WASHINGTON – Two Cabinet secretaries. The acting White House chief of staff. A bevy of career diplomats. President Donald Trump’s personal attorney. And at the center of the impeachment inquiry, the president himself.
Over two weeks of closed-door testimony, a clear portrait has emerged of a president personally orchestrating the effort to pressure a foreign government to dig up dirt on a potential 2020 political rival – and marshaling the full resources of the federal bureaucracy to help in that endeavor.
On Thursday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney waded further into the morass, saying during a rare news conference that he understood Trump to be asking for a quid pro quo with his Ukrainian counterpart – only to attempt to retract those comments in a bellicose statement six hours later.
“We do – we do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said when asked about a quid pro quo during the news conference, adding moments later: “And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Contrary to weeks of denials from the president and his defenders, a growing body of evidence makes clear it was Trump himself who repeatedly pushed his own government and a foreign power to intervene in domestic political concerns, enlisting and ensnaring a growing number of administration officials in a way that increasingly made even some members of his own team uncomfortable.
The wave of witnesses reflects the growing peril enveloping Trump amid the burgeoning inquiry, which he and some top aides have tried to block by refusing to abide by congressional subpoenas. Not only are a growing number of officials and longtime employees choosing to come forward with damaging evidence, the narrative they are laying out points to potential violations of law, including prohibitions on accepting campaign help from a foreign entity, that bolster the case for impeachment.
The prepared testimony Thursday of Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, showed how deeply the president involved himself in the Ukraine negotiations that are the focus of the inquiry, and the extent to which he outsourced Ukraine policy to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
“I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” Sondland said, according to his prepared remarks.
Yet despite his discomfort, Sondland said that because he and his team had been “given the president’s explicit direction,” the group “agreed to do as President Trump directed” and involved Giuliani in the ongoing Ukraine discussions.
At the core of the impeachment inquiry is Trump’s request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – while the United States was withholding nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine – for “a favor” in the form of investigating former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as detailed in a rough transcript of a July 25 call between the two leaders that was released by the White House under public pressure.
Sondland’s prepared remarks depict an atmosphere where diplomats at times felt trapped, torn between what they believed was right and the directives the president was issuing. Returning to the United States after attending Zelenksy’s inauguration, Sondland said that he and the U.S. delegation urged Trump to arrange both a phone call and an Oval Office visit with Zelensky – only to be told by the president that he had concerns about Ukraine, and that they should talk to Giuliani about them.
“Based on the president’s direction, we were faced with a choice,” Sondland wrote in his testimony, explaining the Ukraine envoys felt they could either “abandon” their effort to improve relations between the two countries, “or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.” (Ultimately, they chose the latter.)
Finally, Sondland’s prepared notes made clear that after he called Trump to specifically ask about allegations that the president was withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for a political favor, Trump was upset with the mere question of impropriety.
“The president repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times,” the remarks state. “This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry also clarified just how adamant Trump was in ensuring that Giuliani be included in Ukraine discussions.
“Visit with Rudy,” Perry paraphrased the president as saying.
Perry told the paper that after he contacted Trump’s personal attorney as part of an effort to facilitate a meeting between the president and Zelensky, Giuliani relayed to him unsubstantiated concerns that Ukraine – not Russia, as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded – had interfered in the 2016 presidential elections.
On Thursday, Perry notified Trump in writing that he planned to resign soon.
As early as May, Giuliani began publicly pushing theories involving Ukraine for which he had no reliable evidence. He urged, for instance, a corruption investigation into Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was vice president. So far, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden or his son.
At the time, many viewed Giuliani’s efforts in the Ukraine as something of a personal passion project – the extracurricular schemes of an aging lawyer whose behavior even some in Trump’s own orbit considered erratic.
Now, however, as Giuliani has said himself and as a number of other witnesses have made clear, Giuliani was working at the behest of his client, the president of the United States.
In rough notes released by the White House of Trump’s controversial call with Zelensky, the president seems to view Giuliani as almost interchangeable with Attorney General William Barr, telling Zelensky he hoped the Ukrainians could work with Giuliani and Barr to root out corruption there, including investigating the Bidens.
Mulvaney, too, acted as an enabler, organizing a meeting in late May that stripped control of Ukraine policy from experts at the National Security Council and State Department. He reassigned control to Perry, Sondland and Kurt Volker, then the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine – a group that called themselves “The Three Amigos.”
Even those with less one-on-one interactions with Trump have offered testimony painting a picture of dysfunction at best – and malfeasance at worst – emanating down from the president.
Last Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told congressional investigators that she had been forced out of her post by “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.” Yovanovitch specifically named associates of Giuliani – two of whom have since been arrested over campaign finance violations – who she believe regarded her as a threat to their financial and political dealings.
On Monday, Fiona Hill, the White House’s former top Russia adviser, told investigators that on Ukraine, Giuliani ran a shadow foreign policy that bypassed traditional channels and career diplomats. Then-national security adviser John Bolton was so alarmed by Giuliani’s actions that he instructed Hill to alert White House lawyers about his efforts, she testified.
Hill also testified that Bolton said he wanted no part of any “drug deal” that the president’s allies were pursing with Ukraine, and that Bolton described Giuliani as a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
As for Sondland – a wealthy Oregon hotelier – Hill told investigators that she believed he was a possible national security threat because he was so out of his depth when it came to handling the administration’s Ukraine policy.
Then, on Wednesday, Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, testified that he had resigned the previous week in protest over how he believed the State Department had become politicized under Trump and Pompeo. McKinley, according to his prepared testimony, also cited his concerns over the administration’s efforts to pressure Zelensky into investigating the president’s political rivals.
“I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” McKinley said in his prepared remarks.
The steady stream of closed-door testimony, as well as public statements, contradicts Trump’s repeated claims that his phone call with Zelensky was “perfect” and “totally appropriate,” and that he did nothing wrong.
Nick Akerman, a prosecutor who investigated President Richard Nixon, said that unlike Watergate, when prosecutors struggled to figure out Nixon’s role in the events they were investigating, a growing body of evidence points directly to Trump.
“Here, you’ll have that in spades,” Akerman said. “All these individuals, all testifying that this is what happened. . . . It’s just cascading at this point.”
Akerman said that unlike Nixon’s loyal cadre of aides, Trump’s outer circle of aides and advisers are increasingly unwilling to shield him from what some view as his own dubious behavior.
“This is a situation where you’ve got a lot of people who are career people, extremely smart people who certainly don’t want their reputations smeared,” Akerman said. “Trump had to use these foreign services people and professionals. He didn’t speak Ukrainian and Russian. He couldn’t communicate his threat without these people. He was forced to use people whose loyalty was to the U.S. government and Constitution and not to him.”
And, he added, each new witness and detail seems to reveal a common thread: “You’ve got Trump clearly involved.”
The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.