Democrats and the White House legal team have made competing arguments about whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned U.S. security aid to his country in his July 25 phone call with President Donald Trump. The fact is, it’s unclear what Zelensky was referring to when he thanked Trump “for your great support in the area of defense.”
- Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries claimed that Zelensky’s reference to defense “includes the security assistance passed by this Congress, on a bipartisan basis, that Donald Trump held up in violation of the law.”
- Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura claimed that Zelensky was only referring to Ukraine purchasing Javelin missiles from the U.S. because he talked about that “in the very next sentence.”
Purpura further argued that “House Democrats claim that the Javelin sales discussed in the July 25 call are part of the paused security assistance,” saying that was “misleading.” But Purpura is the one being misleading. Jeffries didn’t equate the Javelins with the security assistance hold.
Overall, Purpura said, “the transcript shows that the president did not condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything.” But there is additional evidence, beyond the memo of that phone call, that suggests the administration tied a White House meeting for Zelensky and the security aid for Ukraine to Trump’s request for investigations.
The July 25 Call
Let’s start with what we know about Zelensky’s comments from the White House memo on the July 25 phone call. That memo includes a “caution” note saying it “is not a verbatim transcript,” but rather the “notes and recollections” of staff assigned to listen in and “memorialize the conversation.” So we don’t know exactly what Zelensky said.
But Jeffries and Purpura offer their interpretations of what we do know from the White House memo.
According to that document, Trump commented: “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.” After mentioning Germany, Trump adds: “A lot of the European countries are the same way so I think it’s something you want to look at but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
Here’s what Zelensky says next:
Zelensky, per White House memo: Yes you are absolutely right. Not only 100%, but actually 1000% and I can tell you the following; I did talk to Angela Merkel and I did meet with her. I also met and talked with Macron and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions. They are not enforcing the sanctions. They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine. It turns out that even though logically, the European Union should be our biggest partner but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union and I’m very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine. Much more than the European Union especially when we are talking about sanctions against the Russian Federation. I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.
Trump then says, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” He asks Zelensky to “find out what happened” with CrowdStrike and the Democratic National Committee server. (We have written about Trump’s reference to this conspiracy theory before.) Trump later asks Zelensky to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. (As we’ve written, Trump has distorted the facts on that issue, too.)
What ‘Great Support’ Was Zelensky Talking About?
On Jan. 22, Jeffries, one of the House managers who presented the Democrats’ case for impeachment of Trump, said during the Senate trial:
Jeffries, Jan. 22: At the beginning of the call, President Zelensky mentioned U.S. military aid, and he states, “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense.” The “great support in the area of defense” includes the security assistance passed by this Congress, on a bipartisan basis, that Donald Trump held up in violation of the law. Immediately after President Zelensky raised the issue of defense support, President Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” These words will live in infamy.
The United States’ support for Ukraine in the “area of defense” would include the security assistance, but it’s not clear from the White House memo on the July call whether that’s what Zelensky meant. Congress had appropriated $391 million in security assistance for fiscal year 2019 — and Trump had ordered that aid to be frozen in mid-July.
Purpura, on Jan. 25, argued that Zelensky was only talking about buying Javelins from the U.S., because he mentioned that in the next sentence. But that’s not clear from the memo, either.
“The paused security assistance funds aren’t even mentioned on the call,” Purpura said during the White House lawyers’ opening statements in the Senate trial. He went on to say:
Purpura, Jan. 25: There was no discussion of the paused security assistance on the July 25 call. House Democrats keep pointing to President Zelensky’s statement that “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense.” But he wasn’t talking there about the paused security assistance. He tells us in the very next sentence exactly what he was talking about—Javelin missiles. “We are ready,” President Zelensky continues, “to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
It’s possible Zelensky had been referring to broad support from the U.S., as well as “specifically” the purchase of the Javelins. Or perhaps Purpura’s interpretation is correct. We simply don’t know. We reached out to both Jeffries’ office and the White House press office to ask whether there was any additional evidence to bolster their interpretations. We haven’t received a response from either.
Purpura went on to say: “When the House Democrats claim that the Javelin sales discussed in the July 25 call are part of the paused security assistance, it is misleading. They are trying to confuse you and just sort of wrap everything in, instead of unpacking it the right way.” But that’s not what Jeffries claimed.
He didn’t say the Javelin sales were part of the security assistance; he said Zelensky’s reference to “support in the area of defense” included the security assistance.
The State Department first approved the potential sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine on March 1, 2018, and approved a second sale on Oct. 3. The approvals included other equipment and were valued at $47 million and $39.2 million.
The frozen security aid, meanwhile, included $250 million Congress had appropriated for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative through the Defense Department for fiscal year 2019 and $141.5 million for the Foreign Military Financing program through the State Department. The latter amount included money for various equipment and training, including sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to a breakdown by Defense News published on Sept. 12, the day the State Department announced the aid had been released.
It’s worth noting that Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, acknowledged that the security assistance that was held up by Trump wasn’t the same as the Javelin purchase. Schiff said in questioning Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Ukraine expert on the White House’s National Security Council, during an Oct. 29 deposition: “In that [July 25] call, the foreign military financing, the two aid packages, were not explicitly brought up, but the Ukraine president did bring up a form of military support, that is the Javelins, right?”
Vindman responded: “The Ukrainian president did bring that up, correct.”
Other Evidence Linking the Hold to Investigations
Purpura’s larger point was that “the transcript shows that the president did not condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything.” But as we’ve written before, focusing solely on the July 25 phone call ignores other evidence from the impeachment inquiry suggesting that the White House tied an announcement by Ukraine of investigations into Democrats to a White House meeting for Zelensky and the security aid.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified on Nov. 20 that “yes” there was a quid pro quo linking such an announcement to a White House call and White house meeting for Ukraine’s president.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, “expressing the desires of the president of the United States,” Sondland said, “demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden had served.
Sondland further said that “in the absence of any credible explanation for the suspension of aid, I presumed that the aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement.” On Sept. 1, Sondland told Andrey Yermak, a close aide to Zelensky, that “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.” That statement would include an announcement of investigations into Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, according to text messages provided to Congress.
Sondland also testified that he mentioned his concerns that the aid was linked to an announcement of investigations to Vice President Pence before Sept. 1 meetings with Ukrainian officials. Pence nodded, in a “sort of duly noted” way, Sondland said. Pence’s chief of staff denied Sondland’s account.
Two officials at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine testified to Congress that they, too, came to believe the security aid hold was linked to investigations.
William Taylor, then the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, told congressional investigators about a Sept. 1 phone call with Sondland, during which “Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election,” Taylor said in his prepared statement. “Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”
David Holmes, a political counselor for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, also testified that “with no explanation” given for the freeze on the security aid, the logical conclusion was that it was tied to the investigations. He said he would be “surprised” if the Ukrainians “wouldn’t have drawn that conclusion” as well.
Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget, testified at his Nov. 16 deposition that he signed a document officially placing the first hold on the security aid on July 25 — the same day as the phone call between Trump and Zelensky.
Sondland also testified that in a Sept. 9 phone call, he asked Trump what he wanted from Ukraine, and the president responded, “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.” But Sondland declined to say whether he believed Trump. “I’m not going to characterize whether I believed or didn’t believe. I was just trying to convey what he said on the phone,” Sondland said.
There were two other occurrences on Sept. 9: The inspector general of the intelligence community notified the House intelligence committee about the whistleblower’s complaint, and three House committees announced an investigation into whether Trump and Giuliani tried to pressure Ukraine into conducting “politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity.”
The day after Purpura made his opening statement in the Senate trial, the New York Times reported more information linking the hold on aid to investigations. Citing people who had read drafts of a book manuscript by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, the Times said that Trump told Bolton he wanted to freeze the aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigating the Democrats, including Biden. Trump has denied the claim.