President Trump reminds us every chance he gets to “READ THE TRANSCRIPT” of his “perfect” July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s new president.
But there’s another transcript that we can’t see, as we learned during Tuesday’s impeachment hearing. That’s a September 18th phone call between President Volodymyr Zelensky and Vice President Mike Pence.
The news came early in Tuesday morning’s House intelligence committee session featuring Jennifer Williams, a foreign service officer serving as Pence’s special advisor for Europe and Russia.
Justin Shur, Williams’ attorney, interrupted Chairman Adam Schiff to announce that “the office of the Vice President has taken the position that the September 18th call is classified.”
I’d have no objection to that, and we’re discussing that with White House Counsel as we speak.
But when people see the transcripts of my calls and when they hear the reporting of our conversation — President Trump’s focus with Ukraine, from the very beginning, was on enlisting more European support and supporting President Zelensky’s efforts to advance reforms that would end an era of corruption in Ukraine.White House press gaggle with VP Pence, October 10, 2019
But that was then. With the impeachment inquiry underway, Pence changed his mind.
The timing of the move to classify the call means that “the most transparent president in history” has a vice president with something to hide. It also hints that Pence was more deeply involved in Trump’s effort to use the leader of Ukraine as a political prop.
What’s strange about all this is that as recently as November 7th the Pence-Zelensky phone call wasn’t yet a secret.
The September 18th Phone Call
That’s the day that Jennifer Williams, the Pence aide who testified Tuesday, appeared before the House intelligence committee for her deposition. According to a transcript of the deposition – stamped “UNCLASSIFIED” on every page – Williams described the call in some detail, calling it a “very positive discussion.”
In her deposition, Williams testified that during the now-classified September 18th phone call, Pence had reiterated that the frozen military aid was now being released.
Even though the hold on the aid had been lifted, there were still things that the Ukrainians very much wanted, namely, a visit with the White House with President Trump. It was important for Zelensky, a novice politician, to show Ukrainians that the U.S. president had his back.
In addition, Pence told Zelensky that President Trump was looking forward to meeting him the following week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Williams said that Pence had not provided Zelensky with any specific guidance on what to say to Trump during their upcoming meeting, but did refer to Ukrainian corruption in general terms. The vice president said Trump “would be eager to hear about Zelensky’s progress” on Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms.
A White House readout of the call stated “The Vice President commended President Zelensky’s administration for its bold action to tackle corruption through legislative reforms, and offered full U.S. support for those efforts.”
Pence didn’t go into specifics, but he did discuss corruption. This is key: Several Trump administration officials have testified in depositions that “corruption” was code for the specific investigations that the president had mentioned in his July 25 call.
Tuesday’s surprise announcement that the Pence-Zelensky phone call was now a secret and it couldn’t even be discussed in a public session of Congress lends credence that testimony.
“In other words, no pressure”
The decision to classify the September 18th phone call also raises the question of whether Vice President Pence played a role in something that unfolded when Presidents Zelensky and Trump met September 25 in New York.
Trump and Zelensky’s meeting in New York came on the heels of Trump’s release of a transcript of the July 25 phone call between the two men that is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.
During a joint news conference in New York, an uncomfortable-looking Zelenskyy was asked whether he felt pressure during the call with Trump.
“It was normal,” the Ukrainian leader replied. “We spoke about many things. And I — so I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed — pushed me.”
Trump jumped in to state, “In other words, no pressure.”
With Pence classifying his call, I can’t help but wonder whether this was another “favor” the White House had asked of Zelensky. Had Pence’s mentions of “corruption” and the fact that the aid was being released sent some signal in his call that the New York meeting was important to the president?
We do know that Pence did play a role in Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into serving up an investigation that would help him politically, as Williams’ testimony Tuesday showed.
In May, Trump “decided” that Pence would not attend Zelensky’s inauguration, even though the vice president had already accepted the invitation, Williams told the House.
The Warsaw Meeting
On September 1, Pence and Zelensky met in Poland at a commemoration of World War II.
Great meeting with President Zelensky of Ukraine today to discuss security, energy, economic growth and progress of his reform agenda. Under the leadership of President @realDonaldTrump, the relationship between Ukraine & the US has never been stronger! pic.twitter.com/nn5UMVM0qZ— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) September 1, 2019
Update: On Wednesday, Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified that he briefed Pence about the meeting and the issue of investigations.
“I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations,” Sondland said.
Pence knew what he meant. Sondland agreed that Pence did not ask “Gordon, what are you talking about?’ or “What investigations?’
Pence’s office, now in full damage control mode, denies this.
During that meeting in Warsaw, Zelensky asked the vice president about news articles reporting that $391 million in military aid for Ukraine was being held up. Politico had reported about the hold just a few days earlier. Here’s how Williams described it in her deposition
Once the cameras left the room, the very first question that President Zelensky had was about the status of security assistance. And the VP responded by really expressing our ongoing support for Ukraine, but wanting to hear from President Zelensky, you know, what the status of his reform efforts were that he could then convey back to the President, and also wanting to hear if there was more that European countries could do to support Ukraine.Deposition of Jennifer Williams
There it is again. Zelensky asks about the security assistance. We support you, Pence responds, but what about the “reform efforts that he could then convey back to the president.” It’s less crude than Trump’s request to “do us a favor” in his July 25 call with Zelensky, but it’s basically the same.
The corruption box is also ticked in the White House readout of the Sept. 1 Pence-Zelensky meeting:
The Vice President met today with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine in Warsaw, Poland, following the Ceremony of the 80th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II. The Vice President conveyed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. He commended President Zelenskyy for his government’s efforts to introduce bold reform legislation to combat corruption and improve the business climate to encourage foreign investment. The leaders also discussed recent progress toward securing Ukraine’s energy independence.
Williams, who attended the meeting, testified Tuesday in her opening statement, that Zelensky also told Pence that withholding military aid would only help Russia.
“Any signal or sign that U.S. support was wavering would be construed by Russia as potentially an opportunity for them to strengthen their own hand in Ukraine,” Williams said, referring to what the Ukrainian leader told the U.S. vice president.
Williams said that the two men did not discuss specific investigations that Trump had outlined for Zelensky.
“The vice president responded that Ukraine had the United States’ unwavering support and promised to relay their conversation to President Trump that night,” Williams said.
Pence did speak to Trump that night, but Williams said she wasn’t privy to the conversation. The military aid to Ukraine wasn’t unfrozen for another 10 days.