White House

The Two Theories of Trump’s Actions in the Ukraine Affair

President Donald Trump responds to a question about Ukraine and the whistleblower report at the White House, October 2, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Both make the president’s conduct look foolish, but only one makes it look impeachable.

According to the media, Bill Taylor, the acting chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, delivered the coup de grâce to the Trump presidency earlier this week. Taylor testified before members of the House committees leading the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry behind closed doors, but his opening statement has been released to the public. Taylor’s theory of President Trump’s behavior is simple: Trump withheld hundreds of millions in congressionally authorized military aid to Ukraine in order to benefit himself politically going into 2020, in particular, leveraging the aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his potential 2020 opponent, Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter. All of Trump’s talk about corruption in Ukraine was largely a smokescreen for pressuring Kiev to investigate a political rival, at the expense of both American taxpayers and Ukrainian national security.

This theory — let’s call it the “Get Biden Theory”  is obviously plausible. The timeline fits. Trump’s own statements suggest that he isn’t averse to asking foreign powers to target his political opponents, from his open call for Vladimir Putin to release Hillary Clinton’s emails to his public request that China investigate the Bidens. Trump has never committed a bad act upon which he didn’t double down.

But there is another plausible theory — in my view, a more plausible theory. Let’s call this one the “Miasma of Corruption Theory.” It’s still damning for Trump, but damning in a different, non-impeachable way. Rather than the Get Biden Theory’s story of a scheming president seeking reelection by twisting American foreign policy to his personal benefit, the Miasma of Corruption Theory is the story of a petty, vindictive president focused on past slights and following bread crumbs left for him by his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani; a president who doesn’t trust his foreign-policy establishment; a president who believes conspiracy theories and refuses to let them go even when the evidence doesn’t support them. It’s the story not of a quid pro quo to help Trump in 2020, but of a quid pro quo to target a miasma of Trump-perceived “corruption” that the president believes led to the Russian-collusion narrative that damaged his legitimacy. If it’s true, Trump was foolish, stubborn, and wrong — but did not commit an impeachable offense.

In story No. 1, Trump is a strategic thinker who initiated the entire Ukraine scandal: He deployed Rudy Giuliani to go after Joe Biden, then militarized our aid to Ukraine to help Giuliani. In story No. 2, Trump was led astray by Giuliani and his own rich sense of grievance — but Trump’s withholding of military aid was less about hopes for 2020 than about 2016 grievances.

So, which is it? Let’s go to the evidence.

Rudy Giuliani, the Man with the Answers
This all begins with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. In June 2017, Giuliani visited Ukraine and met with President Petro Poroshenko and Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. In August 2018, Giuliani was hired by a company run by Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian businessman. Giuliani clearly began funneling information provided by Parnas, as well as Parnas’s partner, Igor Fruman, to Trump. In late 2018, Parnas and Fruman fixed up Giuliani with former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin, as well as prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko. According to Lutsenko, Giuliani pushed him to open investigations into the Bidens and Burisma. According to the New York Times, Giuliani met with Lutsenko multiple times in January 2019, allegedly asking Lutsenko about Burisma, the Bidens, and Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine. Giuliani told Trump about these conversations. In March 2019, Lutsenko opened two investigations, one into Burisma and one into the Bidens. According to the Times, Lutsenko accused Yovanovitch of corruption as well. Trump promptly tweeted:

By April, Trump was telling Sean Hannity that Attorney General William Barr might consider allegations about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. By April 29, Yovanovitch was being recalled. The Wall Street Journal would later report that Giuliani was telling Trump that Yovanovitch was “obstructing efforts to persuade Kyiv to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.”

In May 2019, The New York Times reported that Giuliani was set to visit Ukraine:

Mr. Giuliani’s planned trip, which has not been previously reported, is part of a monthslong effort by the former New York mayor and a small group of Trump allies working to build interest in the Ukrainian inquiries. Their motivation is to try to discredit the special counsel’s investigation; undermine the case against Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s imprisoned former campaign chairman; and potentially to damage Mr. Biden, the early front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Days later, Giuliani did an interview with Fox News in which he talked about his theory that Ukraine had worked with the Clinton campaign in 2016, and discussed Joe Biden’s relationship with son Hunter. Days later, Trump told Politico that it would be appropriate to ask Barr to open an investigation into the Bidens. “I have not spoken to him about it,” Trump said. “Would I speak to him about it? I haven’t thought of that.”

All of this was the backdrop to Trump’s decision to pressure Ukraine. Was Giuliani telling Trump that he had a way of “getting” Biden? Or was he telling Trump that bad actors in Ukraine had covered up Ukrainian election interference in 2016 and Biden-related corruption? Here’s what Giuliani tweeted in June 2019:

This language has been parroted by Trump. Was Giuliani coordinating with Trump to “get” Biden, or was Biden merely part of a broader “ball of corruption” Giuliani was supposedly attempting to fight? We won’t know until Giuliani testifies. Either way, Trump decided to withdraw military aid from Ukraine contingent on Ukrainian public commitments to fight “corruption” — which, in Trump’s mind, included 2016 election interference and the Bidens.

Even today, Giuliani continually insists that his Ukrainian efforts were aimed at defending his client, Trump — presumably from charges of Trump–Russia collusion in 2016 — and not aimed at targeting Biden specifically:

The Phone Call
According to the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky released by the White House, Trump asks Zelensky for a favor, “because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike. . . . I guess you have one of your wealthy people. . . . The server, they say Ukraine has it. . . . They say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.” Here, Trump is referring to the baseless conspiracy theory that Russia was framed by Ukraine for the 2016 hack and subsequent release of a damaging tranche of Democratic National Committee emails, which involves a supposed “secret” DNC server being spirited away to and hidden in Ukraine. He seems to be asking Zelensky to investigate the conspiracy theory, presumably in hopes that it would remove the taint of Russian interference from his 2016 victory.

Zelensky responds by mentioning Giuliani. Trump jumps on the mention, saying, “Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.” Then he adds, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”

So, is the call evidence of Trump seeking a quid pro quo to “get Biden,” or a pressure campaign to fight Trump’s Giuliani-fueled idea of “corruption” — including but not exclusively focused on Biden — in Ukraine?

The Texts
That difference of opinion is clear from the texts revealed between Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Taylor. In those texts, Volker says, after explaining that he has fixed up a meeting between Giuliani and a Ukrainian representative, “Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation — and address any specific personnel issues — if there are any.” Volker would later reiterate this point: “Heard from White House — 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. Good luck!” It appears that the American diplomats have fully accepted that Trump is simply listening to Giuliani now, and that pleasing Giuliani, and thus Trump, is the key to restoring aid. Taylor was incredulous about all of this, and read the investigations as a pretext for getting Biden from the start: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” He texted again, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland responded, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text…”

Sondland’s Testimony
Sondland’s written testimony suggests his confusion about Trump’s agenda. He acknowledges that “Corruption poses challenges to the legitimacy and stability of government; corruption is also an economic issue.” He also says that, “President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns. It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani.” He goes on to explain that, “based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.”

He says he “did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.” He also says that he had spoken to Giuliani in “short conversations” in which Giuliani “emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President.”

He denies any mention of the Bidens. He also says that his statement that “no quid pro quos” had taken place came directly from conversations with Trump: “I asked the President: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’ The President responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.’ The President repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the President was in a bad mood.”

Taylor’s Testimony
In contrast with Sondland’s lack of clarity on Trump’s agenda, Taylor seems convinced that the entire Giuliani hunt was about Biden specifically, and that Trump withheld the aid to target Biden. His written testimony repeatedly suggests as much. Like Sondland, he says he found that Giuliani was actually running the Ukraine show. “By mid-July,” he testified, “it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskyy wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”

Later, he says, he realized that security assistance was also conditioned on these terms: “I sent Ambassador Sondland a text message asking if “we [are] now saying that security assistance and [a] WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Ambassador Sondland responded asking me to call him, which I did. During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.”

But again, this statement leaves unclear whether this effort was about clearing the decks for 2020, or whether it was about a badly informed, vindictive, but sincere attempt to cleanse Ukraine of “corruption.” Taylor obviously believes the former — he stated that the term “investigations” was “used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.”

But were there open questions to ask about the Bidens? Would Trump have to be motivated by a simple desire to “get the Bidens” rather than to wrap up the Burisma/Biden investigation in the broader rubric of fighting corruption in Ukraine — an issue Trump found urgent because he had both read the media coverage of Ukraine’s cooperation with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and believed the conspiracy theories about CrowdStrike?

Mulvaney’s Statements
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff, has been roped into this debacle by virtue of Trump’s ordering him to effectuate the withholding of the military aid. He gave a rather disastrous press conference in which he suggested that Trump had indeed engaged in a quid pro quo. But his comments didn’t clear up the nature of the quid pro quo itself: Was it about Biden or about Trump’s perceptions of Ukrainian corruption? Mulvaney seemed to suggest the latter: “Did he also mention to me in the past, the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money. . . . The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.”

Trump’s Statements
Trump has obviously not done himself any favors in his public statements on this whole mess. He continuously breathes life into the worst theory of events. He says, for example, that he’d like to see China investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden; he says he’d accept information about his political rivals from foreign sources; he continually cites Giuliani, and mouths idiocies about obvious conspiracy theories. But that doesn’t change the questions that surrounds his behavior here: Was it an attempt to get Biden, or a petty, foolish, misinformed attempt to fight the “corruption” that he believes targeted him in 2016? And more to the point, has Trump committed an impeachable offense?

Is it Impeachable?
The answer to that question clearly depends on whether you believe the Get Biden Theory or the Miasma of Corruption Theory. If Trump was out to get Biden, he effectively tried to bribe a foreign government with American military aid to target an American citizen. If he was out to fight the miasma of corruption, Trump was simply engaging in precisely the same sort of activity about which Joe Biden himself bragged: Biden bragged in 2016 that he withheld loan guarantees to Ukraine in order to force the Ukrainian government to fight corruption by firing a corrupt prosecutor.

These theories are mutually exclusive only because the Get Biden Theory forecloses the possibility that Biden could have been investigated as part of a generalized and non-2020-oriented push to investigate Ukrainian corruption. The answer to whether the Bidens could ever be legitimately investigated by Ukraine thanks to pressure from Trump is the distinguishing point of the two theories. Under the Get Biden Theory, the answer is no — even as part of a broader Ukrainian anti-corruption push, the mere mention of Biden would turn that push into a corrupt effort to use American taxpayer dollars to skew the 2020 election. Under the Miasma of Corruption Theory, investigating the Bidens doesn’t automatically mean that Trump was aiming at 2020 electioneering; rather, it means he was obsessed over 2016 and wanted everything he’d ever heard from Rudy Giuliani investigated on that score.

Given the evidence we’ve seen, there is a vanishingly small number of people who can answer the question of Trump’s intent here, and clear up which theory is correct: Trump himself, Rudy Giuliani, and any third parties Trump or Giuliani made aware of their machinations. One way or another, though, we will come to know the truth.

Most Popular

White House

On the Bidens, Schiff Opened the Door

You opened the door. Trial lawyers live in fear of that phrase. When a trial starts, both sides know what the allegations are. Both have had enough discovery to know what the adversary will try to prove. Just as significantly, both know what their own vulnerabilities are. A litigator spends his pretrial ... Read More
White House

On the Bidens, Schiff Opened the Door

You opened the door. Trial lawyers live in fear of that phrase. When a trial starts, both sides know what the allegations are. Both have had enough discovery to know what the adversary will try to prove. Just as significantly, both know what their own vulnerabilities are. A litigator spends his pretrial ... Read More
Elections

Buttigieg’s Hollow Military Bragging

The term “veteran” wields a strange talismanic power in American politics today; the military is almost the only institution in American life that has maintained very high favorability ratings over the past 30 years. Invocation of the sacred words “military service” invariably grants a presumed license to ... Read More
Elections

Buttigieg’s Hollow Military Bragging

The term “veteran” wields a strange talismanic power in American politics today; the military is almost the only institution in American life that has maintained very high favorability ratings over the past 30 years. Invocation of the sacred words “military service” invariably grants a presumed license to ... Read More
White House

Impeachment Doesn’t Require a Crime

Senate Republicans, by and large, have reached an unspoken consensus about President Trump and Ukraine. He should not have put a temporary freeze on congressionally authorized aid to Ukraine, should not have dabbled with using the aid to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden or a nutty theory about Ukrainian ... Read More
White House

Impeachment Doesn’t Require a Crime

Senate Republicans, by and large, have reached an unspoken consensus about President Trump and Ukraine. He should not have put a temporary freeze on congressionally authorized aid to Ukraine, should not have dabbled with using the aid to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden or a nutty theory about Ukrainian ... Read More
World

Alarmists Were Wrong about the Soleimani Strike

Two weeks ago, the United States seemed on the brink of starting another war in the Middle East after a drone strike killed Iran’s most notorious spymaster, Qasem Soleimani, as he departed an international airport in Baghdad. The shadowy general, in charge of the Iranian equivalent of the CIA, was one of the ... Read More
World

Alarmists Were Wrong about the Soleimani Strike

Two weeks ago, the United States seemed on the brink of starting another war in the Middle East after a drone strike killed Iran’s most notorious spymaster, Qasem Soleimani, as he departed an international airport in Baghdad. The shadowy general, in charge of the Iranian equivalent of the CIA, was one of the ... Read More
Media

The Denver Post Has a Personnel Problem

The Denver Post has fired the wrong person. It should can its incompetent opinion editor, Megan Schrader. The story (told by our Madeleine Kearns here) is this: Jon Caldara of the Denver-based Independence Institute had long written a weekly column for the Denver Post, but was fired over taking an ... Read More
Media

The Denver Post Has a Personnel Problem

The Denver Post has fired the wrong person. It should can its incompetent opinion editor, Megan Schrader. The story (told by our Madeleine Kearns here) is this: Jon Caldara of the Denver-based Independence Institute had long written a weekly column for the Denver Post, but was fired over taking an ... Read More