Trump–Ukraine scandal

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A request by U.S. President Trump (right) to Ukrainian President Zelensky (left) to investigate Joe Biden and his son sparked the controversy.

The Trump–Ukraine scandal is an ongoing political scandal in the United States.[1] The scandal revolves around efforts by President Donald Trump and his surrogates to encourage Ukraine and other foreign countries to investigate the family of Joe Biden, a political rival, and to undermine the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. In exchange for these favors, the Trump administration offered to release $400 million in U.S. military aid that had been blocked at the behest of Trump. A number of contacts were established between the White House and the government of Ukraine, culminating in a July 2019 phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.[2][3][4][5] The scandal reached widespread public attention through an August 2019 whistleblower complaint which raised concerns about the legality and ethics of Trump using congressionally approved funds to encourage a foreign government to interefere in a U.S. election to the president's personal political benefit.[6][7][8] After a summary of the call was published, an impeachment investigation was initiated by Nancy Pelosi.[9]

Summary

The controversy was launched by a whistleblower report which revealed that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 to investigate Joe Biden, Trump's potential opponent in the 2020 presidential election, as well as his son Hunter Biden and the company CrowdStrike, and to discuss these matters with Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.[10][11] These allegations were confirmed by a non-verbatim summary of the conversation released by the White House.[12][13][14] Trump acknowledged he had told Zelensky "we don't want our people like Vice President Biden and his son [contributing] to the corruption already in the Ukraine."[15] The whistleblower alleged that the call was part of a wider campaign by Trump, his administration, and Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens, which may have included Trump's cancelling a scheduled trip to Ukraine by Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump withholding $400 million in military aid from Ukraine.[16][17][18]

Immediately after the Trump-Zelensky call ended, White House national security aides discussed their deep concerns, with at least one National Security Council (NSC) official alerting White House national security lawyers.[19][20] A text message between a State department envoy to Ukraine and a Ukrainian official showed the envoy understood from the White House that a Zelensky visit with Trump was contingent upon Ukraine's investigating a conspiracy theory about alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 American election.[21]

Additionally, the whistleblower alleged that records of the Trump–Zelensky call were moved from the system where presidential call transcripts are typically stored to a system reserved for the government's most sensitive secrets.[16][22] The Trump White House later confirmed that a record of that conversation had indeed been stored in a highly restricted system.[23][24] After the controversy broke, the media reported that the Trump administration had also restricted access to records of Trump's conversations with the leaders of China,[25] Russia, Saudi Arabia,[26] and Australia.[4] It was subsequently revealed that this placement was made for political rather than for national security reasons, which are the only valid reasons to use such a server.[27]

The first whistleblower complaint was filed on August 12, 2019, reportedly by a CIA officer detailed to the White House.[28] It was based both on "direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct" and on the accounts of more than "half a dozen U.S. officials".[29][30] The complaint was eventually released to congressional intelligence committees on September 25, 2019,[31] and a redacted version of the complaint was made public the next day.[32] On October 6, 2019, attorney Mark Zaid announced the existence of a second official whistleblower, an intelligence official with firsthand knowledge who had spoken with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community but had not yet contacted the congressional committees involved in the investigation.[33]

The whistleblower's complaint prompted a referral to the Department of Justice Criminal Division. On September 25, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, announced that the division had "concluded the matter" and determined that the call did not constitute a campaign finance violation.[34][35][36] On October 3, after Trump publicly called for China and Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden,[37] Federal Election Commission (FEC) chair Ellen Weintrau reiterated that "it is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election."[38][39]

Trump denied all wrongdoing with regard to the controversy.[40] He confirmed that he had withheld aid from Ukraine, while offering contradicting reasons for doing so: he first claimed it was withheld because of corruption in Ukraine, but later said it was because other nations, including those in Europe, were not contributing enough aid to Ukraine.[41][42][43]

Trump has repeatedly criticized the whistleblower,[44] sought information about the whistleblower,[45] and called for the whistleblower's sources to be outed.[46] In October 2019, after mentioning that the United States has "tremendous power" in the trade war with China "if they don't do what we want", Trump publicly urged Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens.[47] As of October 2019, there has been no evidence produced of any alleged wrongdoing by the Bidens.[48] Trump, his supporters, and right-wing media have spread multiple conspiracy theories regarding Ukraine, the Bidens, the whistleblower, and the foreign interference in the 2016 election.[49][50][51] The scope of the controversy expanded on October 9, when arrests were made by the FBI of two of Giuliani's clients involved in political and business affairs in the United States and Ukraine,[52] as well as news two days later that Giuliani himself was under federal investigation.[53]

Background

Donald Trump

In a July 25, 2019, phone call, Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured) to investigate matters related to Hunter Biden.

Before this controversy came to light, U.S. President Donald Trump indicated he would accept foreign intelligence on his political rivals. In June 2019, Trump was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, who asked: "If foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on an opponent, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?" Trump responded: "I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don't. There's nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country – Norway – we have information on your opponent. Oh. I think I'd want to hear it."[54] After Trump said this, the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Ellen Weintraub, reminded Americans that according to federal law: "It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election."[55] Previously in July 2016, while Trump was still a candidate in the 2016 United States presidential election, he made a request: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing" from fellow presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's email server.[56][57]

Ukraine and the Bidens

In 2014, the Obama administration was trying to provide diplomatic support to the post-2014 Ukrainian revolution Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine, and then-vice president Joe Biden was "at the forefront" of those efforts.[58] Biden's son Hunter Biden joined the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, on April 18, 2014.[59][60][61] Hunter, then an attorney with Boies Schiller Flexner, was hired to help Burisma with "corporate governance best practices", and a consulting firm in which Hunter is a partner was also retained by Burisma.[59][62][63] In a December 2015 interview, Joe Biden said he had never discussed Hunter's work at Burisma.[64] Joe Biden traveled to Ukrainian capital Kiev on April 21, 2014, and urged the Ukrainian government "to reduce its dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas."[65][66] He discussed how the United States could help provide technical expertise for expanding domestic production of natural gas.[65]

Since 2012, the Ukrainian prosecutor general had been investigating Burisma's owner, oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, over allegations of money laundering, tax evasion, and corruption.[59] In 2015, Viktor Shokin became the prosecutor general, inheriting the investigation. The Obama administration and other governments and non-governmental organizations soon became concerned that Shokin was not adequately pursuing corruption in Ukraine, was protecting the political elite, and was regarded as "an obstacle to anti-corruption efforts".[67][68] Among other issues, he was slow-walking the investigation into Zlochevsky and Burisma, to the extent that Obama administration officials were considering launching their own criminal investigation into the company for possible money laundering.[59] Shokin has stated he believes he was fired because of his Burisma investigation, where Hunter Biden was allegedly a subject; however, that investigation was dormant at the time Shokin was fired.[64][69] In December 2015, then-vice president Biden visited Kiev and informed the Ukrainian government that $1 billion in loan guarantees would be withheld unless anti-corruption reforms were implemented, including the removal of Shokin.[70] Ukraine's parliament voted to dismiss Shokin in March 2016.[70][71] The loan guarantees were finally approved on June 3, after additional reforms were made.[70]

At the time, corruption in Ukraine was a matter of bipartisan concern in the U.S., with Republican senators Rob Portman, Mark Kirk and Ron Johnson co-signing a Senate Ukraine Caucus letter in February 2016 urging then-President Poroshenko to implement reforms, including "to press ahead with urgent reforms to the Prosecutor General's office".[72] Biden was not alone in targeting Shokin for anti-corruption reasons; he was joined by other European and U.S. officials. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and the Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland both said in 2015 that Shokin's office was failing to root out corruption. Meanwhile, protests within Ukraine were calling for Shokin's removal, and the International Monetary Fund also threatened to delay $40 billion of aid in light of corruption in Ukraine.[73] The European Union eventually praised Shokin's dismissal due to a "lack of tangible results" of his office's investigations, and also because people in Shokin's office were themselves being investigated.[74]

Hunter Biden in 2013

As of October 2019, there is no evidence that Biden acted to protect his son's involvement with Burisma, although Trump, Giuliani, and their allies have fueled speculation.[62][75][76] Shokin's successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, initially took a hard line against Burisma, but within a year he announced that all legal proceedings and pending criminal allegations against Zlochevsky had been "fully closed".[59] In a related 2014 investigation by the United Kingdom, British authorities froze U.K. bank accounts tied to Zlochevsky;[77] however, the investigation was later closed due to a lack of evidence. Lutsenko stated in May 2019 that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, but he was planning to provide information to attorney general Bill Barr about Burisma board payments so American authorities could verify whether Hunter Biden had paid U.S. taxes.[78]

Rudy Giuliani

Since at least May 2019, Giuliani has been pushing for Volodymyr Zelensky, the newly elected president of Ukraine, to investigate Burisma, as well as to check if there were any irregularities in the Ukrainian investigation of Paul Manafort. He said such investigations would be beneficial to President Trump, his client, and that his efforts had Trump's full support.[79] Giuliani's efforts began as an attempt to provide cover for Trump to pardon Manafort, who had been convicted of eight felony counts in August 2018.[80] On May 10, Giuliani canceled a scheduled trip to Ukraine where he had intended to urge president-elect Zelensky to pursue inquiries into Hunter Biden, as well as whether Democrats colluded with Ukrainians to release information about Manafort.[81][82] Giuliani claimed he has sworn statements from five Ukrainians stating they were brought into the Obama White House in January 2016 and told to "go dig up dirt on Trump and Manafort", although he has not produced evidence for the claim.[83] Giuliani asserted he cancelled the trip because he had been "set up" by Ukrainians who objected to his efforts, and blamed Democrats for trying to "spin" the trip. Giuliani met with Ukrainian officials to press the case for an investigation in June 2019 and August 2019.[84]

As early as May 2019, Trump had instructed State Department officials attempting to set up a meeting with Zelensky to work with Giuliani. Establishing Giuliani as a gatekeeper in this fashion circumvented official channels.[85]

State gas company

Perry with Zelensky at Zelensky's inauguration, May 2019.

Since March 2019, while Giuliani was pressing the Ukrainian administration to investigate the Bidens, a group of businessmen and Republican donors used their ties to Trump and Giuliani to try to replace the leadership of Ukrainian state-owned oil and gas company Naftogaz. The group sought to have Naftogaz contracts granted to businesses owned by allies of Trump, but this effort hit a setback when Volodymyr Zelensky won the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election.[86] During a state visit for President Zelensky's inauguration in May, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry reportedly pressured President Zelensky to fire members of the Naftogaz supervisory board,[86] but Perry denied this, stating in a press conference on October 7: "That was a totally dreamed-up story".[87] On October 10, Perry was issued a subpoena by the House Intelligence Committee, the House Oversight Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, partially concerning his interactions with Naftogaz.[88][89][90]

Dmytry Firtash

Dmytry Firtash is a Ukrainian oligarch who is prominent in the natural gas sector. In 2017, the Justice Department characterized him as being in the "upper echelon associates of Russian organized crime." Living in Vienna, Austria, for five years he has been fighting extradition to the United States on bribery and racketeering charges, and has been seeking to have the charges dropped. Firtash's attorneys obtained a statement from Viktor Shokin, the former Ukrainian prosecutor general who was forced out under pressure from multiple countries and non-governmental organizations, as conveyed to Ukraine by Joe Biden. Shokin asserted in the statement that Biden actually had him fired because he refused to stop his investigation into Burisma. Giuliani, who asserts he has "nothing to do with Firtash," has promoted the statement as evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. Firtash is represented by Trump associates Joseph diGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing. Shokin's statement notes that it was prepared "at the request of lawyers acting for Dmitry Firtash."[91][92]

Communications with Ukrainian officials

A memorandum with a non-verbatim record of the call between Trump and Zelensky released by the White House

On September 20, 2019, The Washington Post reported that Trump had in a July 25 conversation repeatedly pressed Ukrainian President Zelensky to investigate matters relating to Hunter Biden.[93] The New York Times reported that Trump told Zelensky to speak to Giuliani,[94][95] and according to The Wall Street Journal, he urged Zelensky "about eight times" to work with Giuliani and investigate Biden's son.[84] On September 22, Trump acknowledged he had discussed Joe Biden during the call with Zelensky, and that he had said: "We don't want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating [sic] to the corruption already in the Ukraine."[15] As of October 2019, there has been no evidence produced of any of the alleged wrongdoing by the Bidens.[48]

The Wall Street Journal reported on September 30 that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also listened in on the call.[96] Two days later, The Washington Post reported that Vice President Mike Pence's National Security Advisor Keith Kellogg had listened in on the call as well, and that "Pence should have had access to the transcript within hours."[3] Others on the line included Tim Morrison, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe and Russia; Rob Blair, an aide to Mick Mulvaney; and possibly Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert for the NSC.[19]

Days before Trump's July 25 call with Zelensky, Giuliani spoke on the phone with Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak [uk] about a Biden investigation, as well as a prospective White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump that was sought by Ukrainian officials.[97] According to Zelensky's advisor Serhiy Leshchenko, Trump was willing to have a phone conversation with Zelensky only on the precondition that they discuss the possibility of investigating the Biden family. Leshchenko later sought to backtrack his comments, saying he did not know if officials had viewed discussing Biden as a precondition for a meeting.[98]

Text messages given to Congress by special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker in October suggest that Zelensky's aide Yermak was told that Zelensky would be invited for a White House visit only if he promised to carry out the requested investigations. On July 25, just before Trump's phone call, Volker texted to Yermak: "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."[99]

On September 25, the administration released the White House's five-page, declassified memorandum of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky.[100][101][102][a] In the call, Trump pressed for an investigation into the Bidens and CrowdStrike, saying: "I would like to have the [U.S.] Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it."[101] Trump falsely told Zelensky "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution" of his son, Hunter; Biden did not stop any prosecution, did not brag about doing so, and there is no evidence his son was ever under investigation.[103]

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovich testified to Congress, "I met with the Deputy Secretary of State, who informed of the curtailment of my term. He said that the President had lost confidence in me and no longer wished me to serve as his ambassador. He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018. He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause."[104]

Trump also presented Giuliani as a key U.S. contact for Ukraine, although Giuliani holds no official U.S. government position. Trump stated three times that he would ask both Attorney General William Barr and Giuliani to call Zelensky,[105] and added: "So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great."[100] In response, Zelensky said his candidate for Ukraine's chief prosecutor "will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue". After Zelensky said this, Trump offered to meet with Zelensky at the White House.[101] On the same call with Zelensky, Trump espoused the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton's email server was in Ukraine;[106][107] criticized the U.S.'s European allies (in particular Germany),[105] and disparaged the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, a career U.S. diplomat whom the Trump administration had abruptly recalled several months earlier.[108][109]

During the conversation, Zelensky mentioned that on his last visit to the United States, he had stayed in Trump Tower. Ethics advocacy groups described this comment as an attempt to curry favor.[110]

Shortly after the conversation, White House aides began asking one another whether they should alert other senior officials who had not participated.[19] The first whistleblower described one White House official as being "visibly shaken by what had transpired". In a July 26 memo, the whistleblower reported, "The official stated that there was already a conversation underway with White House lawyers about how to handle the discussion because, in the official's view, the president had clearly committed a criminal act by urging a foreign power to investigate a U.S. person for the purposes of advancing his own re-election bid in 2020."[111][112]

During the period prior to and immediately after the July 25 call, at least four national security officials warned National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg that the Trump administration was attempting to pressure Ukraine for political purposes.[20]

Days after the Trump call, Giuliani met with Yermak in Madrid. Giuliani stated on September 23 that the State Department had asked him to "go on a mission for them" to speak with Yermak.[113] The State Department had stated on August 22 that its Ukraine envoy Volker had connected the men, but that Giuliani was acting as a private citizen and Trump attorney,[114] although he briefed the State Department after the trip.[97] Giuliani stated he told Yermak, "Your country owes it to us and to your country to find out what really happened." Yermak stated he was not clear if Giuliani was representing Trump, but Giuliani stated he was not, and the White House referred questions about Giuliani's role to the State Department, which did not respond. Appearing on television on September 19, Giuliani first denied he had asked Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden, but moments later stated, "Of course I did."[115][116][117] Former prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko told the Los Angeles Times Giuliani had repeatedly demanded that the Ukrainians investigate the Biden family. "I told him I could not start an investigation just for the interests of an American official," Lutsenko informed the Times.[118]

Letter from the chairs of the House Committees on Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs, including copies of text-message conversations involving Volker, Sondland, and others.

In August, Volker and American ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland drafted a statement they wanted Zelensky to read publicly that would commit Ukraine to investigate Burisma and the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 election to benefit Hillary Clinton. However, Zelensky never made the statement.[99] Volker also provided to congressional investigators a September text message exchange between Sondland, a major Trump donor and political appointee, and Bill Taylor, a career diplomat who was the senior official at the Ukrainian embassy after the recall of Ambassador Yovanovitch. In the messages, Taylor wrote: "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." Four hours later, after speaking with Trump, Sondland responded: "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo's of any kind." He then suggested they continue discussing the matter by phone rather than text.[119][120][121] The Washington Post reported on October 12 that Sondland would tell congressional investigators the following week that he had relayed Trump's assertion of no quid pro quo, but he did not know if it was actually true.[122] NBC News reported the night before Sondland's testimony that he told Ukrainian officials visiting the White House that a Trump-Zelensky meeting was conditioned on Ukraine opening an investigation, and discussed Burisma with them.[123]

American embassy officials in Kiev repeatedly expressed concerns about Giuliani's meetings, and during closed-door congressional testimony on October 4, Volker reportedly stated he had warned Giuliani that Ukrainian political figures were giving him untrustworthy information about the Bidens.[21][82] He also testified that Joe Biden was a "man of integrity", saying: "I have known former vice president Biden for 24 years, and the suggestion that he would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money for his son simply has no credibility to me. I know him as a man of integrity and dedication to our country."[124]

Secrecy of transcripts

The first whistleblower's report said that "senior White House officials had intervened to 'lock down' all records of the phone call," an act that indicated those officials "understood the gravity of what had transpired".[b] They performed the "lock down" by placing the record of the call on a top-secret server intended for the most highly classified material,[125][126][127] under the direction of John Eisenberg.[26] It was later confirmed that on orders from National Security Council attorneys, the call with Ukraine was moved from TNet,[22] the regular NSC computer system, to the top-secret codeword NICE system, reserved for closely guarded secrets.[128][126] On September 27, it was reported that records of calls with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Russia had also been stored on NICE.[26]

On September 27, the White House acknowledged that a record of the call between Trump and Zelensky was sealed in a highly classified system, as per the advice of National Security Council lawyers.[23][24]

On the same day, it was reported that the records of Trump's Oval Office meeting with Russian officials in May 2017 had been unusually closely held, with distribution limited to a few officials.[129] White House advisor Kellyanne Conway said the procedure for handling records of Trump's calls with world leaders had been tightened early in 2017 because of leaks to the press about his conversations with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia.[130]

It was subsequently revealed that this placement on the top-secret server was made for political rather than for national security reasons, which are the only valid reasons to use such a server.[27]

On October 2, Trump falsely asserted that the publicly released "Memorandum of Telephone Conversation" was "an exact word-for-word transcript of the conversation". Analysts noted that its use of ellipses to denote omitted material was uncommon for government transcripts, and that it was surprisingly brief for a thirty-minute conversation, even allowing for the time delays due to the use of an interpreter.[131]

Withholding of Ukrainian military aid

The U.S. Congress has mandated increased military aid to Ukraine over the period of Trump's presidency.[132][133] Congress appropriated $400 million in military aid to Ukraine for fiscal year 2019, to be used to spend on weapons and other equipment as well as programs to assist the Ukrainian military in combating threats from Putin's Russia and Russian-backed separatists of the self-proclaimed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine.[134][135] The administration notified Congress in February 2019 and May 2019 that it intended to release this aid to Ukraine.[134] Despite the notifications to Congress, in June 2019, the Trump administration placed military aid to Ukraine on hold.[136] The date of the hold was originally reported as mid-July.[134][135][137] The Washington Post reported on September 23 that at least a week before his July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump directed his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to withhold[clarify] $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. This directive was conveyed by the Office of Management and Budget to the State Department and Pentagon, stating Trump had concerns about whether the money should be spent, with instructions to tell lawmakers the funds were being delayed due to an "interagency process".[134] Fox News reported that the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council unanimously supported the Ukraine aid and that Trump had acted alone in withholding it.[138] The Ukrainian government was unaware that the Trump administration froze military aid to the country until a month after the Trump–Zelensky phone call.[139][140] During an October 17 press conference, Mulvaney acknowledged that the release of the Ukraine aid was contingent on the country investigating alleged corruption in the 2016 election, stating, "Did [Trump] also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money," adding, "Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy."[141][142] Later in the day, Mulvaney denied he made any suggestion of a quid pro quo.[143]

In the July 25 call with Trump, Zelensky thanked Trump for the U.S.'s "great support in the area of defense", an apparent reference to military aid, and expressed an interest in acquiring more missiles. Trump replied, "I would like you to do us a favor though,"[100] suggesting an investigation into CrowdStrike, an American cybersecurity firm that investigated the cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016. CrowdStrike was one of three firms whose analysis assisted the U.S. intelligence community in determining that Russian intelligence was responsible for the DNC hack.[105] Trump also asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son.[144] Ukraine relies on extensive American military aid to fight Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass, and the Trump administration's suspension of the Congressionally-mandated aid was reportedly a shock to Ukrainian government officials who found out about it only "much later, and then through nonofficial channels."[145] Trump's addition of the word "though" has been interpreted as a condition made by Trump that his decisions would be based on Ukraine's compliance with his requests.[146]

On September 9, before news of the whistleblower complaint, three Democratic-controlled House committees—the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Committee on Oversight and Reform—announced they would investigate whether Trump and Giuliani attempted to coerce Ukraine into investigating the Bidens by withholding the military aid.[147] On September 11, the Trump administration released the aid.[135]

In a September 20 tweet, Giuliani appeared to confirm suspicion that there was a connection between the withholding of military assistance funds and the investigation he and Trump wanted Ukraine to undertake.[148][149] He said: "The reality is that the President of the United States, whoever he is, has every right to tell the president of another country you better straighten out the corruption in your country if you want me to give you a lot of money. If you're so damn corrupt that you can't investigate allegations – our money is going to get squandered."[150] Trump himself appeared to make a similar connection on September 23, telling reporters: "We want to make sure that country is honest. It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"[137] Trump later clarified: "I did not make a statement that 'you have to do this or I'm not going to give you aid.' I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't do that ... I put no pressure on them whatsoever. I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been ok if I did. But I didn't. I didn't put any pressure on them whatsoever."[137]

Trump has offered inconsistent justifications for withholding the aid.[41] He originally said that the aid was not released due to "corruption" in the country and that the topic of conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky was about "the fact that we don't want our people, like vice-president Biden and his son, [adding] to the corruption already in the Ukraine".[151] He later disputed his original statement and said that the aid was initially held back due to a lack of similar contribution from other European nations.[41][152]

Republican senator Ron Johnson told The Wall Street Journal in October that American ambassador Gordon Sondland told him in August that military aid to Ukraine was linked to the desire of Trump and his allies for the Ukrainian government to investigate matters related to the 2016 American elections.[153] Sondland told a State department diplomat in September via text message that there was no quid pro quo.[154] On October 12, however, The Washington Post reported that, according a person familiar with Sondland's testimony, Sondland plans to testify to Congress that the content of the message "was relayed to him directly by President Trump in a phone call" and that he did not know if the claim denying quid pro quo was actually true.[155]

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 10 that career civil servants at the Office of Management and Budget were concerned about the legality of freezing the aid funds, and that the White House granted a political appointee, Michael Duffey, the authority to keep the aid on hold.[156]

First whistleblower complaint

Submission of complaint and withholding from Congress

A redacted version of the whistleblower complaint

On August 12, 2019, an unnamed CIA officer[28] filed a whistleblower complaint with Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community (ICIG),[157] under the provisions of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA).[158] Atkinson looked into the complaint and interviewed several government officials whom the whistleblower identified as having information to substantiate his claims.[28] On August 26, having found the complaint to be both "credible" and "of urgent concern" (as defined by the ICWPA), and noting the "subject matter expertise" of the whistleblower, Atkinson transmitted the complaint to Joseph Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI).[159][30][160]

Maguire withheld the complaint from congressional intelligence committees, citing the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel's rationale that the whistleblower complaint did not relate to an "intelligence activity within the responsibility and authority" of the acting DNI.[161] Maguire also testified that the whistleblower "followed the law every step of the way".[162][163]

External video
Maguire's testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, September 26, 2019, C-SPAN

Under ICWPA, the DNI "shall" within seven days of receipt forward the complaint to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Maguire did not do so, and the deadline passed on September 2. On September 9 Atkinson wrote to several lawmakers, telling them about the existence of the whistleblower report, which Maguire had not forwarded to Congress.[164] On September 10, House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI) chairman Adam Schiff wrote to Maguire, asking why he had not provided it. According to Schiff, Maguire stated he had been told to withhold it on direction from a "higher authority" because it involved an "issue of privileged communications". Schiff stated he was also told "the complaint concerns conduct by someone outside of the Intelligence Community."[165][159][166] The Trump administration withheld the complaint on the basis of the Justice Department's assertion that the complaint was not within the purview of the ICWPA.[c] On September 13, Schiff subpoenaed Maguire to appear before the HPSCI,[168] and Maguire agreed to testify on September 26.[169] The Washington Post reported that Maguire threatened to resign if the White House sought to constrain his testimony, although Maguire later denied he had contemplated resigning.[170]

On September 18, The Washington Post broke the story of the whistleblower report, saying that the complaint concerned a "promise" Trump had made during communication with an unnamed foreign leader. White House records showed Trump had made communications or interactions with five foreign leaders during the five weeks before the whistleblower complaint was filed.[171] During a previously scheduled closed-door hearing before the HPSCI on September 19, Atkinson told lawmakers the complaint referred to a series of events,[84] and that he disagreed with the position that the complaint lay outside the scope of the ICWPA, but declined to provide details.[172] On September 19, The Washington Post reported that the complaint related to Ukraine.[172]

After the ICIG found that the call was a possible violation of federal campaign finance laws, which prohibits the solicitation of foreign contributions, the ICIG referred the matter to the FBI, and the DNI referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for a possible criminal investigation of Trump's actions.[100] Courtney Simmons Elwood, general counsel for the CIA, became aware of the whistleblower's complaint through a colleague and, on August 14, made what she considered a criminal referral of the matter during a conference call with the top national security lawyer at the White House and the chief of the Justice Department's National Security Division.[173] A Justice Department official said the ICIG suspected the call could have broken federal law if Trump's request to the Ukrainian government to investigate a political opponent constituted the solicitation of campaign contribution from a foreign government.[174] According to a Justice Department spokeswoman, the department's criminal division reviewed "the official record of the call" and determined there was no campaign finance violation.[175][101] The Justice Department's determination not to launch an investigation took only weeks; the department did not conduct interviews or take steps beyond reviewing the call record.[36] A senior Justice Department official told The Washington Post the Justice Department had determined Trump's conduct did not constitute the solicitation of a quantifiable "thing of value" subject to the campaign finance laws.[101][36] The Justice Department's review looked into whether there was evidence of a campaign violation law, and did not look into possible violations of federal corruption statutes.[36] Some legal experts said there seemed to be evidence warranting an investigation into both; for example, Richard L. Hasen, an election-law scholar, believes the provision of opposition research, e.g. valuable information about a political rival, could be considered a contribution in kind under campaign finance law.[36]

Release and substance of the complaint

On September 24, the top Democrats of the House and Senate intelligence committees said an attorney for the whistleblower had contacted the committees about providing testimony.[176] Members and staff of congressional intelligence committees were allowed to examine the whistleblower complaint on September 25.[177] After the release of the whistleblower complaint to congressional committees, Republican Senators Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney called the complaint contents "really troubling" and "troubling in the extreme", respectively.[178][179] That same day, the complaint itself was declassified with "minimal redactions".[180] The House Intelligence Committee released the declassified, redacted version of the complaint on September 26.[181]

In the complaint, the whistleblower stated that Trump abused the powers of his office for personal gain and put national security in danger, and that White House officials engaged in a cover-up.[181][182] The whistleblower wrote:

In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President's main domestic political rivals.[181]

In addition to the July 25 phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president Zelensky, the whistleblower alleged that Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, had engaged in a campaign to pressure Ukrainian authorities to pursue Joe Biden, including in an August 2 meeting in Madrid between Giuliani and Zelensky aide as "a direct followup" to the July 25 call and contact with a number of other officials in Zelensky's government. These officials included Zelensky's Chief of Staff, Andriy Bohdan, and the then-acting head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Ivan Bakanov.[181] The whistleblower further alleged in the complaint that White House officials had tried to limit access to the record of Trump's telephone conversation with Zelensky, writing:

In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to "lock down" all records of the phone call, especially the word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced — as is customary — by the White House Situation Room. This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.[181]

Second whistleblower complaint

A second whistleblower, who is also an intelligence official, came forward on October 5, 2019, with "first-hand knowledge of allegations" associated with the phone call between Trump and Zelensky, according to Mark Zaid, a lawyer on the team representing both whistleblowers.[33][183] Zaid stated that the second whistleblower had been interviewed by the ICIG but had not at that time filed a written complaint.[184] Nor, as of October 6, had the second whistleblower communicated with any committee in the House of Representatives.[33]

As of October 6, it is not known whether this intelligence official is the same individual mentioned in a New York Times report from October 4 about an intelligence official who was then weighing the possibility of filing an ICIG complaint and testifying before Congress.[33][185]

Communications with other governments

Mitt Romney was critical of Trump, saying: "When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China's investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated."[186]

Australia

On October 1, 2019, it was reported that the transcript of a call with Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been placed on the same top-secret server as the other transcripts. Trump was reported to have requested Morrison's aid in William Barr's investigation of the Mueller inquiry.[187] Trump's request focused on the origins of the Mueller inquiry as a conversation between Australia's former foreign minister Alexander Downer and Trump campaign team member George Papadopoulos led to the investigation.[188] The Australian government confirmed the call had taken place and that Morrison had articulated to the President that "the Australian Government has always been ready to assist and cooperate with efforts that help shed further light on the matters under investigation," but did not elaborate on what, if any, assistance had been offered.[187] In a letter to William Barr dated May 28, Joe Hockey, Australia's ambassador to the United States, pledged that the Australian government would "use its best endeavours" to support Barr's investigation.[187] Hockey later rejected claims that Downer had been part of a conspiracy among intelligence agencies around the world to prevent Trump's election and undermine his eventual presidency.[189]

The White House responded by dismissing the reports, claiming it was part of a routine request to grant Australian authorities access to Department of Justice resources to facilitate an investigation that had been open for several months.[187] When questioned by a journalist, Morrison rejected Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese's accusation that he had jeopardized Australia's national security for the sake of a personal relationship with the President and instead insisted that cooperating with Barr's investigation was in the national interest. Morrison claimed that no specific request had been made of his government, but refused to go into detail as to what support had been provided, citing national security concerns.[190]

Italy

On September 30, it was reported that William Barr had travelled to Rome to enlist the support of Italian authorities in his investigation.[191] Barr sought information related to a conspiracy theory that Joseph Mifsud was a Western intelligence operative who allegedly entrapped Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos in order to establish a false predicate for the FBI to open an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Contrary to the conspiracy theory, that investigation was actually initiated after the Australian government notified American authorities that its diplomat Alexander Downer had a chance encounter with Papadopoulos, who boasted about possible access to Hillary Clinton emails held by the Russian government. Mifsud was last known to be in Rome in 2017, but had since disappeared.[4][192]

China

On October 3, Trump publicly called on China to investigate Hunter Biden's business activities there while his father was vice president.[42] "Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine," Trump told reporters.[37] In 2013, Biden, Devon Archer, and Chinese businessman Jonathan Li founded BHR Partners, a business focused on investing Chinese capital in companies based outside of China.[193][194][77] In September, Trump falsely claimed Biden "walk[ed] out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund" and earned "millions" of dollars from the BHR deal.[195][196]

Trump discussed the political prospects of Biden—as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren, another political rival—during a June 18 phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The record of the call was stored on the same highly restricted computer system used for the Trump–Zelensky call record. According to two people familiar with the discussion, on the same call, Trump "also told Xi he would remain quiet on Hong Kong protests as trade talks progressed."[25]

The day after Trump's call for China to investigate Hunter Biden, Mitt Romney said: "it strains credulity to suggest that [the request] is anything other than politically motivated."[186]

On October 8, China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated: "We have no intention of intervening in the domestic affairs of the United States."[197]

Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at the Hudson Institute and a Trump advisor on trade negotiations with China, was quoted by the Financial Times on October 10: "I got quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese."[198] Pillsbury denied the quote on C-SPAN hours later, asserting: "I haven't spoken to the Financial Times for a month." The Financial Times released an email showing Pillsbury made the statement on October 9. Pillsbury later told The Washington Post, "most everything I learned was already public or well-known" and that the Chinese "really, really didn't want to talk about it".[199]

Impeachment inquiry proceedings

On September 24, 2019, a formal impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives into President Trump was announced by House Speaker Pelosi. Six House committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services, and Ways and Means)[200] will begin or continue their formal inquiries. Pelosi said, "The actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections. Therefore, today, I am announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry."[201]

The president quickly replied on Twitter, saying the Democrats "ruined and demeaned" a day of significance at the United Nations, where he was addressing the General Assembly. He also called the inquiry "Witch Hunt garbage".[201] The decision to look into impeachment came after Pelosi consulted with allies, and after reports over a seven day period "... that Trump may have pressured a foreign leader to investigate former vice president and potential 2020 campaign rival Joe Biden and his family."[201]

The impeachment inquiry came in the wake of a whistleblower complaint alleging a widespread abuse of power and a cover-up by Trump.[17][100][202] Concurrently, the Trump administration released a memorandum of the July phone call between Trump and Zelensky, confirming that Trump had asked Zelensky to "look into" the Biden controversy as a favor.[14] The whistleblower complaint also implicated Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr as part of a wider pressure campaign directed towards the Ukrainian government.[16][203] Within days, Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker resigned and three House committees issued a subpoena to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to schedule depositions for Volker and four other State Department employees, and to compel the release of documents.[204][205] In a letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel, Pompeo declined to allow the depositions until "we obtain further clarity on these matters", asserting the demand was "an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly, the distinguished professionals of the Department of State".[206] In response to Pompeo's letter, the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees wrote to deputy secretary of state John Sullivan that because Pompeo took part in the Trump–Zelensky call, he was now considered a witness with a conflict of interest that should preclude him from making such decisions. The congressmen also warned that witness intimidation and withholding of documents could constitute obstruction of the impeachment inquiry.[207][208]

Roughly an hour after Pompeo's letter was received, the State department inspector general Steve Linick requested an "urgent" meeting with several House committees the next day, relating to documents on Ukraine.[209] After the meeting, Democrats said Linick had provided a "package of disinformation, debunked conspiracy theories and baseless allegations in an envelope marked 'White House' and containing folders labeled "Trump Hotel'". Pompeo's counsel Ulrich Brechbuhl told Linick he had spoken with Pompeo, who said the package "came over", presumably from the White House. The package included a cover sheet addressed to Pompeo indicating it was from the White House. Among the allegations in the documents was that Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled in May 2019, had been installed by George Soros and "until she is removed Soros has as much, or more, power over Yovanovitch as the President and the Secretary of State". The materials reportedly arrived at the State department in spring 2019 and Linick had passed them on to the FBI. Giuliani later said he had sent some of the materials, saying, "They told me they were going to investigate it."[210][211][212][213] A subpoena was also issued to Giuliani for production of documents.[214]

The House of Representatives sought testimony from Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, whose text messages revealed his involvement with Ukrainian officials in arranging a meeting with Trump. The Trump administration blocked Sondland from testifying, claiming that the process would be a "totally compromised kangaroo court" and that "Republican's [sic] rights have been taken away and true facts are not allowed out for the public."[215]

On October 8 the White House sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders addressing their concerns with the current impeachment inquiry. In the eight page letter the White House officially declined to cooperate with what they claimed was an illegitimate effort “to overturn the results of the 2016 election.” The letter signed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone argued that the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was "constitutionally invalid" and "violates the Constitution, the rule of law, and every past precedent." Additionally the White House council objected to the current probe rules that prevent Trump from cross-examining witnesses and receiving transcripts of testimony. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to the letter stating that "The White House should be warned that continued efforts to hide the truth of the president's abuse of power from the American people will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction." It would appear that the two branches of government are headed for a constitutional showdown.[216][217]

On October 13th, Adam Schiff announced that the initial whistleblower at the heart of the impeachment inquiry might not testify. Schiff cited concerns over the whistleblower’s safety, as well as pointing to sufficient amount of evidence already gathered. “We do want to make sure that we identify other evidence that is pertinent to the [investigation] — the withholding of the military support, the effort to cover this up by hiding this in a classified computer system,” Schiff stated, “It may not be necessary to take steps that might reveal the whistleblower’s identity to do that.”[218]

Closed door hearings

John Bolton (left) with then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in March 2018. Fiona Hill testified that Bolton told her, "Giuliani's a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up."[219]

Marie Yovanovitch

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine with 30 years of foreign service, has surfaced as a key person in the impeachment inquiry. She was recalled in May 2019. On October 11, 2019, Yovanovitch told House impeachment investigators she had been informed by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan that President Trump had been pressuring the State Department to remove her from her post in Ukraine since the summer of 2018. When notified of her removal, she had been assured by the Deputy that she done nothing wrong and was not being recalled for cause. In her opening statement she said that according to her assessment, the U.S. government had elected to remove an ambassador founded on groundless and fabricated assertions by individuals with discernibly dubious intentions.[220] She told the committee that she was dismissed because she had candidly disapproved of Giuliani and the office of former prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko. "She also noted that Lutsenko's claim that she had given him a 'do not prosecute' list was false, and that Lutsenko himself had walked it back."[221]

Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill, the former top Russia advisor in the Trump White House, testified in a closed-door hearing on October 14, telling investigators that Giuliani ran a "shadow" foreign policy in Ukraine that circumvented normal diplomatic channels for Trump's personal benefit.[222] According to Hill, John Bolton – who at the time was Trump's National Security Advisor – found the attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Trump's political rivals sufficiently alarming that he told her to report the operation to the National Security Council's lawyer. "I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up," Bolton instructed her to inform the attorney. Hill characterized Bolton as saying Giuliani was "a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up." [223]

George Kent

George Kent, a career United States diplomat, met with impeachment investigators (of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees) on October 15, 2019 , even though the State Department ordered him not to testify and tried to limit his testimony. He is currently the number two diplomat in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and has much experience in the U.S. State Department's anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine dating back to 2014. Beginning in March 2019, Kent expressed misgivings to colleagues about the pressure being applied to Ukraine by President Trump and Giuliani to carry out official inquiries into Mr. Trump’s political adversaries.[224] Kent also directed attention to Giuliani’s “disinformation” operation which planned to enroll a Ukrainian prosecutor to slander Trump opponents: Joseph Biden, Marie Yovanovitch, and Ukrainians believed to have circulated harmful information about Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.[224][225] Internal emails submitted by the State Department's Inspector General show Kent criticizing a "fake news smear" about Ms. Yovanovitch that were touted by conservative broadcasting commentators linked with Mr. Trump. in another email, he disapproved of the Ukrainian prosecutor who was circulating allegations about Ms. Yovanovitch and said they were “complete poppycock.” [224] To investigators he testified that after a May 2019 meeting arranged by Mick Mulvaney, he was mostly excluded from decisions about Ukraine policymaking, calling his exclusion by President Trump’s insiders; Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, and Rick Perry; as “wrong.” The three "declared themselves the three people now responsible for Ukraine policy."[224] At certain times, Kent was told to "lay low" on matters regarding Ukraine.

Michael McKinley

Michael McKinley testified on October 16, 2019. He served directly under Mike Pompeo and his function was as a connection between Pompeo and the rest of the Foreign Service.[226] McKinley told investigators that he resigned in early October because career U.S. Diplomats were being mistreated, and that there were distressing charges about efforts to coerce the Ukrainian president into conducting investigations for President Trump. He also quit due to the ramifications of collecting damaging information on domestic political opponents, the probable significant effects "on Foreign Service morale and the integrity of our work overseas", [226][227] as well as the influence of career diplomats having no effect, and the lack of protection and support for career Foreign Service workers during the impeachment inquiry. The culmination of his perturbation was the recall of Ambassador Yovanovitch, which he and numerous other career diplomats saw as unjustifiable and punitive.[226][227]

Gordon D. Sondland

Gordon D. Sondland, believed to be at the heart of efforts to pressure Ukraine, met with impeachment investigators on Thursday, October 17, 2019. He is the United States ambassador to Europe. [224] In his testimony Sondland criticized Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival. He joined in other U.S. officials' disappointment at being forced to work with Rudy Giuliani on issues involving Ukraine.[228]

Others

Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a Trump loyalist, attempted to attend the hearings but was ejected after a parliamentarian ruling as he is not a member of any of the committees involved.[229]

Subsequent developments

Arrest of Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman and David Correia

Subpoena issued to John M. Dowd, regarding his clients Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Click on image to expand and read

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are associates of Rudy Giuliani, aiding him with his investigation into Joe Biden. Both are Soviet-born Florida real estate businessmen and naturalized American citizens.[86][230] The two were arrested on the evening of October 9, 2019, and charged with planning to direct funds from a foreign government "to U.S. politicians while trying to influence U.S.-Ukraine relations". They were arrested while trying to leave the United States and their arrest constitutes the first criminal charges to occur from the United States government's controversial relationship with Ukraine. Their arrest was described as a "complex web of financial and political interactions linking diplomacy to alleged violations of campaign finance law".[52] The head of the New York's FBI office described the investigation as "about corrupt behavior, deliberate lawbreaking".[52] Parnas and Freeman are currently in federal custody on a $1 million bond each and have not entered pleas, but will do so in court on October 17, 2019.[231]

The charges have also directly connected Parnas and Fruman to the campaign to oust the United States ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, from her post and have her recalled.[232] This occurred over many months.[86] In 2018, the operation included Parnas and Fruman donating funds and pledging later additional money to an unnamed Congressman, who was recruited for the "campaign to oust her".[232] Some of the funds violated campaign limits. Parnas and Fruman were also charged with unlawful campaign contributions. Former congressional Representative Pete Sessions (R-Texas) correlates with campaign finance filings, identifying him as the unnamed Congressman. At the time, as the chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, he wrote a May 9, 2018 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "saying that Ms. Yovanovitch should be fired for privately expressing 'disdain' for the current administration."[232] Earlier that day, Parnas and his business partner David Correia visited Sessions in his Capitol Hill office.[233] Correia was arrested by the FBI at JFK International on October 16 on charges of using foreign money for political influence to advance a marijuana scheme.[234]

In 2018, Parnas and Fruman were sent by Guiliani to Ukraine to extract damaging information on Trump's U.S. political rivals. "Their mission was to find people and information that could be used to undermine the Special Counsel's investigation, and also to damage former Vice President Joseph R. Biden."[235] Both were also at the center of the pro-Trump forces' push to remove the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine because her loyalty to President Trump was deemed deficient "as he pursued his agenda there".[235] Also, over the course of a year beginning in 2018, the two brought Giuliani to Ukrainians who were amenable to promoting "a largely unsubstantiated narrative about the Bidens".[235] These willing Ukrainians included Yuriy Lutsenko, a former Prosecutor General of Ukraine, who was essential to aiding Giuliani's efforts to produce damaging information.

The FBI's New York field office, along with SDNY prosecutors, are conducting a criminal investigation of Giuliani's relationship with Parnas and Fruman.[236] Giuliani is under federal investigation for his business activities in Ukraine and potentially violating lobbying laws.[237][53] He is also under investigation by FBI counterintelligence.[238][239] SDNY prosecutors have examined Giuliani's bank statements. They are also investigating his finances, as well as meetings with and work for a Ukrainian city mayor.[231] SDNY investigators have been questioning witnesses about Giuliani since August 2019, gathering information about his relationship to Parnas and Fruman. In the media, Giuliani has been acting unconcerned about the investigation.[231]

Referring to Parnas and Fruman, on October 10 Trump stated, "I don't know those gentlemen," although that day The Wall Street Journal reported Trump had dinner with the men in the White House in early May 2018.[240][241] BuzzFeed News features photos of Lev Parnas posing with President Trump and both Parnas and Fruman posing with other Republicans in Washington, DC.[242] Trump was photographed with Parnas as early as April 2014.[243]

On October 15, 2019, it was reported that a New York grand jury has subpoenaed former congressman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) for documents and other information about his intercommunications and cooperation with Giuliani, Parnas, and Freeman. The subpoena demonstrates that the investigation into Giuliani's relationship to Parnas and Freeman is still active, as prosecutors determine whether Giuliani engaged in any illegal behavior. Giuliani seems to be the focal point of the subpoena.[244] Sought after documents pertain to Giuliani's business affairs in Ukraine and his connection to the ouster of the former US ambassador.[244] The unsealed indictment against Parnas says he sought the help of the congressman to dismiss the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine while sourcing the money to the congressman on behalf of "one or more Ukrainian government officials."[245] Sessions followed up with a letter to the Seceratary of State requesting the ouster of the ambassador.

Reactions

Congress

On September 22, House speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that if the administration continued to withhold the whistleblower complaint from Congress, "they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation." House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, stating he had previously been "very reluctant" to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump, said, "we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here."[246] The vast majority of Republicans did not comment on the matter, with notable exceptions of senators Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney, both of whom suggested Trump should release information to resolve the situation.[247]

On September 24, the Senate adopted by unanimous consent a sense of the Senate resolution calling for the whistleblower complaint to be immediately transmitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee.[248]

Following the release of the memorandum of the conversation between Trump and Zelensky, Senator Romney called the memorandum "deeply troubling" and asked for more information to be made public.[249] Pelosi stated that the memorandum "confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security."[250][251]

Some Republican senators dismissed the credibility of the whistleblower complaint as hearsay, but legal analysts subsequently found that assertions the whistleblower made in the complaint were verified by the memorandum record of Trump's telephone call.[252][253]

On September 26, during a House hearing, Representative Adam Schiff gave a summary of the "essence" and the "character" of the Trump–Zelensky call. One part of Schiff's retelling was not represented in the non-verbatim memorandum of the call provided by the White House, when Schiff stated: "And I'm going to say this only seven times so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand. Lots of it. On this and on that." After Representative Mike Turner accused Schiff of "just making it up", Schiff responded that his summary "was meant to be at least part in parody" and acknowledged that "the president never said if you don't understand me, I'm going to say it seven more times." However, Schiff argued: "That's the message that the Ukraine president was receiving in not so many words."[254]

Senator Graham urged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to assist Attorney General Barr with investigation "as the Department of Justice continues to investigate the origins and extent of foreign influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election".[255] Trump supporters on television, radio, and the Internet have pressured Republicans to continue supporting Trump. Republicans that have spoken out against Trump, expressed concern, or defended the whistleblower, such as Senators Mitt Romney, Charles Grassley, Ben Sasse and Representative Adam Kinzinger, have come under criticism online by right-wing websites, with Romney becoming the target of baseless conspiracy theories and virally spread disinformation.[256]

Trump and the White House

President Trump answers questions from the press on September 22, 2019

In his initial comments to reporters on September 20, Trump characterized the whistleblower as "partisan", but added, "I do not know the identity of the whistleblower" and called the story "just another political hack job".[257][d] Trump also said: "Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden's statement because it was disgraceful where he talked about billions of dollars that he's not giving to a certain country unless a certain prosecutor is taken off the case. So somebody ought to look into that," suggesting the press was not reporting it. The press has reported on the Joe Biden matter for months but found no evidence of wrongdoing.[260][78][75] On September 23, Trump asserted: "If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they'd be getting the electric chair right now."[261] Before the White House released a rough transcript, Trump claimed that his call with Zelensky was "largely congratulatory" and "largely [discussed] corruption". However, the White House's rough transcript showed only a short congratulatory comment and no mentions of corruption.[262] Within six hours of the impeachment inquiry being announced on September 24, Trump and his campaign team started a fundraising drive for an "Impeachment Defense Team". Forty-eight hours later, they had raised in excess of $13 million dollars and signed up 50,000 new donors.[263][264]

On September 25, during a meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky, Trump said: "I want [Zelensky] to do whatever he can. Biden's son walks out of Ukraine with millions and millions of dollars. I think it's a horrible thing."[265] Trump denied explicitly tying U.S. military aid to Ukraine's corruption investigation involving Burisma Holdings.[266] On September 27, Trump characterized the whistleblower as "close to a spy", adding: "you know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle them a little differently than we do now."[267] On September 29, Trump requested to meet the whistleblower, saying that he and the American people "deserved" to meet them. He later stated that the White House was trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower. He also demanded that Adam Schiff be arrested and questioned "at the highest level" for fraud and treason.[268][269]

In a letter from the whistleblower's lawyers addressed to the Director of National Intelligence, the whistleblower claimed to be afraid for their safety.[268] On October 1, Trump claimed that any attempt to remove him from office would result in a "Civil War-like fracture". He also called for Schiff to be arrested for treason,[270] and later claimed that Nancy Pelosi was "every bit as guilty as Liddle' [sic] Adam Schiff for High Crimes and Misdemeanours, and even Treason" before calling for both Schiff and Pelosi to be impeached themselves as they had "evilly 'Colluded'".[271]

Vice President Mike Pence and US delegation meets with President Zelensky in Warsaw on 1 September 2019

On October 3, after stating that the United States has "tremendous power" and "many options" in the trade war with China "if they don't do what we want", Trump was asked by a reporter on what he hoped Zelensky would do after his phone call. Trump responded by publicly urging both Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens.[47] Later in the day, Vice President Mike Pence voiced his support of Trump's comments, saying: "I think the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from his position."[272] Pence stated that the activities of the Biden family were "worth looking into".[273] Trump later claimed that when he called upon China to investigate the Bidens, his only interest was in thwarting corruption. Mitt Romney was critical of this, saying: "When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China's investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that this is anything other than politically motivated."[274]

Ukrainian President Zelensky with Kurt Volker and Rick Perry, May 2019.

On October 4, Trump told Congressional Republican leaders that the only reason he called Zelensky was at the urging of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, saying Perry wanted him to discuss a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant and that Trump had not even wanted to make the call. However, there is no mention of LNG in the publicly released summary of the conversation, and text messages exchanged among aides who were setting up the phone call made no mention of Perry, instead suggesting that Giuliani was the primary mover.[275] Perry had been the administration's official representative at Zelensky's inauguration in May. During that trip; he pressured Zelensky to fire board members of Naftogaz, the national oil and gas company of Ukraine, and informed government and industry officials that the Trump administration wanted the entirety of Naftogaz's supervisory board replaced.[86] Perry denied pressing for change at Naftogaz in a press conference on October 7, describing that as "a totally dreamed up story".[87] On October 10, however, Perry was issued a subpoena by the House Intelligence Committee, the House Oversight Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, partially concerning his interactions with Naftogaz.[88][89][90]

On October 17 Mike Mulvaney acknowledged that Trump’s decision to withhold aid to Ukraine earlier in the year was indeed tied to his demand that Kyiv investigate issues related to U.S. elections and his political rivals.[276] "Get over it," Mulvaney said. "There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy."[277]

Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky meets with Donald Trump in New York City on September 25, 2019

On September 20, Roman Truba, head of the Ukraine State Bureau of Investigations, told The Daily Beast that his agency had not investigated the Biden–Burisma connection and there were no signs of illegality there. Anton Herashchenko, a senior advisor to the Ukraine interior minister, told The Daily Beast that Ukraine will open such an investigation if there is an official request, along with details of why an investigation is needed and what to look for. Trump's requests have come through unofficial representatives such as Giuliani.[83] On September 22, Senator Chris Murphy said Zelensky told him he had no intention to get involved with an American election.[278]

In an interview released on September 24, Ukrainian diplomat and politician Valentyn Nalyvaichenko told The Daily Beast that Ukrainian authorities would be reopening corruption investigations into multiple individuals and organizations including, potentially, Burisma, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, TV host Larry King, and former prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. King was suspected of receiving slush fund payments recorded in the "black ledger" that also named Manafort. Nalyvaichenko accused Lutsenko of having been in communication with associates of Trump "for vindictive purposes".[279]

During a joint press conference with Trump to reporters gathered at the United Nations General Assembly, Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters on September 25: "We had I think good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things. So, I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed me."[265][280][281] Ukrainian foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko told a Ukrainian news outlet on September 21: "I know what the conversation was about and I think there was no pressure. This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on many questions, sometimes requiring serious answers."[282] Prystaiko was also quoted as saying: "I want to say that we are an independent state, we have our secrets."[282] Finally, regarding the investigation into the Biden issue, Zelensky made it clear that he was not going to interfere with the intra-American party confrontation.[283] During the joint press conference with Trump, Zelensky said he had not pressured anyone nor made any promises, and that the Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka would investigate all domestic cases without prejudice.[284]

European Union

During the conversation, Zelensky and Trump criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Union for a lack of support toward Ukraine.[285] Elmar Brok, special adviser on Ukraine for President Jean-Claude Juncker, refuted the criticism, pointing to the economic boost provided by the European Union through a free trade agreement. In addition, he claimed the United States has not signed a similar agreement with Ukraine.[285] The conversation prompted Europeans to calculate the amount of aid given to Ukraine since 2014, and by approximate estimates, the EU and European financial institutions have provided assistance to more than $16 billion in grants and loans.[286]

In the overall ranking in 2016–2017, the European Union is the leader in terms of aid, the U.S. the second, and Germany is the third.[287] However, Ukrainian media analyzed the data and found that from 2014, Germany provided aid of 1.4 billion euros: 500 million euros is a loan that will be repaid, 200 million euros is a share of Germany from European Union assistance, and the rest is really full-fledged assistance.[288][289] Germany has stated that its attitude towards Ukraine has not changed.[290][291]

Russia

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov expressed support for an investigation into Hunter Biden. Azarov fled to Russia in 2014 following the Euromaidan protests; he is currently in exile in Moscow, has called for a pro-Russian 'regime change' in Ukraine,[292] is wanted for prosecution in Ukraine for abuse of power and embezzlement, and has set up a government in exile that is widely seen as a pro-Russian puppet.[293][294][295]

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated: "You have to admit, the publication of a full transcript of a conversation — be it by phone or face-to-face — is uncommon in interstate diplomatic practice. At least, uncommon until now."[296][297] Speaking at an energy conference in Moscow, Putin said: "I didn't see during the telephone conversation that Trump demanded some compromising information from Zelensky at all costs, and threatened that he would [otherwise] not provide assistance to Ukraine."[298]

Former U.S. officials

More than 300 former U.S. foreign policy and national security officials who served under both Democratic and Republican administrations signed an open letter on September 27, supporting a congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump's conduct relating to Ukraine. The officials, who formerly served in the U.S. Intelligence Community, National Security Council, and departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, wrote that Trump's actions raised "a profound national security concern" and that "President Trump appears to have leveraged the authority and resources of the highest office in the land to invite additional foreign interference into our democratic processes. If we fail to speak up—and act—now our foreign policy and national security will officially be on offer to those who can most effectively fulfill the President's personal prerogatives."[299][300]

The American Foreign Service Association and American Academy of Diplomacy, representing members of the U.S. diplomatic corps, expressed alarm at Trump's disparagement of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in his call with Zelensky.[301]

Ten former White House chiefs of staff, who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents[e] described it as unprecedented for an incumbent president to "personally apply pressure to foreign powers to damage political opponents".[8] When the ten were interviewed, "none recalled any circumstance under which the White House had solicited or accepted political help from other countries, and all said they would have considered the very idea out of bounds."[8]

American press coverage

On September 25, 2019, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an editorial urging Congressional Republicans to call for Trump's resignation.[302]

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace characterized the spin by Trump allies in the immediate aftermath of the whistleblower complaint becoming public as "astonishing" and "deeply misleading".[303]

Trump's unsubstantiated claims about Biden were repeated in a reelection campaign commercial that said: "when President Trump asks Ukraine to investigate corruption, the Democrats want to impeach him and their media lapdogs fall in line." CNN refused to broadcast the ads because Trump's claims had already been debunked and for disparaging its journalists.[304]

Public opinion

In the days after the controversy arose, multiple polls showed a surge in support for an impeachment inquiry, or impeachment itself.[by how much?][305][306][307]

Resignations

The American special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, resigned one day after the complaint was released. The whistleblower complaint alleges Volker "sought to 'contain the damage' from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani's outreach to Ukraine's government about the Biden family."[308] On October 10, Michael McKinley, a senior advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, resigned over disappointment in Pompeo's lack of public support for those named in the controversy.[309]

Internet communities

After the whistleblower complaint was publicized, discussion forums on the Internet tried to identify its author. These attempts at "doxing" were marked by disorganized speculation, racism and misogyny.[310]

Conspiracy theories

CrowdStrike

George Stephanopoulos described the details of the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory as "both convoluted and false".

During the July 25, 2019, phone call between Trump and Zelensky, Trump referred to a far-right conspiracy theory pushed by internet trolls, right-wing blogs, and right-wing news websites.[311][312][313] This conspiracy theory concerns CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity and internet security firm that first investigated the 2015–2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) network and determined that Russian military intelligence (GRU) was behind these cyber attacks. Tom Bossert, Trump's former Homeland Security Advisor, stated in an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that Trump was repeatedly warned by his staff that the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory was "completely debunked". Of the conspiracy theory, Stephanopoulos said: "The details are both convoluted and false." Bossert blamed Giuliani for Trump's fixation upon the conspiracy theory.[314][315]

The overarching theme of this conspiracy theory is that the DNC fabricated evidence to implicate Russia in the cyber attacks.[316] CrowdStrike's co-founder, Dmitri Alperovitch, is a naturalized American citizen born in the Soviet Union.[317][318] According to the hoax, Alperovitch is a Ukrainian who was ordered by the DNC to discredit Russia for the election interference, and he was personally motivated to get even with Vladimir Putin. Also, according to the theory, CrowdStrike is owned by a rich Ukrainian[103] and the actual server involved in the cyber attack is in Ukraine. CrowdStrike is actually a publicly traded company headquartered in California. "The" server is actually 140 servers, decommissioned and located in the United States.[319] The theory additionally says FBI agents were not allowed to examine the server because such action would expose the DNC plot,[316] although in fact—and as documented in the Mueller Reportimages and traffic logs of the DNC servers were provided to the FBI.[319][320] This conspiracy theory originated from a "GRU persona, 'Guccifer 2.0', created to cast doubt on Russia's culpability in the DNC [intrusion]."[316][321]

First whistleblower

Various right-wing commentators speculated the whistleblower had help from others, perhaps constituting a coordinated conspiracy. Speculation centered around Adam Schiff, the press, Fusion GPS, Media Matters, a team of lawyers or a research firm, and the intelligence community in general.[322][323][324][325] After the whistleblower had informed the CIA's general counsel of his concerns, he grew troubled by "how that initial avenue for airing his allegations through the CIA was unfolding", according to The New York Times. He then contacted an aide for the House Intelligence Committee and provided a vague statement. The aide then followed standard procedure and advised the whistleblower to find a lawyer and file a complaint with the ICIG. Neither Rep. Schiff nor the other members of the Committee saw the complaint until the night before they released it publicly, and the Committee was not involved in writing the complaint.[326][327] Schiff and the Committee had no role in helping the whistleblower select an attorney. According to Mark S. Zaid, a member of the whistleblower's pro bono legal team: "The whistleblower took the advice to find an attorney and did what most people do, they asked around to trusted friends as to who they should contact. Andrew [Bakaj]'s name was provided and he was retained. Exactly how it happens every day."[328] Andrew P. Bakaj is the Lead Attorney representing the whistleblower. During a news conference on October 2, Trump claimed that the New York Times article proved Schiff had helped write the whistleblower complaint,[326] prompting one of the reporters who wrote the story to reply on Twitter that their story said no such thing and that Schiff had not even known the whistleblower's identity.[329]

In late September, Trump put forth the conspiracy theory that "whistleblower rules" were changed "just before" the whistleblower's report was submitted to accommodate the complaint against him.[330] Senator Lindsey Graham made a similar claim about the "hearsay rule", while Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow claimed that the old situation was: "No firsthand information, no report".[331][332][333] Trump's claim was based on an article from The Federalist, which accused the ICIG of having "secretly eliminated a requirement that whistleblowers provide direct, first-hand knowledge of alleged wrongdoings", by revising their complaint form sometime between May 2018 and August 2019, removing a section from the old form containing the sentence: "If you think wrongdoing took place, but can provide nothing more than secondhand or unsubstantiated assertions, IC IG will not be able to process the complaint or information for submission as an ICWPA."[331][332] According to The Daily Beast, the article in The Federalist did not mention that the old form had checkboxes where the whistleblower could indicate that their information was "direct" or from either "other employees" or other indirect sources.[333][334]

The IC IG responded the whistleblower's complaint was submitted with the old form (before the forms changed), and that the whistleblower's complaint was based on both "direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct" and knowledge from other employees.[29][30] The IC IG also stated that the old form had been under review, and that "in response to recent press inquiries regarding the instant whistleblower complaint", the form was changed because "certain language in those forms and, more specifically, the informational materials accompanying the forms, could be read – incorrectly – as suggesting that whistleblowers must possess first-hand information in order to file an urgent concern complaint".[29] The IC IG also said that by law a complainant is not required to have "first-hand information" themselves, and that their office "cannot add conditions to the filing of an urgent concern that do not exist in law".[29]

PolitiFact and The Washington Post reported that the "rules" for whistleblowing arise from Intelligence Community Directive 120, last updated in 2016. The directive states that the requirement for a complaint is to be one which the whistleblower "reasonably believes evidences a violation of any law, rule or regulation".[331][334] According to CNN, the burden of obtaining and evaluating first-hand knowledge for credibility is placed on the IC IG, who has 14 days to conduct an investigation to do so.[330] In this case, the preliminary review done by the IC IG did find more information to support the allegations as credible.[335] Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit watchdog organization, stated that only around 10% of all credible whistleblower complaints have firsthand information.[336]

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a prominent supporter of whistleblowers and author of whistleblowing laws, declared: "the distinctions being drawn between first- and second-hand knowledge aren't legal ones. It's just not part of whistleblower protection law or any agency policy. Complaints based on second-hand information should not be rejected out of hand, but they do require additional leg work to get at the facts and evaluate the claim's credibility."[337][338]

George Soros

In late-September television appearances, Giuliani asserted without offering any evidence that George Soros, a frequent subject of conservative conspiracy theories, was running an anti-Trump scheme in Ukraine while Biden was protecting Soros from prosecution there.[339][340] The lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing appeared as guests on The Sean Hannity Show to promote the conspiracy theory that Soros funded the whistleblower. They cited the whistleblower's footnote references to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an organization that has received grants from Soros' Open Society Foundations among multiple other funding sources.[341] Soros was also invoked, again without evidence, by the media organization Breitbart News.[310]

Discredited allegations against Soros were also part of a "packet of propaganda and disinformation" that had been circulating within the State Department since May, 2019, until being revealed to Congress on October 2.[342]

Mitt Romney

On September 22, 2019, Republican senator Mitt Romney said it "would be troubling in the extreme" if Trump had requested Zelensky to investigate a political rival. The next day, Bill Kristol, a conservative columnist, speculated that Romney's comments may have "helped reassure" Speaker Nancy Pelosi as House Democrats planned an impeachment inquiry. On September 25, Trump-supporting radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed that Romney "had phone calls or meetings, whatever, with Pelosi and assured her that there was Republican support to remove Trump", resulting in conspiracy theories spread on right-wing websites.[256][343] The next day, the conservative American Thinker website pointed out that an ex-adviser for Romney's 2012 presidential campaign was now on Burisma's board of directors. As a result, this sparked false theories online and on radio shows that Romney himself had meaningful ties to Burisma. However, the ex-adviser is no longer affiliated with Romney, and he joined Burisma in 2017, years after Romney's presidential campaign ended.[256]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ The document, titled a "Memorandum of Telephone Conversation" includes a notation stating that it was "not a verbatim transcript" and was prepared based on "notes and recollections of Situation Room duty officers" and National Security Council staff.[100] Senior administration officials said voice recognition software was also used in preparing the memorandum.[19][100] Some sources describe the document as a "rough transcript".[101]
  2. ^ §II, p. 3
  3. ^ On September 3, 2019, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a classified memorandum, written by the office's head, Steven A. Engel, stating that the acting DNI did not need to give the complaint to Congress because, in his view, the complaint was not related to "an intelligence activity" under the acting DNI's authority.[36][167] Engel's letter stated that the whistleblower's complaint should instead be referred to the Justice Department.[36] A declassified version of the OLC's memo was released on September 24, 2019.[167]
  4. ^ Michael Atkinson, the ICIG who found the whistleblower complaint credible and urgent, was appointed during the Trump administration.[258][259]
  5. ^ The chiefs of staff were from the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations.[8]

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External links