This post first appeared at Dan Rather’s News & Guts on Nov. 18, 2019.
Two phone calls to Trump on unsecured lines landed him in more trouble last week. The first provides more evidence that Trump embraced Russian assistance to help him win the presidency. The second reveals how Trump leveraged the power of that office in an international shakedown designed to help him keep it for a second term. Both calls expose Trump and his enablers lying to cover his tracks.
Call #1: Embracing Putin’s Help to Win in 2016
Trump supposedly fired Roger Stone from his campaign in August 2015. That allowed Trump and his campaign to claim a safe distance as Stone boasted publicly about his contacts with WikiLeaks — the principal vehicle through which Russia disseminated emails it had hacked and stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s computers. But phone records revealed the truth: Between March and November 2016, he had 39 calls with Trump, 126 calls with then-deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, and 153 calls with Paul Manafort.
At Stone’s trial last week, Gates testified about one of those calls. Shortly after WikiLeaks’ first release of DNC emails on July 22, 2016, Gates and two secret service agents were riding in a car with Trump to LaGuardia Airport. Stone called Trump on the phone. His name appeared on Trump’s caller ID, and Gates recognized Stone’s voice. Less than 30 seconds after hanging up, Trump told Gates that more information would be coming from WikiLeaks. And it did — throughout the summer and into the fall — as Trump praised WikiLeaks and Vladimir Putin kept the dirt flowing against Hillary Clinton.
But when special counsel Robert Mueller asked Trump about the campaign’s connections to WikiLeaks, he answered:
“I do not recall being aware during the campaign of any communications between [Roger Stone, Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, or Rick Gates] and anyone I understood to be a representative of WikiLeaks….”
“I do not recall” is a favorite lawyer-recommended escape hatch to avoid perjury. But it’s not a foolproof defense, especially for a client who claims to have “one of the greatest memories of all time.”
Call #2: Endangering US National Security to Win in 2020
The day after Trump’s July 25, 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump’s million-dollar-contributor-turned-US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, had a one-on-one meeting with Andriy Yermak, one of Zelensky’s top advisers. After the meeting, Sondland invited David Holmes, political counselor at the US embassy in Kiev, and two other embassy staffers to join him for lunch.
As they drank wine on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant where waiters circled nearby, Sondland pulled out his cellphone and called Trump. Although not on speakerphone, Holmes could hear Trump’s loud and recognizable voice as Sondland often held the phone away from his ear. Sondland told Trump that he was calling from Kiev and that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked.
“[H]e’s gonna do it,” Sondland replied, adding that Zelensky will do “anything you ask him to.”
After the call ended, Holmes asked Sondland if it was true that Trump did not “give a s—t about Ukraine.” Sondland said it was true. When Holmes asked why, Sondland said that Trump cared only about “big stuff.” Holmes noted that there was “big stuff” going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. Sondland replied that he meant “big stuff” benefitting Trump, like the “Biden investigation” that Rudy Giuliani was pushing.
But in a sworn statement to the House Intelligence Committee, here’s what Sondland said about that day:
“On July 26th, Special Envoy Volker and I, along with others, met with President Zelensky in Kiev, Ukraine. This was a significant bilateral meeting involving large teams from the United States and Ukraine that had been planned by Special Envoy Volker’s team weeks in advance. It was planned weeks in advance, and was not, in any way, tied to the July 25th, 2019 White House call… During this July 26, 2019 meeting in Kiev, we were able to promote further engagement, including discussions about a future Zelensky visit to the White House.”
That’s it. Nothing about Sondland’s one-on-one meeting with Yermak. Nothing about his cellphone call to Trump.
And as for Giuliani’s mischief, Sondland testified, “Again, I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about former Vice President Biden or his son. Nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.“
Sondland has already reversed his congressional testimony once, acknowledging that he “presumed that the [US] aid suspension had become linked to the proposed anti-corruption statement” and that in a Sept. 1 conversation, he told Yermak that “resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement….”
On Wednesday, Nov. 20, Sondland gets another chance — this time publicly. Perhaps he’s pondering Roger Stone’s Nov. 15 conviction: Five of the seven counts were for making false statements to Congress.
It Always Comes Back to Russia
In a closed session with the House Intelligence Committee, Tim Morrison, who resigned recently as Trump’s deputy assistant for national security, testified that he understood Sondland had taken instruction from Trump directly in communicating with Ukrainian officials. According to Morrison, Sondland said he could call Trump whenever he wanted. Between July 15 and Sept. 11, Sondland spoke with Trump approximately five times. (Dep. pp. 111-112, 120)
But when asked about Sondland on Nov. 8, Trump said, “I hardly know the gentleman.” Questioned specifically about their July 26 call, Trump claimed not to remember it:
Putin almost certainly has transcripts of Trump’s conversation with Sondland that Trump could review to refresh his recollection, according to former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. “You make any call on an unclassified cell phone in Ukraine, that means Vladimir Putin has the transcript.” But in the intervening four months, the American public hasn’t seen it. The Russians call that “kompromat.”