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Politics Trump’s Ukraine effort encompasses far, far more than ‘eight lines’

19:51  09 december  2019
19:51  09 december  2019 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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We can assume the eight lines to which Castor refers are these, from the rough transcript of Trump ’ s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Castor focuses on the lines and suggests they are the most important because that surrounding universe is far more revealing about what

In the hours and days after the Ukrainian President signed-off -- "Thank you Mr. President, bye-bye" -- nervous word spread among national security aides about the contents of the July 25 call, an early show of worry that Trump ' s request for an investigation into Joe Biden was far from the "perfect"

Stephen Castor, a congressional staffer who serves as minority counsel for the House impeachment inquiry, offered an incensed assessment of the Democrats' evidence against President Trump.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Stephen Castor, Republican counsel with the Judiciary Committee, listens during an impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 9. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg) © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg Stephen Castor, Republican counsel with the Judiciary Committee, listens during an impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 9. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

“The record in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry does not show that President Trump abused the power of his office or obstructed Congress,” Castor said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Monday.

He looked directly at the members of Congress sitting before him. 

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“To impeach a president, who 63 million people voted for, over eight lines in a call transcript, is baloney,” Castor continued, emphasizing the pejorative.

It was a punchy statement, and one that will likely be rewarded with repeated airings on Fox News. It is nonetheless an obvious cherry-picking — and not particularly convincing.

Slideshow by photo services

We can assume that the eight lines to which Castor refers are these, from the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The ellipses are in the original.

Trump’s request about the 2016 election: “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. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”

Trump's request about former vice president Joe Biden: “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me."

Those lines in and of themselves are important, though not really for the reason that Castor suggests. They are simply the most direct evidence of what Trump sought from Ukraine, which, by themselves, undermine later arguments by Castor.

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The Democrats' case against Trump, though, hinges not on those lines but on the galaxy of actions and interactions that surround them. Castor focuses on the lines and suggests that they are the most important because that surrounding universe is far more revealing about what Trump sought and how his team sought it.

As the counsel for the Democratic majority, Daniel Goldman, put it, “Mr. Castor just said that it would revolves around eight lines in one call record, but that sorely ignores the vast amount of evidence that we collected of a months-long scheme directed by the president.”

We can demonstrate how that's the case by walking through Castor's summarized defense of the president's actions.

“First, the summary of the July 25 phone call reflects no conditionality or pressure. President Zelensky never vocalized any discomfort or pressure on the call.”

This is true. What it ignores, however, is that Zelensky had almost certainly already been briefed on what was expected of him on the call. Two months into his tenure as president, Zelensky was eager for a state visit to Washington to demonstrate the U.S.'s support of Ukraine in its struggle against Russia.

Shortly before Zelensky and Trump spoke, Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker texted Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak to explain how that meeting would move forward.

“Heard from White House — assuming President [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016,” Volker wrote, “we will nail down date for visit to Washington.” Later testimony established that this message came from Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who’d spoken with Trump that morning. Sondland testified that he believed the connection between the meeting and the investigations came from the president. Yermak, we can assume, briefed Zelensky.

Indeed, during the call, Zelensky was explicit on that connection.

“I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington DC,” he said. “On the other hand, I also wanted (to) ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.”

Two lines that weren’t included in Castor’s eight — and which strongly suggest that Zelensky understood what was expected of him in his conversation with Trump. It was only after that statement, incidentally, that Trump extended an invitation for a visit.

“Contrary to Democrat allegations, President Trump was not asking for a ‘favor’ that would help with his reelection. He was asking for assistance in helping our country move forward from the divisiveness of the Russia collusion investigation.”

Here, Castor is referring to the first request Trump made of Zelensky, suggesting that he was worried not about the 2020 race but, instead, helping America to heal.

Trump and Zelensky were speaking the day after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified on Capitol Hill.

“As you saw yesterday,” Trump said, according to the rough transcript of the call, “that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”

His actual request? Investigate Trump’s theory that maybe Ukraine had a role in the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike having attributed the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 to Russia, a firm which conspiracy theorists use a chain of connections to try to link back to a Ukrainian oligarch. Ergo: “They say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”

This theory is nonsensical and was obviously false at the time of Trump’s call (which Trump should have known). But were Ukraine to announce an investigation into one of the originating actions of the Russia probe, it would obviously be a political asset to Trump going into 2020, allowing him to further wave away questions about Russia’s actions.

The political benefit is obvious. Asserting that Trump was looking to “help our country move forward from the divisiveness” of the Russia probe? Far less so. Particularly since an announcement that there were questions about the probe would help Trump’s case — but prompt an entirely new round of litigation on the issue.

“Second, since President Trump has declassified and publicly released the call summary, President Zelensky said publicly and repeatedly that he felt no pressure. … Other senior Ukrainian officials have also said there was no linkage between a meeting, security assistance, and an investigation into Vice President Biden. If President Trump was truly orchestrating a pressure campaign to force Ukraine to investigate Vice President Biden, one would think that Ukraine would have felt some pressure.”

Among other examples (skipped over in the ellipsis), Castor mentions Zelensky’s denial of pressure while sitting next to Trump at a bilateral meeting in late September. Castor asks that we assume the target of a pressure campaign would admit to a pressure campaign while sitting next to a perpetrator of the pressure campaign who wants to keep the pressure campaign under wraps.

David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, explained during public testimony in the impeachment inquiry how Ukraine understood clearly the pressure they were facing. He was speaking specifically about the hold on military aid that was in place until Sept. 11.

“Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted and they still wanted important things from the president,” he said. “So I think that continues to this day. I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward” — to show strength and unity in the face of Russian aggression, for example.

Zelensky’s interaction with Trump at the bilateral meeting wasn’t an explicit denial. Zelensky hemmed a bit, telling the press that they could read the rough transcript for themselves. The clear assertion that there was no pressure came from Trump.

“Third, at the time of the July 25 call, senior officials in Kyiv did not know that the security assistance was temporarily paused. They did not learn that it was paused until the pause was reported publicly in U.S. media on August 28.”

This is not true.

On the afternoon of July 25, for example, staffers at the Department of Defense received several emails referencing some awareness by Ukrainian officials that the aid was on hold (as it had been for more than a week). While Bloomberg News reported last month that embassy staff in Washington loyal to the former Ukrainian president may have withheld information about the halt from Zelensky, a former Ukrainian official told the New York Times last week that she knew by July 30 at the latest.

The Bloomberg report cites Yermak as denying awareness of the halt—as well as denying any pressure.

Why wouldn’t Ukrainian officials make their concerns public? Catherine Croft, a Ukraine specialist at the State Department, explained in her testimony.

“If this were public in Ukraine, it would be seen as a reversal of our policy and would, just to say sort of candidly and colloquially, this would be a really big deal, it would be a really big deal in Ukraine, and an expression of declining U.S. support for Ukraine,” she said.

“As Ambassador Volker testified, because the highest levels of the Ukrainian government did not know about the pause, ‘there was no leverage implied.’ ”

Volker believed that Ukraine only found out with the publication of a news article in late August. But Holmes offered an explanation for why Ukraine would probably have assumed that aid was being held to get the desired investigations — beyond Sondland’s explicitly linking the two Sept. 1.

“Zelensky had received a letter, a congratulatory letter from the president saying he would be pleased to meet him following his inauguration in May,” he said. “We hadn’t to able to get that meeting — and then the security hold came up with no explanation. And I’d be surprised if any of the Ukrainians — you said earlier, we discussed earlier, you know, sophisticated people — when they received no explanation for why that hold was in place, they would have drawn that conclusion.”

“Finally, President Zelensky met with President Trump and the U.S. security assistance flowed to Ukraine — both without Ukraine ever taking actions on investigations.”

The key phrase here is “taking actions.” Castor is implying that, while there were multiple conversations in which investigations were promised — including Zelensky’s — the Ukrainians didn’t actually do anything to make them real.

That’s not really true, though. For weeks, Yermak worked with Volker, Sondland and Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on a statement announcing investigations. It broke down only when Giuliani insisted on more direct language. Later, the Ukrainians agreed to an interview of Zelensky on CNN in which he’d announce the probes. That interview was scheduled and seemed to be on track (according to multiple impeachment witnesses) up until questions about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine became public.

“The impeachment record also has substantial evidence going to the President’s state of mind, undercutting the Democrats’ assertion of some malicious intent. Witnesses testified that President Trump has a deeply-rooted, genuine, and reasonable skepticism of Ukraine stemming from its history of corruption. President Trump is skeptical of U.S. taxpayer-funded foreign assistance and believes that our allies should share more of the burden for Ukraine’s defense.”

Let’s set aside the irony of Castor chastising the Democrats for trying to impute Trump’s state of mind after insisting that the president merely wanted Zelensky to help him heal post-Mueller America.

It’s true that Trump is skeptical of foreign aid generally and that he expressed skepticism about Ukraine as president. That skepticism included, as early as April 2017, unfounded claims about Ukraine and the DNC server, so make of it what you will. It’s also true that, at the time the aid was halted, Trump was trying to identify sources of funding from within the government that could be redirected to building a wall on the border with Mexico.

What’s important about this argument, though, is that while Trump may not have halted the funding specifically to force Ukraine’s hand, that didn’t prevent him or his team from using the aid as leverage (explicitly or not) to spur the investigations.

“Ukrainian politicians openly spoke out against President Trump during the 2016 campaign. These events bear directly on the President’s state of mind regarding his actions during times relevant.”

Politicians from numerous other countries did so as well, as we noted Monday. That one official posted disparagement of Trump in his native language on social media and that another posted on Facebook a response to Trump’s Russia-friendly comments about Crimea seems like shaky justification for withholding aid or a White House meeting. That’s assuming that Trump was aware those comments had occurred, something for which there’s no evidence.

“When Vice President Pence met with President Zelensky in Warsaw on September 1, he stressed to him the need for reform and reiterated the president’s concern about burden-sharing. In late August and early September, after his party took control of the Ukrainian parliament, Ukraine passed historic reforms to fight corruption. These reforms included removing parliamentary immunity, which witnesses said had been a historic source of corruption. President Trump later lifted the pause on the security assistance and met with President Zelensky two weeks later.”

This is one of the neatest little bits of rhetoric Castor uses. He extrapolates from the argument that Trump’s real concern was corruption in Ukraine — something Trump himself never actually expressed publicly, including in asking for that investigation into Biden — to suggest that Trump’s release of aid was considered and justified.

Before the aid was cleared for release by the Department of Defense, there were necessary checks on the extent to which the country had addressed corruption, checks which the government cleared. Once the aid was held, there was no internally announced rationale for the halt that broached concerns about corruption. Government agencies agitated internally for the release of aid; none were told that Trump was awaiting new corruption legislation. When the halt became public, the Defense Department immediately announced that it had no concerns about releasing the aid. The release was also not conveyed to the Ukrainians as being a response to this new legislation.

It’s important to note that the aid was released after The Post editorial board explicitly linked concerns about it being held to Trump’s desire for an investigation into Biden. It was released only after House Democrats announced an investigation into Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine and the stoppage itself. It was released after Trump had been briefed on the whistleblower complaint which drew attention to Trump’s interactions with Ukraine.

Castor’s role is an admittedly unenviable one. His job is to defend Trump’s actions against the weight of the accumulated evidence. His tactic, then, is to insist that the evidence is secondary to the transcript itself and then to misrepresent what the transcript actually says.

One word that might be applied to much of his effort to do so? Baloney.

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