THE BIG IDEA: President Trump called John Bolton at home to complain after he saw a CNN report last December that said the U.S. Navy was preparing to sail a warship into the Black Sea as a show of strength following Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian vessels and sailors, a State Department official testified. The maneuvers were canceled after the then-national security adviser conveyed these concerns.
That’s one of the eyebrow-raising, Russia-related revelations in the three transcripts released on Monday night by House impeachment investigators, as they prepare for the start of televised hearings tomorrow. The disclosure hints at Trump playing a more hands-on role in Ukraine policy than his defenders want to acknowledge as they search for possible fall guys to pin the blame on.
Trump talks a big game about how important it is to be strong on the world stage, and he’s declared that “nobody has been tougher on Russia” than he has been, but his recurring impulse to disregard Vladimir Putin’s provocations has been anything but. It’s put him at odds with many of the more hawkish aides he installed in the national security firmament.
“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report. And that may have just been that he was surprised,” said Christopher Anderson, a senior Ukraine specialist at the State Department. “I can't speculate as to why, but that operation was canceled.”
Anderson recalled hearing Bolton joke about how Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, seemed to pop up every time Ukraine was mentioned, according to the 118-page transcript of his Oct. 30 deposition. He also said that Gordon Sondland, the Trump megadonor who got appointed as ambassador to the European Union, played an outsized role, even though Ukraine is not a member of the E.U.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has orchestrated a separatist war in the eastern part of Ukraine that has left at least 13,000 people dead. In November 2018, Russia escalated the conflict again by capturing three Ukrainian-flagged military vessels and detaining 24 sailors in the Kerch Strait as they headed to a Ukrainian port in the Sea of Azov.
“While my colleagues at the State Department quickly prepared a statement condemning Russia for its escalation, senior officials in the White House blocked it from being issued,” Anderson testified.
Instead, it was left to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to condemn the move. Later, Trump would cite the Russian seizure of the vessels when he canceled a scheduled meeting with Putin during the G-20 in Argentina. But Anderson said that Ukrainian officials noticed Trump’s silence, especially as other Western leaders spoke out, and they asked their counterparts in the American government why the White House never expressed support.
Ironically, Anderson explained, the CNN story that prompted the president’s complaint to Bolton was overblown. (He said during the hearing that he thought it came out in early January, but the piece was published in December.)
“The news report seemed to be, in my understanding, exaggerating the situation, because all the Navy had done was file a standard notification under the Montreux Convention that they were planning to transit into the Black Sea,” Anderson said.
The Montreux Convention is a 1936 treaty that requires any country without coastline on the Black Sea to notify Turkey at least 15 days before transiting a military vessel through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, which connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
Anderson, a career foreign service officer, added that U.S. officials forged ahead with a subsequent operation in February to show support for Ukraine by deploying an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Russian invasion of Crimea.
-- Other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have also linked the Russia and Ukraine sagas. George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, testified that Trump appeared to sour on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky between their calls on April 21 and July 25 partly because of conversations he had with Putin, the Russian president, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
-- A belief that Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence has been cited by other inside sources as a possible explanation for Trump’s treatment of Kyiv. During a meeting with his own aides in the fall of 2017, before a sit-down with Ukraine’s previous president, former aides have told us that Trump grumbled that Ukraine is not a “real country” and that it had always been a part of Russia.
-- In another transcript released Monday night, State Department Ukraine specialist Catherine Croft revealed that Mick Mulvaney – before he became acting White House chief of staff – placed a peculiar hold on the sale of Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. It was “highly unusual,” she explained, because he was running the Office of Management and Budget at the time. She said the policy concern he expressed related to how the Russians would react, which was outside of his primary portfolio, and came after the secretaries of defense and state had signed off. Ultimately, Croft said, then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster had her brief Mulvaney on the value of the weapons and he dropped his hold after “a week or two.”
“In a briefing with Mr. Mulvaney, the question centered around the Russian reaction,” Croft testified. “That Russia would react negatively to the provision of Javelins to Ukraine.”
-- Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, said during her deposition that it, similarly, seemed peculiar when OMB officials froze aid to Ukraine this summer. The Pentagon had greenlighted the money, and there was consensus that the money was essential across the national security apparatus, when the budget office blocked the money from being transferred, reportedly at Trump’s apparent behest.
-- The latest tranche of testimony further undercuts the Trump team’s talking point that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo because Ukrainian leaders didn’t find out that nearly $400 million in congressional approved security assistance had been frozen until Politico reported on it in late August. Croft said the Ukrainians “found out very early on” after the OMB froze the funds at Trump’s behest on July 18.
Cooper told investigators that Kurt Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine and Croft’s boss at the time, led her to make a “very strong inference” that the Ukrainians knew weeks before the freeze became public. The deputy assistant secretary of defense testified that Ukrainian leaders would never have entertained Volker’s request for a public statement about launching investigations unless they were doing so in exchange for “something valuable.” Furthermore, Cooper noted that acting ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor was also sounding “alarm bells … that there were Ukrainians who knew” about the freeze before it became publicly known, though she didn’t provide specific dates.
Cooper testified that her team at the Pentagon was especially concerned the funds were being held up by the White House this summer because it weakened Ukraine’s hand in negotiations with Russia. “They are trying to negotiate a peace with Russia, and if they are seen as weak, and if they are seen to lack the backing of the United States for their armed forces, it makes it much more difficult for them to negotiate a peace on terms that are good for Ukraine,” she said.
-- Two of Trump’s other explanations also don’t hold up under scrutiny. “The president, in his defense, asserts that he was concerned about corruption writ large in Ukraine, not in securing some 2020 election advantage. In addition, he says he was angered that European allies were not doing enough financially to help the beleaguered country, leaving the United States to carry the can,” Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima report. But, on the July 25 call, “Trump did not mention any wider concern about overall corruption related to U.S. assistance, the subject that he and senior administration officials now insist was the basis for the sudden holdup after years of steady security aid.” Also: “European nations have far outpaced the United States in Ukraine, spending $18.3 billion since Russia annexed Crimea … By contrast, combined military and nonmilitary assistance from the United States has totaled about $4 billion over the same period…”
-- Connecting the dots: Career employees have emerged as crucial witnesses more than in any political scandal in modern history. “All but one of the 11 career Foreign Service staff, military officers and Pentagon officials who first testified in closed-door depositions in the Capitol basement are still in government," Lisa Rein reports. "For now, they’ve faced no efforts to punish them for telling House investigators that normal diplomacy was bypassed by a rogue foreign policy to benefit Trump politically, their lawyers say. However, former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who is scheduled to testify publicly on Friday, is close to retirement and told House investigators that she felt ‘threatened’ by the president — and worried about her pension and her employment.”
MORE ON MULVANEY:
-- The White House’s bifurcated and disjointed response to the impeachment inquiry has been fueled by a battle between Mulvaney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone. Erica Werner, Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Rachael Bade report: “Mulvaney has urged aides not to comply with the inquiry and blocked any cooperation with congressional Democrats. Top political aides at the Office of Management and Budget, which Mulvaney once led, have fallen in line with his defiant stance ... Mulvaney’s office blames [Cipollone] for not doing more to stop other government officials from participating in the impeachment inquiry, as a number of State Department officials, diplomats and an aide to Vice President Pence have given sworn testimony to Congress.
"Cipollone, meanwhile, has fumed that Mulvaney only made matters worse with his Oct. 17 news conference, when he publicly acknowledged a quid pro quo, essentially confirming Democrats’ accusations in front of television cameras and reporters. Cipollone did not want Mulvaney to hold the news conference, a message that was passed along to the acting chief of staff’s office, according to two senior Trump advisers ... A Mulvaney aide said a team of White House lawyers prepared him for the news conference and never said he should not do it.
“Neither Mulvaney nor Cipollone has broad experience navigating a White House through such a tumultuous period. But their actions have contributed to the White House’s increasingly tenuous response to the impeachment inquiry ... Despite the high stakes, the White House moved slowly to hire a staff specifically dedicated to working on the impeachment issue, a concern that was expressed to the White House by multiple GOP senators … Another dispute between the Mulvaney and Cipollone camps emerged over the potential hiring of former congressman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) ... Mulvaney advocated for hiring his former House colleague and longtime friend ... But Cipollone was opposed. ... Some Hill Republicans were not pleased and have accused Cipollone of being territorial behind the scenes. They wanted Gowdy ... to lead the cross-examination for Trump in the Senate — a role Cipollone is said to want for himself. ...
"Trump has complained about his legal team to White House officials and advisers in recent weeks, saying they need to be more aggressive and defend him more. ... At the same time, Trump has been complaining about Mulvaney, blaming him for his political troubles, and has toyed with the idea of replacing him ... Some administration officials complain that Cipollone has not kept Mulvaney and other White House offices in the loop on key decisions. Cipollone’s office released the transcript of the president’s July 25 call with his Ukrainian counterpart — a move Mulvaney opposed ... Neither the acting chief of staff nor some members of the White House press office knew ahead of time that was going to happen. ...
"GOP senators have been worried that the White House was moving too slowly to hire staffers specifically dedicated to working on the impeachment issue as the inquiry moves into its public phase. Multiple senators made this concern known to the White House, the aide said. Their concerns were finally alleviated last week with news that Pam Bondi, a former attorney general of Florida, and Tony Sayegh, a former Treasury Department spokesman, would join the administration to work on impeachment-related messaging and other issues."
-- Last night, Mulvaney withdrew a last-minute effort to join a lawsuit filed by Bolton's former top deputy, Charles Kupperman. Spencer Hsu reports: "Mulvaney said he will file his own lawsuit focused on the same question: Must senior Trump administration officials testify in Congress’s impeachment inquiry? Kupperman, in a filing earlier Monday, opposed Mulvaney’s request to join the case ... Kupperman attorney Charles J. Cooper, who also represents Bolton, had suggested that the same judge weigh Mulvaney’s claims 'in tandem' as a separate, related case. The two former Trump national security aides are said by people close to them to consider Mulvaney a key participant in President Trump’s alleged effort to pressure the Ukrainian government ... Mulvaney’s attempt to join the lawsuit flabbergasted Bolton and Kupperman ... with Bolton aides having testified that he derisively referred to the Ukrainian proposal as 'a drug deal,' and White House officials saying Bolton and Mulvaney were barely on speaking terms when Bolton left his post in September."