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Text messages reveal diplomats pressed Ukraine on Biden


House Democrats late Thursday released text message exchanges between several Trump administration officials that they argued underscored the administration's efforts to pressure Ukraine to pursue investigations into President Trump's political rivals.

The text message exchanges show administration officials indicating that a meeting between the Ukrainian president and Trump was contingent on investigations requested by the U.S., and in one case raising concerns about the delay of military aid for Ukraine.

The exchanges broadly highlight the extent to which the Trump administration pushed for Ukraine to take up investigations related to the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender. The issue is at the heart of House Democrats' impeachment inquiry against Trump.

"These text messages reflect serious concerns raised by a State Department official about the detrimental effects of withholding critical military assistance from Ukraine, and the importance of setting up a meeting between President Trump and the Ukrainian President without further delay," the Democratic chairs of three House panels wrote in a letter to colleagues.

“He also directly expressed concerns that this critical military assistance and the meeting between the two presidents were being withheld in order to place additional pressure on Ukraine to deliver on the President’s demand for Ukraine to launch politically motivated investigations,” they added.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) released the dozen text messages as part of their impeachment probe.

The messages were provided by Kurt Volker, who served as the special envoy to Ukraine until his resignation last Friday, and they were released after lawmakers conducted a joint deposition with Volker for nearly 10 hours behind closed doors on Thursday.

The text exchanges involve Volker, top Ukrainian embassy official Bill Taylor, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak.

A few of the exchanges show that Trump officials indicated to the Ukrainians that a meeting with Trump would be contingent on whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to look into matters related to the 2016 election and Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that employed Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden.

“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,” Volker wrote to Yermak on the morning of July 25, just before Trump’s call with Zelensky.

On Aug. 9, Volker and Sondland discussed a possible White House visit and having Yermak draft a statement showing what Ukraine planned to cover, an apparent reference to the investigations Trump sought.

The next day, Yermak told Volker that he wanted confirmation of a date to visit the White House before making such a statement.

In another text message exchange on Sept. 9, Taylor and Sondland discussed the administration’s delay of military aid for Ukraine. Taylor warned that the move had “shaken [the Ukrainians’] faith in us.”

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor added.

Sondland replied that he believed Taylor was "incorrect about President Trump's intentions," saying he felt Trump had no intention of a "quid pro quo" and that he was merely trying to see if Zelensky would adopt the reforms he campaigned on.

The text messages highlight efforts across the U.S. government to get Ukraine to conduct investigations desired by Trump, efforts that involved multiple State Department officials and wrapping in the president’s personal attorney.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has admitted he was on Trump's July 25 call with the Ukrainian president, and a rough White House transcript showed Trump brought up Attorney General William Barr during the conversation with Zelensky.

The July call was the subject of a whistleblower complaint released last week. The call and the complaint spurred the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry in the House.

Democrats have seized on Trump’s public acknowledgement that he wanted foreign governments to investigate one of his chief political rivals ahead of the 2020 election, arguing it is evidence the president has abused his office for personal gain.

Trump on Thursday morning told reporters that he felt Ukraine should launch a “major” investigation into the Bidens, and suggested China should also probe the former vice president.

Trump and his allies have defended the president’s conduct, arguing that he was merely interested in rooting out corruption and suggesting it was fair to investigate any impropriety involving the Bidens.

Biden as vice president had pushed for Ukraine to oust its then-prosecutor general for failing to properly investigate corruption in the country. The prosecutor general had at one time looked into the founder of Burisma, the gas company where Hunter Biden worked on the board.

There is no evidence either Biden committed any wrongdoing.

The chairmen of the three House committees leading the impeachment probe said they wanted to publicly release the text messages Thursday "in order to help correct the public record."

Schiff, Engel and Cummings said they hope to make public "the full body of the materials" after further review to remove any personally identifiable information.

Volker testified in a closed setting with House lawmakers for hours on Thursday, with the reception split along party lines.

Democrats felt the testimony from Trump's former Ukraine envoy underscored the need to press on with their impeachment inquiry, while Republicans dismissed the testimony as theatrics.

Earlier Thursday, Republicans who attended the deposition argued that the messages did not show that Trump was dangling military aid to pressure Ukraine.

“There are text messages that make it absolutely, crystal clear — without any shadow of a doubt — that there was no quid pro quo whatsoever, and it was known as a policy of the United States government,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.).

Volker is the first of several witness depositions with current and former State Department officials that Democrats are seeking. They're currently scheduled to depose Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, next Friday.

They are also seeking depositions with Sondland, Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent and State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl. But those interviews are in flux after Pompeo warned the committee chairmen earlier this week that they would not appear for the depositions due to insufficient time to prepare.

In the meantime, the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to receive a briefing on Friday from the intelligence community inspector general about the preliminary review of a whistleblower complaint about Trump's efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden.

"Based on the first production of materials, it has become immediately apparent why Secretary Pompeo tried to block these officials from providing information," Schiff, Engel and Cummings wrote Thursday.

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