Ukrainian officials knew for months that President Donald Trump was withholding key military aid to their country over demands that Ukraine investigate Trump’s political rival and 2020 candidate Joe Biden, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The report, based on interviews and documents the Times obtained, directly contradicts Trump’s claim that there could not have been an improper quid pro quo arrangement because Ukrainian officials did not know the United States was withholding $391 million in military aid.
Instead, top Ukrainian officials reportedly knew of the aid freeze as early as the first week of August ― just days after Trump requested Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden during a July 25 phone call.
If Ukraine’s government knew of the delayed aid in August, it would blow a significant hole in the Trump administration’s denial that the president engaged in misconduct. According to a whistleblower and testimony to Congress, Trump and his allies pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden’s actions in Ukraine as vice president and his son Hunter’s business connections in the country. The report could also give more fuel to impeachment proceedings after a week that already included the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testifying that Trump had indeed held up aid to force Ukrainian officials to target the Bidens.
Trump and Giuliani have been obsessed with Biden’s role in Ukraine for some time ― after it became a conservative talking point that Biden had pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor to protect his son from investigation. (The prosecutor was, in fact, widely criticized for failing to stop corruption). Trump has also embraced a widely debunked conspiracy theory alleging a missing Democratic National Committee server being hidden in Ukraine. (There is no such server.) Trump brought up both on his July 25 call with Zelensky.
Zelensky, a political outsider who won a landslide victory earlier this year, had worried about Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens even before he took office in May, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday. During a three-hour meeting on May 7, Zelensky and several of his advisers discussed how to handle Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s demands that Ukraine investigate the Bidens.
The Ukrainian leader’s fears appeared to be well-founded. Only two days after Zelensky and his advisers’ meeting, Giuliani told The New York Times that he would travel to Kyiv to push for an investigation into Biden and Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings, for which Hunter Biden served on the board of directors. Although he canceled that trip over public backlash, Giuliani continued to lead an intense effort to force Ukraine to launch the investigation. Trump wanted Zelesnky to “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference,” ambassador Taylor told impeachment investigators on Tuesday.
Taylor’s statements contradicted those of the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who testified that he only recently learned that Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine may have related to pushing an investigation into Biden. Sondland’s explanation was already hard to believe, given the plethora of media coverage of Giuliani’s mission and Sondland’s role as one of the administration’s top diplomats.
Following Taylor’s testimony, House Democrats sent a letter to the State Department on Wednesday requesting diplomatic cables, emails and other communications related to Trump’s attempts to get Ukraine to initiate investigations into the Bidens.