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There’s Still So Much We Don’t Know About Trump’s Ukraine Scandal

Recent revelations suggest that the depths of the president's crimes won't be fully plumbed by an impeachment trial.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

All of the pieces are finally in place for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. On Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi named a slate of seven managers—House members who will act as prosecutors in the trial—shortly before the House voted to formally submit the articles to the Senate. Later this week, Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in all 100 senators. The trial itself will begin in full next week.

While the stage may be set, new characters keep joining the production. The House Intelligence Committee released a new batch of evidence for its case on Tuesday night, obtained from Lev Parnas—a Ukraine-born associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Federal agents arrested Parnas and a colleague in October for violating federal campaign-finance laws; since then, he’s offered to cooperate with House investigators on the impeachment inquiry. The records include conversations between himself and other key participants in the scandal, providing a rare glimpse into its internal workings.

House Democrats used the release to pressure the White House and the Senate into additional disclosures. “These documents—and those recently released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act—demonstrate that there is more evidence relevant to the President’s scheme, but they have been concealed by the President himself,” California Representative Adam Schiff and three other committee chairs said in a statement. “All of this new evidence confirms what we already know: the President and his associates pressured Ukrainian officials to announce investigations that would benefit the President politically.”

Their statement highlights a tightrope that House investigators must navigate over the next few weeks and months. Tuesday’s new evidence won’t fundamentally change either side’s approach in the upcoming trial; Parnas did not directly communicate with the president himself, making its relevance to his impeachment somewhat limited. What the revelations do underscore is how little Americans actually know about one of the worst political scandals in the nation’s history—and the fierce urgency of shedding light on it.

Some of the new evidence confirms or fleshes out facts that were already apparent. Among the documents is a letter drafted by Giuliani for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declaring that the former New York mayor was acting on Trump’s personal behalf. Undated slips of paper from the Ritz-Carlton in Vienna provided by Parnas also show a series of notes about the Giuliani clique’s activities in Ukraine. One of the bullet points reads “get zalensky [sic] to announce that the Biden case will be investigated,” undercutting the already tattered White House claim that Trump was merely interested in Burisma—the Ukrainian energy company where Biden’s eldest son, Hunter, once held a board seat—or in corruption writ large in Ukraine.

There are also disturbing new details about some of the scandal’s murkier aspects. The House investigation showed how Giuliani and his co-conspirators waged a smear campaign to remove Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, from her post in Kyiv. Their reasons for doing so were never entirely clear, though Yovanovitch had previously sparred with Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s former top prosecutor. The Ukrainian parliament removed Lutsenko in August 2019.

In a WhatsApp conversation last March, Parnas exchanged messages with Lutsenko about the Bidens and Yovanovitch. At the time, Lutsenko had access to files from his office’s previous investigation into Burisma. Their conversations suggest an exchange of sorts, swapping information about the Bidens while also seeking intelligence related to Yovanovitch, who is described by Lutsenko simply as “Madam.”

“It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam—you are bringing into question all of my allegations. Including about B,” Lutsenko wrote at one point. “B” appears to be a reference to Burisma or to Biden himself. The messages strongly suggest there was a quid pro quo arrangement between Lutsenko and Giuliani’s group: receive purportedly damaging information about a presidential candidate’s son in exchange for the removal of an American ambassador.

Even more troubling are WhatsApp conversations between Parnas and Robert Hyde, a Trump ally and GOP congressional candidate in Connecticut, that suggest Hyde had placed Yovanovitch under surveillance. “She’s talked to three people,” he wrote in a message to Parnas last March. “Her phone is off. Her computer is off.” It’s unclear how Hyde was able to monitor a senior American diplomat’s electronic activities in a foreign country. At one point, he suggests that he will try to get an unnamed woman fired. “Can’t believe Trumo [sic] hasn’t fired this bitch,” Hyde wrote. “I’ll get right in that.”

The State Department later recalled Yovanovitch, in April, in what she said one official told her was “great concern” for her safety. It’s unclear whether Hyde and his associates were the reason for that concern. Hyde, for his part, denounced Schiff for the revelations on Wednesday night. “How low can liddle Adam Bull Schiff go?” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night. “I was never in Kiev. For them to take some texts my buddy’s and I wrote back to some dweeb we were playing with that we met a few times while we had a few drinks is definitely laughable.” Through her lawyer, Yovanovitch called for an investigation into the revelations that same night.

Over the past few weeks, Trump and his allies used Pelosi’s short-lived bid to withhold the articles of impeachment to argue that the House didn’t have a strong case, or even a case at all. That’s not true, of course. As I noted last month, House investigators compiled enough evidence and testimony from key witnesses to move forward with Trump’s impeachment. The inquiry proved that Trump worked to coerce Ukraine into meddling in the American democratic process by falsely smearing one of his top political rivals, and that he engaged in an unprecedented effort to hinder the House’s efforts to uncover the plot.

One need not be a conspiracy theorist to know that there’s more to uncover here. Top aides like Giuliani, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton haven’t testified. The White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon haven’t turned over any records about the plot to pressure Zelenskiy or hold up congressionally allocated military aid for Ukraine. Trump’s impeachment trial may not hinge on this information. But it’s still vital to uncover it so Americans can definitively answer the most important question about the Ukraine scandal: What happened?