that were noticeable throughout the government. The Washington Post has the most detailed account of the contortions. Giuliani circumvented unhelpful diplomats, even replacing one deemed troublesome. Several meetings on Ukraine policy at the White House leading up to the July 25 call “led some participants to fear that Trump and those close to him appeared prepared to use U.S. leverage with the new leader of Ukraine for Trump’s political gain.”

The White House–issued summary of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky shows the American president pressing his counterpart to undertake the twin investigations. After Trump asks Zelensky to investigate Biden, and Zelensky makes accommodating noises in response, Trump promises to have Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr call him. Barr also was involved in preventing Congress from seeing the whistle-blower complaint, and the call summary shows that he had a personal interest in doing so. Add Barr to the list of impeachment witnesses.

There may be many others. Last night on Fox News, Giuliani held up a phone he said included messages with official authorization for his activities. “You know who I did it at the request of? The State Department,” he said. The scheme to shake down Ukraine was a massive plot, spreading through the government and corrupting multiple officials. Trump had a lot of accomplices.

The Ukraine Scandal Is Not One Call. It’s a Massive Plot.