President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting in New York, on September 25, 2019. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Why is it catching on? Could it really mean the end of Trump’s presidency? And why is so much of American politics about Ukraine these days?
In the course of just two weeks, a previously unknown scandal sprawled to imperil Donald Trump’s presidency.
News broke that the Trump administration was withholding a mysterious whistleblower complaint from Congress on September 13. The chaotic days afterward were filled with leaks, revelations, document releases, and a new Democratic consensus in favor of an impeachment push.
So you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit of whiplash … and for having some questions.
Where did this whole thing come from? Why does this scandal, rather than so many other Trump scandals, appear to be catching on? Could it really mean the end of Trump’s presidency? And why is so much of American politics about Ukraine these days?
The Trump-Ukraine whistleblower scandal — it doesn’t really have a catchy name yet — is about more than one phone call. It’s about a months-long effort by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to drum up foreign investigations into Trump’s political opponents.
To some extent, it involves multiple government agencies, including William Barr’s Justice Department, Mike Pompeo’s State Department, and Mick Mulvaney’s Office of Management and Budget. And it was worrying enough to spur a government employee to file a complaint and set things in motion.
There’s much we still don’t know about exactly what happened. But here is our basic understanding of the facts so far.
1) What’s the short explanation of what this is all about?
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump pressed the president of Ukraine to investigate the potential 2020 Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.
This pressure campaign from Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, lasted several months, and included both public and private demands on the Ukrainians. Trump also may have tried to punish Ukraine for not complying, including by holding up $400 million in US military aid the country was expecting.
A whistleblower within the US government became concerned about all this, and filed a complaint in mid-August. Since then, as more and more information has come out, it’s developed into a massive scandal — one that spurred Speaker Nancy Pelosi to declare that the House of Representatives would conduct an “official impeachment inquiry.” And now, Trump appears to be in the greatest impeachment danger of his presidency so far.
2) So this is another collusion scandal?
In a sense, yes — it was a blatant attempt by the president to get a foreign country to take action that would influence the 2020 presidential election in Trump’s favor.
This, of course, is what many suspected Trump of having done with the Russian government in the 2016 election. Yet while Trump did publicly solicit Russia’s help “finding” Hillary Clinton’s emails, no behind-the-scenes criminal conspiracy implicating anyone on Trump’s campaign was proven.
One major difference is that this time around, Trump isn’t just a businessman and candidate. He’s now the president of the United States, with the power of that office behind him, and he appears to have abused that power to try to get what he wanted. Many have likened Trump’s actions to “extortion” of Ukraine, rather than “collusion” with it.
Also, the scandal isn’t just about what Trump himself did — it’s now sprawled to encompass the White House, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They’re all involved in either trying to respond to Trump and Giuliani’s actions or dealing with the whistleblower complaint.
3) How did this all get started?
Over the past year or so, Rudy Giuliani — who was Trump’s personal lawyer for the Mueller investigation and has continued to represent him since — became increasingly fixated on the idea that he could get information in Ukraine that could help Trump politically.
Overall, he was looking for three types of information. First, he sought information that could be used to argue that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was treated unfairly. Remember: Manafort was prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller for financial crimes related to work he did in Ukraine and is now in prison.
Second, Giuliani wanted information he thought could be used to advance the wild conspiracy theory that it wasn’t Russia but Ukraine that hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. And third, he was looking for dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter (more on this in a minute).
In all three cases, Giuliani appears to have cared little about whether the information he’d get was genuine or dubious.
But what began as an opposition research effort morphed into something more scandalous — because Giuliani latched on to the idea that he, the president of the United States’s personal lawyer, could get the Ukrainian government to launch investigations that would help Trump. (Active investigations by the FBI into Hillary Clinton had proved extremely helpful to Trump’s campaign in 2016, so why not try something similar?)
Giuliani first tried to work with the previous Ukrainian government toward this end, but once an outsider presidential candidate, actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, won Ukraine’s presidential election in April 2019, Giuliani’s efforts shifted toward pressuring the incoming government to do his — meaning, Trump’s — bidding.
Giuliani made some of his case in public; for instance, he told the New York Times in May that he was “meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” and that he was looking for “information” that could be “very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
But his “shadow Ukraine agenda” roiled the Trump administration, according to the Washington Post — for instance, the US ambassador to Ukraine may have been removed because she was unhelpful to Giuliani’s dirt-digging efforts.
Trump also seemed to be trying to send a message to the new government. He told Zelensky in an April phone call to investigate “corruption.” According to the whistleblower’s sources, Trump had Vice President Mike Pence cancel a planned trip to Zelensky’s inauguration in May.
Then around mid-July, Trump decided to hold up nearly $400 million in military aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine, directly telling his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who also heads the Office of Management and Budget, to do so. (Trump has denied the move was connected to his effort to pressure Zelensky, but the timing certainly is curious.)
All that set the stage for the remarkable phone call Trump had with Zelensky on July 25, summarized in a document the White House released last week. On the call, Trump repeatedly tells Zelensky to talk to Giuliani as well as Attorney General William Barr about these investigations (into the Bidens, and into the DNC server).
These requests are framed as Trump asking for a “favor” and come shortly after Trump talks about how much aid the US is giving to Ukraine. And this call was soon at the centerpiece of a bombshell whistleblower complaint.
4) How did we get from a secret whistleblower complaint to impeachment?
As word of Trump’s call with Zelensky circulated through the government in August, a CIA officer (who remains anonymous) became appalled enough by the apparent corruption to file a whistleblower complaint.
“In the course of my official duties, 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,” the whistleblower wrote (in a complaint that was private at the time, but is now public, albeit redacted in part).
The complaint describes Trump’s call with Zelensky, and puts it in context with Trump and Giuliani’s months-long pressure campaign on Ukraine. The whistleblower also alleges that White House lawyers took steps to “lock down” records of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky by moving it to a separate electronic system intended only for highly sensitive intelligence information — raising fears of a cover-up.
“I was not a direct witness to most of the events described,” the whistleblower writes, saying instead that “more than half a dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort.”
Because of this, Trump and Republicans have accused the whistleblower of spreading “hearsay” — but the complaint’s account of the Trump-Zelensky call matches very closely to the White House’s own document summarizing the call, suggesting the whistleblower has good information.
The complaint was filed with the inspector general for the intelligence community, who determined it was “credible” and a matter of “urgent concern.” That in turn was supposed to require the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to turn the complaint over to key members of Congress.
But instead, Maguire asked the White House and the Justice Department what to do — and, relying on DOJ’s advice, he didn’t hand over the complaint.
While all this was going on, word spread that Trump was blocking the military aid to Ukraine that Congress had approved. The Pentagon was supposed to allot $250 million for weaponry, and the State Department was supposed to give $141 million for maritime security. But Trump had decreed both should be blocked, without giving any explanation. Lawmakers and department officials were alarmed, but couldn’t get clear answers from the White House about why the money was being withheld.
On September 9, however, the intelligence community inspector general did his own whistleblowing of sorts, by writing a letter to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the congressional intelligence committee chairs, to tell them about the complaint’s existence (though not its details). Then, on September 11, the White House suddenly decided to let the military aid go through.
Two days later, Schiff decided to go public, alleging a Trump administration cover-up. Over the next week and a half, details of the whistleblower complaint’s subject matter gradually leaked out, until it became a full-blown public scandal.
And though Speaker Nancy Pelosi and moderate Democrats had been unenthusiastic about the idea of impeaching Trump all year, the news that Trump had been soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election was a bridge too far.
So last week, Pelosi made it official that the House would conduct an impeachment inquiry — and now, House Democrats might impeach Trump by the end of the year. If they do so, that would lead to a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate.
5) So is what Trump did illegal?
As with many legal issues involving the president, this is disputed, and there are few clear precedents about it.
University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen has argued that Trump may have broken campaign finance law, by soliciting a “thing of value” for his 2020 campaign — the Biden investigation — from a foreign source.
The intelligence community inspector general also submitted a criminal referral on that topic to the Justice Department. But in mid-September, DOJ’s Criminal Division decided there was no need a full criminal investigation of Trump on this topic, arguing that the value of the Biden investigation couldn’t be quantified.
Other theoretical possibilities include honest services fraud and extortion, though prosecuting the US president for supposedly victimizing a foreign government in such ways would be unprecedented to say the least. Surely no such prosecution would be brought by the current Justice Department, which has the position that the president cannot be indicted while in office. And Trump himself could argue that all this was carried out in the course of his constitutional foreign policy powers.
Practically, the answer doesn’t matter much for now, both because the Justice Department’s position is that they won’t indict a sitting president no matter what, and because congressional impeachment isn’t really about lawbreaking.
The Constitution says the president can be impeached for treason, bribery, or “other high Crimes or Misdemeanors,” but leaves the definition of that final category vague.
But there are no evidentiary standards or necessity for legal grounding of impeachment articles — they’re a political action, determined by Congress. Practically, a majority of House members can impeach the president for whatever they want (if they have the votes).
6) Okay, so what’s the deal with the Biden allegation?
Now we must discuss Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son, Hunter.
Hunter’s questionable ethical choices have been the subject of media scrutiny on and off for over 20 years. At age 26, Hunter took a high-paying job at Delaware-based bank MBNA. Five years later, he became a lobbyist. And then, after his father became vice president of the United States, Hunter moved into the more opaque world of highly paid “consulting” for foreign clients.
While he does have a Yale law degree, Hunter didn’t appear to have any particularly relevant skills or business expertise. People seemingly just tended to hand him large sums of money because his father was first a prominent senator, then vice president, and then the 2020 Democratic frontrunner. A Chinese tycoon once even sent Hunter a large diamond. (“I knew it wasn’t a good idea to take it,” Hunter later told the New Yorker’s Adam Entous.)
In 2014, Hunter joined the board of a scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company named Burisma. Again, he had no apparent qualifications for the job, except that his father was the vice president and involved in the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy.
But he was paid as much as $50,000 in some months, and remained on the board until 2019. Nothing about this looks good — though, when assessing the genuineness of Trump’s professed outrage about the vice president’s son, keep in mind that Trump is also regularly accepting payments from foreign sources to his company, while president, and so are the Trump children.
Fast-forward to 2016: Officials throughout the Obama administration and in Western Europe had come to a consensus that Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, wasn’t doing enough to crack down on corruption there.
So the US ambassador at the time hatched a plan to hold up $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine unless the government pushed out Shokin. Biden, as he later colorfully recounted, delivered the Obama administration’s message — and indeed, Shokin was soon sacked.
Trump has been trying to argue that these two events — Hunter Biden’s work on Burisma’s board, and Joe Biden’s role in the effort to oust prosecutor general Shokin — were connected in a corrupt way: that Biden got rid of the prosecutor to protect his son’s company from being investigated.
Shokin himself has made this allegation, saying he was actually fired because he was too good at investigating Burisma and Hunter Biden’s corruption. The question of whether Shokin had a serious investigation of Burisma going on before his firing is murky and disputed. But there’s no evidence at all that Joe Biden’s actions were motivated by this concern. “Everyone in the Western community wanted Shokin sacked,” Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the Wall Street Journal.
Still, Trump and Giuliani embraced the theory, seeing a potential scandal that could dog Trump’s possible 2020 opponent. And they demanded the Ukrainian government investigate it.
7) Wait, back up. How did Ukraine end up being at the center of this whole saga?
Well, that’s a very tangled tale indeed.
To understand how we got here, you need to go back to February 2014, when Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed following massive protests in Kyiv.
The US interpretation was that Yanukovych was a corrupt puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin and was ousted by a legitimate popular uprising; the Russian interpretation, on the other hand, was that he was a legitimately elected leader deposed by a Western plot.
This was a reasonably big story in the US at the time, but nobody could have expected it would set off a lengthy chain reaction that has somehow, incredibly, dominated the past half-decade of American politics.
To simplify, what happened next was:
- Russia invaded Ukraine and seized some of its territory, beginning a military conflict that continues to this day.
- The Obama administration reacted by slapping harsh sanctions on Russia.
- Russia then interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, including by hacking and leaking leading Democrats’ emails.
- The FBI, alarmed by the Russian interference effort and suspicious that Trump or members of his campaign could be involved, opened the probe that eventually became the Mueller investigation, and would loom over the first two years of Trump’s presidency.
- Mueller zeroed in on Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, who had spent nearly a decade doing well-compensated work for that now-deposed pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
- While Mueller did not end up charging Manafort with any crimes related to “collusion,” he did prosecute and convict Manafort with failing to pay taxes on $30 million of laundered money from his Ukraine work.
- Trump’s team, meanwhile, cast about for dirt that could be used either to discredit the Mueller investigation or to concoct competing scandals about Democrats. Eventually, they too began to fixate on Ukraine — both because Manafort’s allies there continued to circulate various conspiracy theories, and because it turned out that 2020 Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden’s son had his own curious Ukrainian business dealings.
- This year, then, Trump and Giuliani tried to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden. That spurred a whistleblower inside the US government to file a complaint about this pressure campaign.
- And now the House of Representatives may be barreling toward impeaching President Trump as a result.
Essentially, a butterfly flapped its wings in Kyiv five and a half years ago, and now there’s a tornado in Washington, DC.
8) Out of so many Trump scandals, why is this one catching on?
All year, many Democrats have grown hoarse from shouting that Trump should be impeached for so many reasons: the apparent obstruction of justice offenses outlined in the Mueller report, the corruption involved in Trump’s continued ownership of his business while president, his seeming violation of campaign finance law with hush money payments, his bigotry, the administration’s family separation policy, and his general erratic behavior and unfitness of character.
So it may seem surprising that this Ukraine scandal would end up being the thing that finally tipped the party toward fully embracing an impeachment inquiry. But there appear to be several reasons why this is the case.
Like the Mueller investigation, the Ukraine scandal involves secret information and shadowy conspiracies involving a foreign government, and has stoked intense media coverage (that other more banal Trump corruption unfolding in plain sight doesn’t end up getting).
But unlike the Mueller probe, this scandal is about Trump trying to interfere with the next election (not a previous one) — which adds new outrage and also urgency among Democrats to do something to stop him, rather than stand aside and signal that this is acceptable.
The news is also unfolding in a political context in which Democrats have faced enormous pressure from their base for months to impeach Trump. Most of the party’s House caucus had already backed an impeachment inquiry before this, and Pelosi and other moderates who didn’t were battling against the tide. So when presented with a new damning scandal, they decided to finally stop worrying and love impeachment.
Finally, there’s a general agreement that the particular facts here are just tougher for Trump to defend. Unlike the Russia scandal, when Trump could claim “no collusion” and deny the underlying allegation happened, here he is in an official White House document clearly telling the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden. He’s admitted making the ask, he’s just denying that there was a quid pro quo involved.
9) Is this the end of Trump?
Who knows? Not me, certainly.
It does appear to be the gravest political threat he’s faced in some time. But, still … probably not?
The road after impeachment, if it does happen, leads to the United States Senate, where it takes a two-thirds vote — 67 senators — to actually remove a president from office (and replace him with the vice president, currently Mike Pence).
Currently, there are 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the Senate. So assuming that every Democratic senator votes to remove Trump (not a sure thing, given that some come from deeply conservative states), 20 Republican votes would also be needed.
This would be an utter collapse of party support for the president unlike anything we’ve seen, well, since Watergate brought down Richard Nixon. And impeachment superfans are hopeful that it will happen again, to Trump.
The problem is the continued loyalty of the Republican voter base to Trump. His approval rating among GOP voters is regularly above 80 percent. These are the voters who turn out in Republican primaries that Republican senators and members of Congress have to win to keep their jobs. “Our voters want two things from their congressmen: [dumping] on the media and blindly defending the president,” a senior Senate Republican aide recently told the Los Angeles Times.
Last week, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) called the scandal “deeply troubling,” but the other GOP senators have been mum or outright defended Trump. Getting anywhere near 20 GOP votes to remove Trump from office would require an utter collapse of support for the president among GOP voters, or a sudden outbreak of conscience among GOP senators. Either path would require further, even more damning revelations, and even then neither is likely.
So yes, Trump is still quite likely to remain in office and be on the ballot in 2020 … unless things change a whole lot more.
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