The Ukraine Investigation’s Unanswered Questions

Throughout the past five months of the House’s impeachment inquiry and the Senate’s impeachment trial, new evidence emerged on a near-daily basis of President Donald Trump having engaged in an effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, making last week’s 52–48 Senate vote to acquit all the more alarming. 

But even with the overwhelming body of evidence that accumulated — from testimony during the House’s inquiry to a steady stream of documents released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from American Oversight and other watchdog groups — numerous questions remain, particularly about the potential involvement of top Trump administration officials. 

Despite Trump’s claims that his July 25 call was “perfect,” senior officials like Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Attorney General William Barr seem to seize every opportunity to distance themselves from the Ukraine saga. One is left wondering why, if the president is so adamant that his deeds were appropriate, his closest advisers are reluctant to acknowledge their involvement. If in fact Trump’s cabinet officials were so far removed from the issue, it would represent an incredible abdication of responsibility for the handling of U.S. foreign policy. And if they were involved in or driving the effort, then they too must be held accountable for harnessing the U.S. government to advance the president’s personal political interests and coerce a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election.

Just as the Senate’s refusal to allow new witnesses or evidence in its trial didn’t stop the public release of new Ukraine-related documents, its Feb. 5 acquittal of the president does not put a lid on these remaining questions. Our ongoing investigative work and FOIA litigation — in which we expect multiple new document productions over the next month —  seeks to uncover just who was, in the words of recently fired EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, “in the loop” of the president’s scheme, and when.

 

Vice President Mike Pence 

What do we know?
  • According to the House’s impeachment report, Pence was slated to attend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration in May 2019, until suddenly Trump rescinded those plans because of Ukraine’s unwillingness to commit to investigating the Bidens. (Perry eventually took Pence’s place in leading the delegation.)
  • Two of Pence’s aides — his National Security Adviser Keith Kellogg and Special Adviser Jennifer Williams — participated in the now-famous July 25 call in which Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor though” and pursue investigations of the Bidens. 
  • Pence had two engagements with Zelensky during and immediately following the withholding of congressionally approved aid, which both U.S. and Ukrainian officials understood to be tied to a demand for investigations: Pence and Zelensky met in Warsaw on Sept. 1 and had a follow-up call on Sept. 18 (the contents of which remain classified despite congressional demands for the release of documents related to the call). 
  • Pence had access to numerous meetings and conversations in which he should have been informed about the decision to stop supporting Ukraine, a U.S. ally fighting Russian aggression. To name just one example, Sondland stated in his impeachment testimony that he told Pence in advance of the Sept. 1 meeting that the aid would be withheld until investigations were announced. 
  • Despite these ties, Pence has routinely distanced himself from the Ukraine story, claiming he was not involved.
Unresolved questions
  • How much did Pence know about Trump’s series of quid pro quos — specifically, the withholding of aid to Ukraine as well as coveted White House meetings in return for an agreement to investigate the Bidens? Was Pence aware of Trump’s plans to force former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s resignation?
  • Was Pence aware of and therefore complicit in the scheme? Was he himself exerting pressure on Ukrainian leadership during his September meetings with Zelensky?
  • What did Pence and Zelensky discuss in September, and did the topics of investigations and/or the Bidens come up?
Our litigation

We filed a lawsuit against the State Department for records related to Pence and his staff’s communications with Zelensky, or with administration officials about the Ukraine effort. 

 

Secretary Mike Pompeo

What do we know?
  • Documents released by State in response to our FOIA litigation show a clear line of communication in March 2019 between Pompeo and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, orchestrated by the Oval Office just as the smear campaign against Yovanovitch was heating up. The records include two calls between Giuliani and Pompeo in March, as well as the packet of information that Giuliani sent to the State Department as part of his smear campaign against Yovanovitch.
  • Two of the “three amigos” tasked by Trump to execute Ukraine policy with Giuliani were direct reports of Pompeo throughout last summer: Sondland and former Special Representative Kurt Volker. (Perry was the third “amigo.”)
  • Pompeo has acknowledged that he listened in on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. According to the whistleblower complaint, his counselor and top adviser T. Ulrich Brechbuhl was also on the call. 
  • In their impeachment testimony, Volker and Sondland described their close involvement in and acknowledgment of Trump’s decision to withhold aid until Ukraine agreed to investigate the Bidens. And of course, Sondland famously said during his testimony — as he displayed emails that included Pompeo — “Everyone was in the loop.”
  • Pompeo stonewalled Congress’ investigation of the Ukraine matter, signaling from the impeachment inquiry’s earliest days that he would not cooperate with the probe. 
Unresolved questions
  • Did Pompeo abdicate all responsibility for Ukraine foreign policy to Giuliani, Volker, and Sondland, or was he a central driver of efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate the Bidens?
  • Given that Sondland was still in his position as ambassador until Friday, Feb. 7, what might he have chosen to withhold from House investigators in order to protect his personal interests?
  • How closely did Volker and Sondland coordinate their approach with Pompeo?
Our litigation

We have multiple lawsuits against the State Department for Ukraine-related records of Pompeo, Volker, and Sondland, and have already received multiple document productions from State. You can view those documents here — more are on the way.

 

Former Secretary Rick Perry

What do we know?
  • Public reporting has directly tied Perry’s May 2019 Ukraine delegation for Zelensky’s inauguration to his push for new leadership at the Ukrainian state-owned energy company Naftogaz, with Perry having then handed Zelensky a list of recommended energy advisers for Naftogaz’s board. 
  • Perry’s energy circle includes former campaign donors and Texas energy interests such as Alex Cranberg, Michael Bleyzer, and Robert Bensh, all of whom stood to gain significantly from the effort to shake up Naftogaz. (Cranberg and Bleyzer won an underpriced contract just a few months after the May delegation, and both Bleyzer and Bensh were reportedly on the list of suggested new advisers.) 
  • Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, along with oil magnate Harry Sargeant III, reportedly worked together as well to push for the Naftogaz reorganization — and brought in former Trump campaign adviser and former Giuliani communications director Healy Baumgardner of 45 Energy Group as well. As we know now from his extensive production of texts and notes to Congress, Parnas was on the inside track of efforts to smear Yovanovitch and generate investigations into the Bidens. Perry’s and Giuliani’s circles clearly overlap. 
  • Based on the statements of Parnas, we know Perry attended the inauguration because Pence’s attendance was canceled after the Ukrainians’ refusal to commit to investigating the Bidens — one of the earliest in the series of Trump’s quid pro quos.
  • Further, Perry, one of the “three amigos” along with Sondland and Volker, met with Trump at the White House just a few days after the May delegation returned from Ukraine. According to the impeachment report, at this meeting Trump tasked Perry, Sondland, and Volker with overseeing Ukraine policy and directed them to “talk to Rudy.” The report indicates that Perry was regularly in conversations with the rest of the trio throughout the summer of 2019, planning for how to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. 
  • Nonetheless, Perry has maintained, with “God as my witness,” that he never discussed the Bidens in meetings with Ukrainian officials.
Unresolved questions
  • How do the energy interests of Perry’s circle overlap with those of Giuliani’s associates, and with the president’s push for investigations? 
  • How did the effort to push for new Naftogaz leadership intersect with efforts to smear Yovanovitch and to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens?
  • How closely did Perry coordinate with the White House in his efforts to push for new Naftogaz leadership?
  • What was Perry’s involvement in helping secure a lucrative gas contract in Ukraine for his former partners and donors, for millions of dollars less than the other competitor?
Our litigation

American Oversight has received two productions of Ukraine-related records from the Department of Energy, with another production scheduled for March.

 

Attorney General William Barr

What do we know?
  • During the July 25 call, Trump urged Zelensky to talk to Barr about investigations of the Bidens. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly raised concerns about the call with Barr himself. Under normal government policy, the Justice Department would be responsible for overseeing investigations work with foreign governments via a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty request. 
  • The Justice Department played a key role in handling the processing of the whistleblower complaint, declining to investigate the criminal acts alleged in the complaint.
  • Giuliani visited the department multiple times in 2019, including for meetings attended by Barr. 
  • Following Giuliani’s December trip to Ukraine and Hungary, he promised to turn over his investigative report to the Justice Department, at Trump’s urging. The agency has declined to comment. This week, Barr confirmed that his department had “established an intake process” for information Giuliani had gathered about the Bidens.
  • Barr has been remarkably silent on his involvement in the Ukraine matter, although a Justice Department spokesperson in September released a carefully worded denial of Barr’s role. 
Unresolved questions
  • How much contact has Giuliani had with Barr? 
  • How involved was Barr in preventing an investigation of the issues raised by the whistleblower?
  • Has Barr deployed Justice Department resources to work with Ukraine on investigations of the Bidens?
  • What is Barr’s “process” for receiving information from Giuliani related to Ukraine? 
Our litigation

American Oversight sued the Justice Department for Barr’s communications with Giuliani as well as senior officials’ communications containing key terms related to the Ukraine scheme.

 

Members of Congress as Key Witnesses

What do we know?
  • Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes sat alongside Chairman Adam Schiff throughout the House’s impeachment inquiry, questioning witnesses on their knowledge of the Bidens and Burisma. Reporting now indicates extensive involvement of Nunes and his staff with Giuliani and associates, including coordinating efforts to pursue investigations — making Nunes himself an apparent key witness in the Ukraine affair. Our State Department documents also show that Nunes talked to Pompeo soon after Pompeo’s two calls with Giuliani, during the midst of the smear campaign against Yovanovitch.
  • Sen. Ron Johnson attended Zelensky’s inauguration in May 2019 along with Perry, Volker, and Sondland, when Perry reportedly advised Ukrainians on a reorganization of the Naftogaz board and before Trump tasked the three with orchestrating Ukraine policy through Giuliani. Documents we obtained in our lawsuit against the Energy Department show Johnson’s involvement in key meetings during the trip. The Wisconsin senator, who voted to acquit Trump, has firsthand knowledge about the Trump administration’s engagement with Ukraine’s leadership.
  • Multiple members of Congress reached out to the Office of Management and Budget to inquire about the withholding of aid in August, as shown in documents we obtained through our lawsuit against OMB. Although they expressed concern at that time, Sen. Jim Inhofe, Rep. Mac Thornberry, and Sen. Rob Portman all ultimately voted to acquit Trump.
Unresolved questions
  • How closely did members of Congress coordinate with Trump’s efforts to encourage investigations of the Bidens?
  • Did members of Congress work with key agencies to coordinate messaging related to the impeachment inquiry?
  • Did members of Congress work with agencies to obstruct the impeachment inquiry?
Our requests

American Oversight has submitted multiple requests seeking communications between senior administration officials and members of Congress or their staffs to shed light on whether and to what extent agency officials who prevented the passage of documents to Congress coordinated in other ways during impeachment hearings.

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