President Donald Trump talks to journalists on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One and traveling to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 4, 2019, in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Damning text messages. Asking for China’s help in election interference. And much, much more.
Believe it or not, the Ukraine scandal embroiling President Donald Trump in an impeachment crisis is somehow only growing — and getting more damning for the White House by the hour.
On Thursday morning, the president once again encouraged Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election and then thought it would be a good idea to bring China into the mix.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “Because what happened to China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”
Then things heated up later that evening.
CNN reported that Trump raised former Vice President Joe Biden’s and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s political prospects on a June call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump also told the Chinese leader he’d stay quiet about the protests in Hong Kong, which China is very sensitive about, while the US and China continue trade talks.
The Wall Street Journal also reported Thursday evening that the real reason Trump recalled the US ambassador to Ukraine earlier this year was because his allies told him she wasn’t a fan of his and wasn’t particularly enthused about a probe into the Bidens. That corroborates claims in the whistleblower complaint and contradicts the government’s official reasoning for her return stateside.
That’s not all: After a 10-hour deposition of Kurt Volker, who just resigned as the top US envoy for Ukraine over the scandal, House Democrats released a select batch of text messages showing State Department diplomats working with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to compel Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in exchange for much-needed military aid.
That’s the exact “quid pro quo” Trump and his allies have been arguing the administration didn’t do.
And Friday morning, Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office announced it would reopen an investigation into the former chief of Burisma Holdings, the gas company on whose board Hunter Biden, Joe’s son, sat.
This scandal is moving fast, and the news along with it. So if you haven’t been able to keep up because you want to live your normal, non-impeach-y life, don’t worry: We’ve got you covered.
Here’s a brief rundown of the big Ukraine scandal news that broke in the last 24 hours.
Trump encouraged two countries to interfere in the 2020 election — on camera
You might remember that during the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Trump said the following at a July event: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing … I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
That comment, in part, led to claims that Trump was openly encouraging a foreign country to harm a political opponent for his benefit. Trump says it was a joke, of course, and that he would never, ever do something like that.
Then this Thursday, he did something like that.
I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens … and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens. Because what happened to China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.
The Ukraine stuff alone here is bad for Trump. But the China comment takes it to a whole new level.
It’s a reference to Trump’s false belief that Hunter Biden made billions from Chinese interests after going on a 2013 trip to the country with his father, who was vice president at the time. It’s a theory that has its origins in the conservative press fever swamp but one that Trump seems to believe pretty firmly.
The theory goes that Hunter got rich because he sat on the board of BHR Equity Investment Fund Management, a Shanghai-based private-equity firm that aimed to raise $1.5 billion in 2014. A conservative writer, Peter Schweizer, cited that number in his 2018 book on American political families and ties to China. The truth, though, is that Hunter bought 10 percent of the firm in 2017 — after Joe Biden left the vice presidency — giving him the equivalent of $420,000. Trump also believes Joe has made money from China, but it’s unclear exactly how.
A reporter then asked the president whether he’d made a private request to Chinese President Xi Jinping to open an investigation into the Bidens the way he did with Zelensky.
Trump responded: “It’s certainly something we can start thinking about, because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny where billions of dollars [are] taken out of his country.”
Let’s be 100 percent clear what happened here: While under an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives over allegations he asked Ukraine to try to dig up dirt on his 2020 political opponent, the president of the United States — publicly, on camera, in front of a gaggle of reporters — called on both Ukraine and China (arguably America’s largest geopolitical rival) to try to dig up dirt on his 2020 political opponent.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
CNN reports that Trump and Xi spoke about Joe Biden in June, too (!)
It seems Trump just can’t stop talking about his political prospects while on the phone with foreign leaders.
CNN reported Thursday that, according to two people familiar with Trump and Xi’s June 18 conversation, the two leaders talked about both Biden’s and Warren’s political fortunes — which makes sense since they are both leading 2020 Democratic candidates.
When CNN reached out to the White House to confirm their reporting that Trump discussed Biden with Xi on that June 18 call, the White House didn’t deny it:
“World leaders need to be able to speak freely in their conversations with the President — that is a key component to effective diplomacy. And that is why such conversations are kept confidential,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. “We are not going to start discussing the contents of every conversation President Trump has with world leaders, other than to say his conversations are always appropriate.”
Trump reportedly also used the call to reiterate that he wouldn’t raise the issue of China’s approach toward the months-long pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong as long as the US and China remained engaged in trade negotiations.
That backs a Financial Times report from July that the administration pressured the outgoing US consul general to Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, not to mention China’s policy toward the city in his farewell speech after Trump agreed to tone down Hong Kong criticism.
Xi continues to use the trade talks to get what he wants from the American president. First, he asked that the US stay quiet on China putting more than a million Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps. Then he pushed for Trump to reverse the ban on US businesses working with Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE — even though Trump’s own administration says doing that is a national security risk.
And now this.
So is Xi just playing Trump? Maybe. But these latest revelations suggest Trump may also be trying to play China, suggesting he won’t sign a trade deal unless Xi agrees to look into the Bidens.
Consider what Trump said on Thursday, just 30 seconds before he mentioned China should investigate his top political opponent:
Trump at 10:37:24 a.m., talking about trade negotiations: “I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”
Trump at 10:37:54 a.m., asked about Ukraine probe: “Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens.”
— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) October 3, 2019
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday responded to Trump’s remarks, saying, “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the US, and we trust that the American people will be able to sort out their own problems.”
That’s all well and good, but China did take out a four-page supplement in an Iowa newspaper last year to sway voters away from Trump. So perhaps Beijing isn’t above meddling in US elections after all.
Trump forced out the US ambassador to Ukraine because she wasn’t thrilled about his quest to destroy Biden
Back in May, US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was recalled from her post — two months before she was scheduled to end her assignment. At the time, it wasn’t exactly clear why.
But the whistleblower complaint that became public last month alleges that Yovanovitch was recalled to Washington because she didn’t subscribe to Trump’s and Giuliani’s attempts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
It turns out the whistleblower was right, but there’s even more to the story.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Trump ordered Yovanovitch removed after hearing months of complaints from people close to him but not in government, particularly Giuliani. That led the State Department — which runs US embassies — to relocate the longtime diplomat in part because it was a priority for Trump to do so and that she couldn’t be protected from constant attacks by the president’s allies.
Giuliani told the Journal that he reminded Trump that Yovanovitch had demonstrated an anti-Trump bias and was apparently an “obstacle” — the newspaper’s words, not Giuliani’s — to efforts to kickstart a Ukrainian probe into the Bidens.
This goes against the official explanation for why the ambassador came home, which was that her return was “planned.” But now we know she left Kyiv solely because the president wanted her gone, and a main reason why was that she wasn’t gung-ho about a politically motivated investigation.
If that doesn’t scream “abuse of power,” nothing does. But that wasn’t even the worst news for the president on Thursday.
Text messages show the administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens
If you’re Trump, probably the last thing you want is for there to be direct evidence showing people in your employ working to get Ukraine to look into Joe and Hunter Biden.
Well, we regret to inform you, Mr. President, but to steal a famous line from former FBI Director James Comey: “Lordy, there are texts.”
House Democrats on Thursday interviewed Kurt Volker — who until last week ran point on US-Ukraine policy for the State Department — for hours behind closed doors about his involvement in the effort to pressure Ukraine to look into the Bidens.
Later that night, they released a batch of texts that Volker had handed over. What they show, according to my colleague Andrew Prokop, is “damning”:
They reveal that top State Department diplomats worked with the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to try to get Ukraine to commit to politicized investigations demanded by President Trump into the gas company Hunter Biden served on the board of — Burisma — as well as into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election…
The texts reveal that the pressure campaign was presented this July as a quid pro quo — if Ukraine committed to these investigations, the US would agree to a White House meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. For weeks, these State officials tried to get Zelensky to publicly announce he was conducting these investigations, in exchange for the meeting — but Zelensky apparently refused.
I advise you to read Prokop’s piece for a fuller explanation of the texts, but that’s basically the gist of what happened.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the text message conversations that took place between August and September in which Volker and Andrey Yermak, a top Ukrainian official, discuss the possibility of having Zelensky announce the opening of a probe into the Bidens:
This looks really, really bad for the administration, despite Republican protestations that the texts were “cherry-picked” by Democrats. It’s yet another piece of clear evidence that Trump administration officials and private citizens close to Trump tried to establish a quid pro quo with Ukraine — and more may come out in the future.
Ukraine will restart its investigation into Burisma, which could mean investigating the Bidens
Trump’s core argument against Joe Biden is that when he was vice president, he improperly used the power of his office to get a Ukrainian general prosecutor fired in order to stop him from investigating the owner of Burisma, the company where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.
The reality is that the Obama administration — as well as many other Western European officials — wanted the prosecutor, a man named Viktor Shokin, removed because he was believed to be trying to stymie anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. In other words, if anything, Biden’s efforts could have put his son in more legal jeopardy, not less.
As of Friday, it appears that investigation is coming back. The Wall Street Journal reports that Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office has said it now intends to reopen the investigation into Burisma’s owner.
Ruslan Ryaboshapka, the prosecutor general, said the probe reopening is more of an audit of past investigations and is not in response to Trump’s requests. “No foreign or domestic politicians, officials and non-officials, called me or tried to influence my decision regarding specific criminal proceedings,” Ryaboshapka said.
That’s somewhat hard to believe, as Kyiv is certainly aware of how important this is to the Trump administration. It’s possible, though, that this move allows Zelensky’s government to legitimately look at poorly investigated past cases while appearing to fulfill Trump’s request.
Trump, as he’s wont to do, denied any wrongdoing on Twitter Friday morning.
As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens. This does have to do with their corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2019
But the fact that there is even an appearance of Ukraine kowtowing to Trump shows just how politically treacherous this entire situation has become for the president.
Listen to Today, Explained
In its sixth episode on the impeachment scandal, our podcast explains how the Ukraine finds itself at the center of the American political drama, yet President Trump is the least of the country’s worries.
Looking for a quick way to keep up with the never-ending news cycle? Host Sean Rameswaram will guide you through the most important stories at the end of each day.