Kurt Volker knew by early July that he and other Trump administration officials had a problem. More precisely, he realized, “There’s a Giuliani problem here.”
That is what the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine told the House panels leading Democrats’ impeachment inquiry just weeks ago, referring to Rudolph Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney. The former U.S. attorney and New York City mayor is at the forefront of testimony that Volcker and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, gave the House committees. Giuliani’s name comes up over and over, with both officials raising concerns about his role in American diplomacy despite having no government position.
Transcripts of the duo’s hours before lawmakers also reveal officials’ concern about a confusion about U.S. policy toward Ukraine, senior administration officials competing against one another and how Giuliani’s sway with Trump pushed his boss into a predicament that could make him just the third sitting president to be impeached by the House.
Here are three takeaways about the Trump White House from the Volker and Sondland transcripts.
The ‘Giuliani factor’
Volker told lawmakers that earlier this year he “could see we have a problem” in the form of a “negative feed” about Ukraine and its new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which he had concluded was coming through Giuliani.
That “feed” led directly to Trump. It was, he said under oath, “reinforcing a negative perception of the president,” referring to Zelenskiy.
Volker testified that he tried setting up more regular communications with Giuliani in an attempt to get the administration’s Ukraine policy “in the box.” But, he and Sondland made clear to the committees, they failed to do so. The duo, and others, were unable to overcome what Volker described as Trump’s “longstanding” skepticism of Ukraine.
Asked by Foreign Affairs Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania if that skepticism existed before Giuliani might have imparted some of his opinions on Trump, Volker replied: “Well, what I can say is that when I briefed the President and then participated in his meeting with [former Ukraine] President Poroshenko in September 2017, it was already clear then that he had a very skeptical view of Ukraine.”
The testimony shows just how weary U.S. diplomats were of Giuliani — and how they treated him like something of a pariah. To that end, Volker let the panels know he “met Mr. Giuliani in person only once, at a reception at which I briefly shook his hand in 2015,” and only learned in May that Trump wanted Ukraine matters to flow through his personal lawyer, and then only had “two or three” telephone conversations with him after that.
When Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., asked Sondland if it is “a reasonable position” for any sitting president of the United States to look into what he allegedly thought were legitimate acts of corruption by former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden in Ukraine, Sondland resisted taking a position. But he notably did not endorse Giuliani’s involvement.
“I can’t express an opinion on that. I don’t know legally if the president has the right to do that. Again, I’m not a lawyer. I think that’s really between the president and his, you know, the electorate, as to whether the voters think that that’s proper or not.”
So concerned was Volker about Giuliani having Trump’s attention about Ukraine that he once pulled aside Zeleskiy and a top aide during a reception to explain what he once called “the Giuliani factor.”
“I explained that I thought … there is a negative narrative about Ukraine that is counteracting all the good things that he is doing, and that we are officially communicating back, and that this is being amplified by Rudy Giuliani,” he said under oath.
Ultimately, however, Volker and Sondland decided to play ball with the president’s arrangement — but both claim to have steered clear of “Rudy.”
West Wing war
The transcripts are merely the latest descriptions of a West Wing and administration in which senior officials are secretive with one another about their true policy views — and jockeying for position to get theirs into Trump’s mind as key decisions are nearing deadlines.
Sondland described harmony between U.S. diplomats in Ukraine and Brussels and the White House National Security Council about how they were engaging Zelenskiy, who ran as an anti-corruption reformer. It was only months after those efforts began that Sondland realized there was a problem.
“I understood following the meeting, as reflected in the summary of a phone call the next day between [Energy] Secretary [Rick] Perry and Ambassador [John] Bolton, that there was a difference of opinion between Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and myself, on the one hand, and the NSC on the other,” he testified. (Bolton was then Trump’s national security adviser.)
“We three favored promptly scheduling a call and meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelenskiy; the NSC did not,” Sondland told lawmakers. But Bolton and other top NSC officials never informed the diplomats that they “harbored any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing.
“They never shared those misgivings with me, then or later. We had regular communications with the NSC about Ukraine, both before and after the July meeting,” he said. “[No one] on the NSC staff ever expressed any concerns to me about our efforts, any complaints about coordination between State [Department] and the NSC, or most importantly, any concerns that we were acting improperly. Furthermore, my boss, Secretary [Mike] Pompeo, was very supportive of our Ukraine strategy.”
But it wasn’t just with one another that the Trump officials were battling, further muddying the administration’s Ukraine efforts.
In his testimony, Volker blamed a senior Ukrainian defense official, Oleksandr Danyliuk, for a bad July 10 meeting at the White House with Bolton. That meeting is now one of several focal points in the House’s impeachment inquiry.
“He was getting into the weeds about restructuring the intelligence service, the security services in Ukraine, into the weeds about restructuring the Defense Ministry,” Volker said. “This is not the level of conversation you should be having with the National Security Advisor of the United States. You should be conveying a much more top-line strategic message.”
Volker’s pinning the blame for the bad meeting on a wonky Ukrainian bureaucrat clashes with testimony provided by Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, who testified that the meeting was going well until Sondland brought up Trump’s desire for probes into his political rivals. At that point, Bolton cut the meeting short.
Who’s in charge?
The Volker and Sondland transcripts paint a portrait of a White House and administration in which key players lacked a grasp of who was in charge of Ukraine policy.
Both witnesses said they knew Trump had put out word at a May 23 meeting that Giuliani should be the conduit, but their testimony showed neither sought him out for guidance or directions.
Asked by Daniel Goldman, director of investigations for House Intelligence Committee Democrats, whether he tried to learn more about the former New York mayor’s misgivings about Ukraine, Sondland replied, “No.”
“I let the others work on it and I went back and worked on other things, because Volker and Perry were the ones who reached out to Giuliani,” he said as Goldman persisted.
“That wasn’t my question. My question is not whether you reached out to Mr. Giuliani. My question is whether you took it upon yourself in any way to figure out what Rudy Giuliani’s concerns about Ukraine were?” Goldman asked.
Sondland deflected blame for the situation to his colleagues.
“I got the information through Ambassador Volker, and he said that Mr. Giuliani was concerned about corruption, which we were also concerned about,” he said. “We had our meeting. They went off to deal with Giuliani. I went back to doing my thing.”
Lindsey McPherson and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.