WASHINGTON — Two of President Donald Trump’s top envoys to Ukraine drafted a statement for the country’s new president in August that would have committed Ukraine to pursuing investigations sought by Trump into his political rivals, three people briefed on the effort said.
Their work on the statement is new evidence of how Trump’s fixation with conspiracy theories linked to Ukraine began driving senior diplomats to bend American foreign policy to the president’s political agenda in the weeks after the July 25 call between the two leaders.
The statement was worked on by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, then the State Department’s envoy to Ukraine, according to the three people who have been briefed on it.
The Ukrainians never released it. But if they had, Trump’s aides would have effectively pressured a foreign government to give credence to allegations intended to undercut one of the Democratic Party’s leading 2020 president candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden — without leaving Trump’s fingerprints on it.
Volker spent Thursday on Capitol Hill being questioned by House investigators as Democrats pursued their impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions. He disclosed a set of texts in September in which William J. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, alluded to Trump’s decision earlier in the summer to freeze a military aid package to the country. He told Sondland and Volker: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
After speaking with Trump, Sondland texted back that there was no quid pro quo, adding, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
The statement worked on in August by Sondland and Volker was among the topics that came up during the closed-door questioning of Voker on Capitol Hill.
The statement was written with the awareness of a top aide to the Ukrainian president, as well as Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and the de facto leader of a shadow campaign to push the Ukrainians to press ahead with investigations, according to one of the people briefed on it.
The statement would have committed Ukraine to investigating the energy company Burisma, which had employed Hunter Biden, the younger son of former Vice President Joe Biden. And it would have called for the Ukrainian government to look into what Trump and his allies believe was interference by Ukrainians in the 2016 election in the United States to benefit Hillary Clinton.
The idea behind the statement was to break the Ukrainians of their habit of promising American diplomats and leaders behind closed doors that they would look into matters and never follow through, the people briefed on it said.
It is unclear if the statement was delivered to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, but no statement was released publicly under his name. Around that time, the Ukrainian officials indicated to the Americans that they wanted to avoid becoming more deeply enmeshed in U.S. politics.
The drafting of the statement, which came in the weeks after the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, was an effort to pacify Trump and Giuliani and normalize relations between the two countries as Ukraine faced continuing conflict with Russia. Sondland and Volker believed that Giuliani was “poisoning” Trump’s mind about Ukraine and that eliciting a public commitment from Zelensky to pursue the investigations would induce Trump to more fully support the new Ukrainian government, according to the people familiar with it.
ABC News on Thursday published portions of text messages between Volker and Sondland referring to the writing of the draft statement.
The topic of the investigations came up during the July call between Trump and Zelensky, and Zelensky appeared open during the conversation to Trump’s request that he coordinate with Attorney General William Barr and Giuliani. Within weeks, Volker and Sondland were working on the draft statement, along with Andriy Yermak, a close adviser to Zelensky.
Giuliani said that he was aware of the statement but that it was not written at his behest.
Giuliani said that the statement was being handled by Sondland and Volker, and that he was not sure if Trump was involved in it.
“I don’t have any information that would suggest that it was at his request, but I can’t tell you it wasn’t, either,” he said.
He said he thought that the statement was intended to be delivered as part of a series of announcements by Zelensky’s government about the confirmation of new prosecutors and other officials.
“He was supposed to do something, or say something, to assure everybody — meaning our people — that he was going to take serious action about corruption,” said Giuliani. “I know that the investigations — which would be the collusion, the Burisma investigation — would be included in it, but it would have been part of an overall statement about dealing with corruption in an aggressive way.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Aides to Zelensky did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent in the overnight in Ukraine.
Despite Trump’s accusations of corruption on the part of the Bidens, no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president knowingly took any steps to help his son or his son’s Ukrainian employer.
Trump’s regular suggestions that Ukraine, rather than Russia, was responsible for the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee have been thoroughly debunked. While some Ukrainian officials expressed support for Clinton in 2016, claims by Trump and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, that documents released in Ukraine that year implicating Manafort in financial fraud were falsified or doctored have not been substantiated
But Trump’s continued efforts to press Ukraine to investigate those matters has drawn in a growing number of his aides, including Volker, who stepped down last week at the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine, and Sondland, who has taken an increasingly prominent role in dealing with Kyiv.
Sondland, 62, made a fortune in luxury hotels, and has been a prominent Republican donor and fundraiser for years.
He backed out of his role as a host of a fundraiser for Trump in 2016 citing Trump’s disparaging comments toward immigrants and the family of a slain Muslim American soldier.
But Sondland donated $1 million through his companies to the inaugural committee for Trump, who subsequently tapped Sondland last year to be United States ambassador to the European Union.
The role traditionally has not focused on Ukraine, which is not part of the European Union, but Sondland increasingly worked to establish himself as a central figure in Ukraine policy, administration officials said.
Sondland came to be seen in the administration as more loyal to Trump than was Volker, an acolyte of the late Sen. John McCain, an outspoken critic of the president.
Sondland told reporters last month that he saw Ukraine as among a handful of “low-hanging fruit” policy areas where the European Union could work together with Washington to improve relations.
Sondland raised some hackles at the State Department and in the National Security Council when he asked to be included in the U.S. delegation that attended Zelensky’s inauguration, according to people familiar with the events. Sondland attended an Oval Office meeting afterward with other members of the delegation — which also included Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. — to brief Trump on the delegation’s impressions of Zelensky.
When the delegation praised Zelensky and urged Trump to fully support the new Ukrainian government, the president was dismissive. “They’re terrible people,” Trump said of Ukrainian politicians, according to people familiar with the meeting. “They’re all corrupt and they tried to take me down.”
Sondland continued building a relationship with Zelenskiy, inviting him to a June dinner at the United States mission to the European Union in Brussels, and meeting him again in Kyiv in July with Volker on the day after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.
And Sondland kept in contact with Zelensky’s aides, who have told people that Sondland urged them to encourage the Ukrainian president to push forward with investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election.
Also Thursday came the revelation that Trump ordered the swift removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, earlier this year after hearing concerns from Giuliani, as well as former Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, among others, outside of the administration, a senior administration official confirmed. Trump's role in the ambassador's ouster was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
This report includes material from the Washington Post.