Trump’s Extortion of Ukraine: A Complete Government Shakedown

U.S. President Donald Trump is flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin during a press conference in which he defended his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, New York City, September 25, 2019.

Find more about Trump’s Constitutional Crisis as it develops here.

It now appears that President Donald Trump was running an extortion campaign against Ukraine, as well as a complex cover-up to keep the public in the dark about his abuse of power. On July 18, 2019, the Trump administration withheld $250 million of military aid to Ukraine. Seven days later, Trump held a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which he asked Zelensky to work with Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The transcript of this call, which was partially the subject of a whistleblower complaint, reportedly was initially buried by the White House. It has now come out that the phone call with Zelensky wasn’t the only conversation between Trump and a foreign leader that the administration sought to hide; reports say Trump also recently tried to persuade Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to work with Barr to discredit the Russia investigation.

However, the Ukraine extortion scheme doesn’t just implicate President Donald Trump; rather, it involves a whole host of top administration officials and advisers. Here are just a few of the individuals who may be able to shed light on the extent of Trump’s extortion and corruption campaign.

Attorney Rudy Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani is the president’s personal lawyer and currently has no official government position. He is neither elected nor appointed to public office and has no responsibility to act in the interests of the American people. Giuliani has denied all wrongdoing.

  • Going back to at least late 2018, Giuliani has been Trump’s point person on the Ukraine shakedown, when he began setting up meetings with Ukrainian officials to reportedly pressure them to investigate former Vice President Biden and his son. However, prior to that point, Giuliani had been cultivating relationships in Ukraine, even reportedly meeting with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in 2017.
  • In his July 25, 2019, phone call with Zelensky, Trump specifically asked the Ukrainian president to work with Giuliani in his efforts to investigate Biden.
  • Giuliani also pushed for the firing of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch; Trump specifically cited her firing in his phone call with Zelensky.
  • According to The Washington Post, Giuliani has been running a “shadow Ukraine agenda” on Trump’s behalf for months, circumventing administration officials tasked with overseeing the official U.S. agenda toward Ukraine.
  • Giuliani has repeatedly implicated the U.S. State Department in his efforts, claiming that not only did its officials help him set up his contacts with Ukrainian officials but that they also had specifically instructed him to maintain the contacts. At least one State Department official, U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, has been confirmed to have been involved with Giuliani. Volker has since resigned.

Some questions for Giuliani:

  • What was Trump’s role in directing Giuliani’s efforts to instigate an investigation into the Bidens in Ukraine?
  • What did Trump know about Giuliani’s efforts? Did Trump ever tell Giuliani to stop?
  • How much communication did Giuliani have with other U.S. government officials, including but not limited to members of the State Department? To what extent did these individuals know the purpose of his interactions with Ukraine?
  • Giuliani likely knew about Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine, as it was reported in the press. What communications did he and Trump have regarding the withholding of aid and the effort to pressure Ukrainians into investigating Biden? Did Giuliani understand that aid was being withheld as part of the pressure campaign?
  • Does Giuliani hold an active security clearance? In the course of running this shadow foreign policy effort, did Giuliani improperly access or handle classified government information?

Vice President Mike Pence

Mike Pence was instructed by Trump to withhold funds from Ukraine. Pence met with Zelensky in September and said that they had “discussed America’s support for Ukraine and the upcoming decision the President will make on the latest tranche of financial support in great detail.” Pence has mostly tried to avoid being directly tied to Trump’s scandals, but he’s clearly implicated in this one.

  • According to the whistleblower complaint, Trump instructed Pence to cancel a planned trip to Ukraine to attend Zelensky’s inauguration as part of the broader campaign to pressure Ukraine into cooperating with Trump’s demands.
  • On a trip to Poland in early September 2019, Pence filled in for Trump in a meeting with Zelensky. He claimed afterward that they didn’t discuss Biden but that he did press Zelensky about “corruption,” which Trump has previously used as a code for the Biden investigation. For example, Trump has cited “corruption” as one of his many excuses for withholding military aid from Ukraine.
  • The day that the incriminating notes of his call with Zelensky were released, Trump threw Pence under the bus, suggesting that Congress should investigate the vice president’s phone calls with Zelensky as well.
  • Pence reportedly initially advised Trump against releasing the transcript of the call with Zelensky.

Some questions for Pence:

  • Does Pence support the president’s effort to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate an American citizen for political gain?
  • What reason was Pence given, and by whom, for canceling his trip? Did Pence know that the trip was canceled as part of Trump and Giuliani’s shadow campaign?
  • Were Pence’s conversations with Zelensky also part of that campaign? What did he say to Zelensky in those conversations? What did he mean when he referred to “corruption”?
  • When Pence substituted for Trump at the meeting in early September, was he aware that Trump was using access to the administration as a bargaining chip to pressure Zelensky into opening an investigation into the Bidens?
  • Has Pence had any other interactions with Ukrainian officials related to this effort?
  • Was Pence involved in the decision to freeze military aid to Ukraine? What did he think was the justification for freezing the aid?
  • Why did Pence advise Trump against releasing the transcript? When he did so, was he aware of the contents of the transcript?

Attorney General William Barr

In Trump’s call with Zelensky, he instructed the Ukrainian president to work with William Barr on investigating Biden, stating, “I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it”—though Barr denies being asked to do this. Barr also reportedly pushed Trump to discuss the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation into the Robert Mueller probe with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

  • In his phone call with Zelensky, Trump specifically told the Ukrainian president that he would be able to work with Barr on the investigation into the Bidens.
  • Barr has thus far failed to recuse himself from issues related to the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, even though the complaint specifically notes that Trump mentioned Barr on the call.
  • Recent reports suggest that the DOJ may have been informed about the whistleblower complaint by the CIA general counsel well before the intelligence community’s inspector general became involved. Barr’s DOJ allegedly took no action to protect the whistleblower or alert congressional overseers.
  • Under Barr, the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel advised acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire that he was not required to share the whistleblower complaint with Congress, helping the administration continue to cover up Trump’s call with Zelensky.
  • In a hearing on May 2, 2019, Barr dodged questions from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as to whether Trump had ever asked him to open an investigation into anyone.
  • Barr also reportedly pushed Trump to speak with the Australian prime minister “explicitly for the purpose of requesting Australia’s help in the Justice Department review of the Russia investigation.”

Some questions for Barr:

  • Did Barr know that Trump offered Zelensky Barr’s assistance with an investigation into the Bidens?
  • Does Barr believe it is proper for the U.S. president to direct a foreign government to investigate an American citizen in the absence of criminal charges?
  • Why did Barr not recuse himself from issues related to the whistleblower complaint once he became aware that he was named in the complaint?
  • What role did Barr play in the decision to withhold the whistleblower complaint from Congress?
  • Had Trump already asked Barr to investigate the Bidens when the attorney general refused to answer Sen. Harris’ question?
  • Did Barr seek to conceal Trump’s communications with the Australian prime minister about the Russia investigation?
  • Has Barr asked Trump to speak with any other world leaders about the DOJ’s investigation into the Russia probe?
  • Barr had likely read public reports about Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine. Did he have any communications with any White House officials, directly or indirectly, about those efforts?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Mike Pompeo was one of the few officials listening in on the Trump-Zelensky call, meaning he was a firsthand witness to Trump’s extortion of a foreign leader. Pompeo was also reportedly instructed by Trump not to release $250 million of military aid to Ukraine.

  • As mentioned earlier, Giuliani has repeatedly implicated the State Department in his efforts, and at least one State Department official—now-resigned special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker—has been confirmed to have been involved with Giuliani.
  • Giuliani’s “shadow Ukraine agenda” also involved spreading conspiracy theories about then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, leading to her being recalled from the country by the State Department, a move that reportedly “baffled and unnerved senior officials at the State Department.”
  • According to The Washington Post, the State Department learned that the Trump administration intended to withhold military aid from Ukraine a few days before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.
  • On September 22, 2019, Pompeo went on ABC’s “This Week,” where he supported Trump’s call for an investigation into the Bidens and potential Ukrainian interference while claiming to have no knowledge of the basis for the whistleblower complaint, only to admit more than a week later that he had personally listened in on Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.
  • On September 23, 2019, Pompeo also went on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to support Trump’s call for an investigation into the Bidens, saying that he had no problem with Giuliani “inserting himself in foreign affairs” but refusing to answer questions about whether the State Department had been supporting Giuliani.

Some questions for Pompeo:

  • Did Pompeo know about Giuliani’s communications with State Department employees to advance the extortion scheme?
  • Was Pompeo aware that the administration was withholding military aid to Ukraine as part of Trump’s broader strategy to have Ukraine investigate a political opponent?
  • What communications did Pompeo have with Trump and/or Giuliani regarding the firing of Yovanovitch?
  • Was Pompeo aware that the administration was hiding notes from Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders?
  • After Pompeo sat in on Trump’s call with Zelensky, was he made aware of the specific effort to hide the notes and transcript of the call?
  • Has Pompeo seen the notes of Trump’s conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
  • Was Pompeo listening in on Trump’s call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison? If not, has he seen the transcript of this call?
  • When Pompeo went on “This Week” and “Face the Nation,” why did he claim that he was unaware of the contents of Trump’s phone calls with Zelensky only to later admit that he had personally listened in on the call?

Director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney

Mick Mulvaney is currently serving as both director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and acting chief of staff, putting him in close daily contact with President Trump, even as he oversees the office that was in charge of putting a hold on the aid to Ukraine.

  • According to The Washington Post, in his capacity as Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mulvaney was the first administration official who Trump notified about his intent to withhold military aid from Ukraine. Trump reportedly told Mulvaney this “at least a week before” his July 25 phone call with Zelensky.
  • The OMB, which Mulvaney oversees, subsequently informed the State Department and the Pentagon about the hold, saying that the president “had ‘concerns’ and wanted to analyze whether the money needed to be spent.”
  • According to The Washington Post, after Mulvaney informed these other departments, administration officials “were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an ‘interagency process’ but to give them no additional information.” They reportedly continued to propagate this falsehood for nearly two months.

Some questions for Mulvaney:

  • Did Mulvaney know the real reason that Trump chose to withhold military aid from Ukraine? Did he speak to Trump about it? What did Mulvaney know about the efforts by Giuliani? What did he know about conversations and interactions with Zelensky?
  • Did Mulvaney instruct administration officials to lie to Congress about the reason the aid was being withheld?
  • Was Mulvaney explicitly instructed to withhold the military aid, and if so, who gave him these instructions?

Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin

As secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin has faced questions about the process surrounding the aid to Ukraine.

  • On September 22, 2019, Mnuchin went on CNN’s “State of the Union” to defend Trump’s call with Zelensky, saying that he had “no reason to believe the president pressured … a foreign leader” and reiterating Trump’s unfounded allegations about the Bidens.

Some questions for Mnuchin:

  • When Mnuchin defended Trump’s call with Zelensky, was he aware that Trump had, in fact, asked Zelensky to work with Barr to investigate Biden and suggested that the relationship between the United States and Ukraine was not reciprocal?
  • Was Mnuchin ever instructed to take actions with respect to Ukraine or any other foreign country as part of Trump’s extortion scheme?
  • Was Mnuchin consulted or aware of the decision to withhold the aid from Ukraine?

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry

In May 2019, Rick Perry traveled in place of Pence to Ukraine, raising questions about his role in the administration’s extortion of the Ukrainian leader.

  • According to the whistleblower complaint, when Trump instructed Pence not to travel to Ukraine for Zelensky’s inauguration, he ultimately sent Perry instead.

Some questions for Perry:

  • Was Perry aware that he was sent in Pence’s stead as part of Trump’s concerted effort to pressure Zelensky into investigating a political opponent?
  • Was Perry asked to deliver any message to Ukrainian officials?

Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought

As acting director of the OMB, Vought may have insight into the process surrounding the office’s role in withholding aid to Ukraine.

  • Vought was the individual who reportedly was “eventually” informed by Trump that he could release the military aid.
  • A letter to Mulvaney and Vought from House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) stated that the lawmakers had “serious concerns” about the decision to withhold the aid.

Some questions for Vought:

  • Who at the OMB informed other agencies that the aid was being withheld?
  • Did Vought have information about the reason the aid was being withheld or the reason it was finally released?
  • Did Vought seek legal advice as to whether the funding could be withheld in this manner? If so, from whom did he seek such advice?
  • Was Vought provided information by any other agencies that called into question the need to withhold the funding or the legality of doing so?
  • Who first told Vought that the aid was to be withheld, and what communications did he have regarding the withholding?

Conclusion

Trump’s extortion scheme has rapidly become an administration-consuming scandal. Congress must continue to investigate in order to learn the full scope of any wrongdoing by the Trump administration.

Jeremy Venook and Talia Dessel are research analysts at the Center for American Progress.

Find more about Trump’s Constitutional Crisis as it develops here.