How a CIA analyst, alarmed by Trump’s shadow foreign policy, triggered an impeachment inquiry

The lights are often on late into the evening at CIA headquarters, where a team of elite analysts works on classified reports that influence how the country responds to global crises.

In early August, one of those analysts was staying after hours on a project with even higher stakes. For two weeks, he pored over notes of alarming conversations with White House officials, reviewed details from interagency memos on the U.S. relationship with Ukraine and scanned public statements by President Trump.

He wove this material into a nine-page memo outlining evidence that Trump had abused the powers of his office to try to coerce Ukraine into helping him get reelected. Then, on Aug. 12, the analyst hit “send.”

His decision to report what he had learned to the U.S. intelligence community’s inspector general has transformed the political landscape of the United States, triggering a rapidly moving impeachment inquiry that now imperils Trump’s presidency.

ver the past three months, the allegations made in that document have been overwhelmingly substantiated — by the sworn testimony of administration officials, the inadvertent admissions of Trump’s acting chief of staff and, most important, the president’s own words, as captured on a record of his July 25 call with the leader of Ukraine.

As the impeachment inquiry entered a new phase of public hearings on Wednesday, the outlines of the case have been thoroughly established: the president, his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and two diplomats are alleged to have collaborated to pressure Ukraine to pursue investigations to bolster Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2016 election and damage the prospects of a potential opponent in next year’s election, former vice president Joe Biden.

To advance this hidden agenda, Trump and his allies orchestrated the ouster of a U.S. ambassador, the withholding of an Oval Office meeting from Ukraine’s new president and the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

But beyond that familiar fact pattern, the revelations reflect a country in political crisis.

The United States has embarked on an impeachment proceeding against a president for only the fourth time in its history. The voluminous testimony so far has revealed a government at war with itself over how to respond to Trump’s frequent conflation of the country’s interests with his own. After casting itself as a force against corruption, condemning politically driven prosecutions in other countries, the United States now appears to have sought to coerce such actions from a partner nation.

It is not clear whether any of this would have come to light were it not for the actions of a relatively junior CIA employee, who is now the target of almost daily attacks by Trump and right-wing efforts to make his identity widely public.

Dozens of senior officials — including the national security adviser, the secretary of state and the acting White House chief of staff — were either aware of or involved in the Ukraine scheme and failed to expose or stop it. More than a half-dozen lower-ranking officials made futile attempts to intervene.

Ultimately, it came down to a lone analyst, in a cubicle miles from the White House, drafting an unprecedented document in the detached manner he had learned in his CIA training.

“In the course of my official duties,” he wrote, “I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”

This article is based on interviews with dozens of U.S. and Ukrainian officials, the whistleblower report, the White House call record and thousands of pages of impeachment hearing transcripts. Many officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue and fear of retaliation.

The CIA declined to comment on all matters related to the whistleblower, including whether he is employed at the agency. The whistleblower’s lawyers also declined to comment.

THE IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS

Attempts to discredit the whistleblower have depicted him as driven by ideology or political grievance, secretly determined to unseat the president. The inspector general did note “an arguable political bias” on the part of the whistleblower but found his complaint “credible.”

Current and former officials familiar with the analyst’s actions said that he was daunted by the implications of his decision, both for the country and his career, and that he never contemplated becoming a whistleblower until learning about the nature of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The rough transcript of that call, which was released by the White House after the analyst’s concerns became public, shows Trump opening with congratulations on Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections and then transitioning swiftly into applying pressure.

“I would like you to do us a favor though,” Trump says, urging Zelensky to order investigations into a baseless claim that Kyiv is hiding computer equipment that would supposedly prove it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016; and into a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma Holdings, that had employed Biden’s son Hunter to serve on its board of directors for up to $100,000 a month.

In their 30-minute conversation, there was no mention of the two nations’ shared goals of repelling Russian aggression, no expression of broader concern about corruption, no reference to Ukraine’s desire for a closer relationship with the West.

The call is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives, rising above all other allegations or evidence in significance, according to senior officials involved in the probe.

“The call itself shows what we believe to be a misuse of power of the office of the presidency for personal gain,” said a senior Democratic official. “It quickly became the center of our investigation.”

Still, the official said, “We wanted to expand outward before and after the call. What was the impetus? Why was Trump asking about these investigations? Who was involved and who knew about it?”

The timing of Trump’s attempt to pressure Zelensky made it all the more extraordinary. One day earlier, former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had, in halting testimony before Congress, essentially ended any prospect that Trump would face impeachment for his campaign’s ties to Russia in 2016 or alleged efforts to obstruct the investigation into election interference that followed.

The Russia “cloud” that Trump has so frequently railed against had finally been lifted. And yet, within hours, he was exposing himself to new allegations of collusion, this time not with Russia, but with neighboring Ukraine.

On the call, however, Trump makes clear that he sees the two threats to his presidency as inextricably linked, and his attempt to pressure Ukraine appears driven by his refusal to accept the reality of Moscow’s interference and the stain he believes that left on his surprising win.

Midway through the call, Trump appears to gloat about the collapse of the Russia investigation. “That whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance,” Trump said. “But they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”

Several witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have said that Trump bears significant hostility toward Ukraine, stemming in part from the country’s role in exposing the financial corruption of his 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Trump began airing conspiratorial claims about Ukraine as early as April 2017. That month, he made a baseless allegation he has since repeated frequently: that Democratic Party officials had refused to let computers hacked by Russia be examined by the FBI and instead “brought in another company that I hear is Ukraine-based.”

The president, who derided Russia allegations against him as a “hoax,” was advancing one of his own.

The “blame Ukraine” idea gained additional traction after Trump hired Giuliani as his lawyer. The former New York mayor began scavenging the factionalized and often conspiratorial world of Kyiv politics for material that might be used to construct an alternate scenario of what happened in 2016 and help blunt the Mueller probe.

Early this year, as the Russia investigation neared its conclusion, Giuliani began meeting with Ukrainian officials, including the country’s top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, who were eager to gain an ally in the White House.

In the ensuing months, Giuliani appears to have functioned as a conduit for specious claims that made their way to Trump and right-wing media outlets. Among them were allegations that the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv was actively undermining Trump’s agenda and that Biden had used his power as vice president to derail a Ukraine corruption investigation into the company that had hired his son.

The allegations had important qualities in common: They were distortions, if not outright fabrications, and they were easier to spread than to disprove.

Giuliani’s activities became a source of concern to wary officials at the White House and the State Department in the early months of 2019, worries that intensified in May when U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was forced out of her position in Kyiv over baseless allegations against her and Giuliani seized on her ouster to declare that he would be pushing a new agenda in the U.S. relationship with Ukraine.

In a May interview with the New York Times, Giuliani declared that he would be traveling to Ukraine for meetings aimed at advancing investigations that “will be very, very helpful to my client.” He added: “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation.” Giuliani later scrapped the trip, telling Fox News that he wasn’t going because Zelensky was surrounded by enemies of the U.S. president — a statement that unnerved Zelensky’s team in Kyiv and sent them scrambling for advice about what to do.

Giuliani’s brazenness also caused confusion and alarm in the White House. Fiona Hill, who until July served as Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Ukraine, found herself tuning in to television coverage in a search for answers about Giuliani’s activities that she couldn’t get at work.

“I would have to go home in the evening and try to look on the news to see what Giuliani was doing,” Hill testified, “because people were constantly saying to me: ‘My God, have you seen what Giuliani is saying now?’ ”

National security adviser John Bolton also took to turning up the volume on the television set in his office whenever Giuliani appeared on-screen, an effort to get a sense of what the president’s personal lawyer was planting in Trump’s ear in their off-the-books conversations on Trump’s personal cellphone.

The ouster of Yovanovitch and the private calls between Trump and Giuliani marked the activation of a rogue front in the relationship with Ukraine that was at odds with established policy.

By month’s end, the division would crack open further as Giuliani acquired reinforcements.

In May, Trump blocked a plan to send Vice President Pence to Zelensky’s inauguration and instead dispatched a delegation that included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, a Trump megadonor with no diplomatic experience who had been named ambassador to the European Union.

On May 23, the trio, who dubbed themselves “the three amigos,” met with Trump in the Oval Office, eager to share their favorable impression of Zelensky as an anti-corruption reformer. “He didn’t want to hear about it,” Sondland said of Trump.

Instead, Trump railed that the Ukrainians were “horrible, corrupt people” and ordered the three men to “talk to Rudy.”

Trump’s grievances were so ingrained and irrational that the three officials decided, according to the testimony of Sondland and Volker, that they had no choice but to do as the president directed and hope that Giuliani could help them broker a meeting between Trump and Zelensky that might reset the American president’s views.

The three convinced themselves that they were serving the interests of Ukraine and the United States, even as they were drawn into a furtive scheme that Democrats say appeared to have elements of bribery: There would be no Oval Office meeting for Zelensky until he committed to Trump-specified, politically motivated investigations.

With a White House visit a distant goal, Sondland and Volker set their sights on an intermediate objective — a Trump-Zelensky phone call. As they pursued that, Hill and others at the White House chafed at the emergence of a new, seemingly unauthorized diplomatic channel.

On June 18, Hill had what she described as a “blow up” with Sondland after she challenged him to explain why the E.U. ambassador was meddling in the affairs of a country that is not part of his portfolio.

“Who has put you in charge of it?” Hill asked, according to her testimony. Sondland shot back: “The president.”

At the same time, a new obstacle for the three amigos emerged in Kyiv: William B. Taylor Jr., a veteran diplomat, had arrived as acting ambassador, armed with what he thought were rock-solid assurances that there would be no diminution in U.S. support for Ukraine.

But within weeks of his arrival, Taylor also began to sense the presence of what he would later call an “irregular” U.S.-Ukraine channel. On June 27, Sondland told Taylor by phone that hopes for a Trump-Zelensky meeting hinged on the Ukrainian leader making it clear that he did not stand in the way of “investigations.”

A day later, as Taylor, Sondland, Volker and Perry spoke by phone to prepare for a conference call with Zelensky, Sondland ordered State Department support staff off the line, saying he “wanted to make sure no one was transcribing” what they were about to say.

Volker then said he planned to meet with Zelensky in Toronto on July 2 to secure his commitment to “get to the bottom of things,” a cryptic reference that Taylor sensed was tied to the hidden agendas of Giuliani and Trump. Sondland told Volker to ask that Zelensky use the words “no stone unturned.”

Two weeks later, the irregular and regular channels collided in spectacular fashion in the White House. On July 10, two of Zelensky’s top advisers, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Andriy Yermak, were escorted into the West Wing for a meeting with Bolton.

Danylyuk, Ukraine’s national security adviser, had been coached by Sondland to press Bolton for a date for Zelensky and Trump to meet. But that advice proved misguided. Bolton was at that point against a meeting, in part because of concerns about Giuliani’s influence and Trump’s motives.

As Bolton resisted being pinned down, Sondland tried to intercede, telling the Ukrainians that an agreement was already in place and that Ukraine needed to commit to unspecified “investigations,” according to Hill, who witnessed the event.

Former national security adviser John Bolton. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Former national security adviser John Bolton. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Bolton, who had previously told subordinates that he worried Giuliani was a “hand grenade,” suddenly “stiffened and ended the meeting,” Hill testified.

Sondland, seemingly unperturbed, instructed the Ukrainians to follow him into a meeting room in the West Wing basement.

Bolton dispatched Hill to follow the group. When she reported back that Sondland had gone even further in the follow-up session by specifically mentioning Burisma, Bolton ordered her to report what she had heard to John Eisenberg, the National Security Council’s senior lawyer.

“Tell Eisenberg that I am not part of this drug deal that Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” he told her, referring to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, whom Sondland had depicted as an ally of his efforts on Ukraine.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a senior Ukraine specialist on Bolton’s staff, witnessed both meetings and also sought out Eisenberg. Vindman testified that it was in those sessions that he realized that Trump was using a White House meeting as leverage on investigations with Zelensky.

If Zelensky were to do as Trump asked and launch such probes, Vindman testified, it would damage Ukraine’s standing, weaken its ability to fight off Russian aggression and “this would all undermine U.S. national security.”

At the same time as the volatile meetings in the West Wing, Zelensky’s team was learning that even a phone call with Trump might have a price. Zelensky’s chief of staff was warned through backchannel communications that Giuliani, who was growing frustrated with a perceived lack of access and cooperation from Kyiv, would oppose even a call with Trump, according to Taylor and a person familiar with the message.

Eight days after the White House meeting, Taylor learned about a troubling new aspect of the effort to pressure Ukraine. In a July 18 video conference call with National Security Council officials, the acting ambassador “sat in astonishment” as an aide representing the Office of Management and Budget informed the others that $391 million in security aid to Ukraine was being put on hold. She offered no explanation, except to say that the order had “come from the president.”

“In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” Taylor testified. “The irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy.”

It was seven days before the Trump-Zelensky call.

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