WASHINGTON – From the details of the “perfect” call to allegations of a shadow foreign policy, the impeachment proceedings provided an unprecedented view of the inner workings of President Donald Trump’s White House.
The inquiry unearthed a trove of text messages, testimony and documents from players in the Trump administration’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate former VicPresident Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian energy company.
But the House investigation and the Senate trial also left many questions unanswered.
Here are five key things we learned, and didn’t learn, since an explosive whistleblower complaint first triggered a four-month political drama that engulfed Washington.
What we learned: ‘No guardrails’ on Trump’s foreign policy
The impeachment proceedings pulled back the curtain on Trump’s approach to foreign policy – revealing a chaotic tangle of competing agendas, questionable motives and confusion about who was calling the shots.
“What we learned was how the sausage is made in the Trump foreign policy shop,” said Brett Bruen, a foreign service officer who served as the global engagement director in the Obama administration. Where Obama’s foreign policy was driven by wide-ranging, wonky debates among seasoned experts, Trump’s seems to be driven by “unconventional actors” and an impulsive president, he said.
A fresh example: An audio tape released in late January in which Trump was heard ordering the removal of then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. The president was not talking to his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but to Lev Parnas, an associate of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who had just blasted Yovanovitch as disloyal.
Parnas, a Trump supporter with no diplomatic experience, was “essentially providing the president this unsubstantiated, unfiltered view of what’s going on in Kyiv and he’s buying it,” Bruen said. Parnas and his associate, Igor Fruman, face campaign finance charges in New York.
Fiona Hill, Trump’s former national security adviser for Europe and Russia, painted a similarly vivid picture of White House disarray. Testifying last fall, Hill said she was shocked to learn that Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was put in charge of Ukraine policy, an unusual portfolio for him since Ukraine is not part of the EU. She said he also didn’t appear to be receiving the required briefings for meetings he was holding with key foreign leaders.
“It’s like basically driving along with no guardrails and no GPS on an unfamiliar territory,” she said. Plus, Sondland was giving out his cell phone number – and hers – to foreign officials whose communications were vulnerable to Russian espionage.
“We had all kinds of officials from (foreign governments) … literally appearing at the gates of the White House, calling on our personal phones,” she recounted. “I’d find endless messages from irate officials who’d been told that they were supposed to meet with me by Ambassador Sondland.”
What we didn’t: Are Trump’s allies still seeking help from Ukraine?
Despite the blinding spotlight on Ukraine, the Trump administration’s policy toward Kyiv remains pocked with uncertainty.
Ukraine is at war with Russia, a U.S. adversary, and desperately needs American support to ward off Moscow’s attacks on its sovereignty. On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Kyiv and promised unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine.
But Pompeo did not invite Zelensky to the White House – a visit the Ukrainian leader sought to bolster his global standing, as he prepared to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We’ll find the right time,” Pompeo said, adding that Zelensky would be welcome “when we have an opportunity to do good things for both the Ukrainian people and the American people.”
Even as Pompeo said there are no conditions for a meeting, Giuliani has continued to pursue his investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden, who was on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma when his father was vice president. Giuliani traveled to Kyiv in December, talking to unnamed officials about the Bidens
Trump and Giuliani have promoted unsubstantiated allegations that Biden, while vice president, sought to have a Ukrainian prosecutor fired so that he would not investigate Hunter Biden and the Ukraine gas company Burisma. However, Biden helped to oust the prosecutor because he was widely viewed as corrupt, and there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden.
Trump’s promotion of such unfounded allegations undercuts Zelensky, experts say, feeding a negative narrative about Ukraine even as its new leader works to root out corruption. And a slew of Ukraine experts have left the Trump administration since the allegations against Trump first emerged, creating a diplomatic vacuum.
What we learned: Giuliani operated as Trump’s shadow secretary of state
Giuliani may not have an official diplomatic title in Trump’s State Department, but the impeachment proceedings revealed his outsized influence on Ukraine matters.
He reached out directly to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and dispatched associates to carry out Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign.
Some Trump administration officials labeled Giuliani’s efforts an “irregular” diplomatic channel, while others slammed his campaign as a “drug deal” that could blow up Trump’s presidency. But to Trump, Giuliani’s efforts were above-board and fully authorized.
Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the EU, said he worked with Giuliani at “the express direction of the president” to pressure Ukrainian officials for political favors.
The evidence showed that Giuliani used some official State Department channels – including Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker – to connect with and pressure Ukrainian officials. He also relied on two non-diplomats, Fruman and Parnas, to carry out elements of the campaign.
What we didn’t learn: Did Pompeo try to stop Giuliani – or did he enable him?
Pompeo has said little about how much he knew of the Ukraine pressure campaign and what role he played, if any, in executing it, though other officials contend he was fully aware and may have helped facilitate some of the efforts by Giuliani and others.
Sondland for starters, said he kept Pompeo and other State Department officials “in the loop” about the Ukraine pressure campaign.
The diplomat produced emails to Pompeo and other top Trump administration officials, showing he communicated with them regularly about his efforts.
The State Department released records showing Pompeo had two phone calls with Giuliani in late March, as Giuliani was ramping up pressure on Ukrainian officials to open the two politically beneficial investigations for Trump.
“I don’t have much to say with respect to the Ukraine investigation,” Pompeo said in November when asked about his conversations with Giuliani.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the level of Pompeo’s involvement remains a mystery.
“But the more we learn – drip, drip, drip – the more it appears that Pompeo played a bigger role (rather) than a smaller one,” said Miller, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents on U.S. foreign policy.
What we learned: Trump violated law in withholding Ukraine aid
In January the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan government watchdog, concluded the White House broke the law when it withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, a finding the White House has rejected.
Democratic lawmakers cited the report in arguing that Trump abused his power in his dealings with Ukraine. The Impoundment Act governs Congress’ constitutional power of the purse, but violations do not carry criminal penalties.
What we didn’t learn: Did Trump commit a crime?
Trump’s legal team called the impeachment case “structurally deficient,” saying neither of the two articles of impeachment – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – are violations of federal criminal statutes. But Democrats said the language in the Constitution suggests that abuse of power was at the heart of why the founders included an impeachment clause in the document.
Randall Eliason, who teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington Law School, argued that the articles against Trump include the federal language of bribery even without defining it as such.
“By making the allegations under the abuse of power they avoided getting bogged down in the weeds of the precise requirements of any particular federal statute,” Eliason said. “But the flip side of that is this Republican argument that no president has ever been impeached for something that isn’t even a crime.”
What we learned: The whistleblower’s complaint has been corroborated by testimony
The president’s impeachment was set off by an anonymous whistleblower complaint lodged on Aug. 12 to the intelligence community’s inspector general, accusing Trump of abusing his power to pursue investigations that politically benefited him.
The complaint centered on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, in which the U.S. president urged his counterpart to announce two investigations, including one into Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian gas company. The nine-page complaint also alleged the Trump administration carried out a months-long pressure campaign in Kyiv that subverted regular U.S. foreign diplomatic channels.
The whistleblower, identified only as an intelligence community official, is protected from retaliation by a federal statute shielding employees or contractors who want to report wrongdoing by the government.
The president and his defenders argue the account relied only on secondhand information, but the complaint has largely been corroborated through testimony from 18 witnesses, including several foreign service officials and career diplomats, during the House impeachment inquiry.
Acting Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor told lawmakers he “became increasingly concerned that our relationship with Ukraine was being fundamentally undermined” while Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testified he sounded the alarm about the pressure campaign to the agency’s lead counsel.
Fiona Hill, the former NSC senior director for Europe and Russia, told Congress that former National Security Adviser John Bolton was furious about the push to solicit political investigations from Ukrainian officials. According to reported excerpts from Bolton’s forthcoming book, the president directly told his then-national security director that he was withholding aid in exchange for the investigations.
Following the complaint’s release, the White House released a rough summary of the call, which showed Trump urged Zelensky to open probes into the Bidens and as well as the Democratic hack in 2016.
Republicans have demanded the whistleblower testify in the impeachment process, but Democrats have argued that it is no longer needed as the account has been corroborated by other witnesses.
What we didn’t learn: public confirmation of the whistleblower’s identity
Despite efforts to protect the whistleblower, Republicans and even the president have made several attempts to out the individual, accusing House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif, of coordinating with the whistleblower to hatch the impeachment drive.
Schiff has denied knowing who the person is and rejected allegations that his committee helped write the complaint or coached the whistleblower.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, tweeted the name of a person whom conservative websites have identified as the whistleblower, but USA TODAY has not independently verified those allegations.
In late December the president, who has repeatedly attacked the whistleblower on Twitter and at campaign rallies, came under fire for retweeting a post naming the individual and suggesting the individual committed perjury.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-K.y., is among the most vocal critics of the whistleblower and has repeatedly demanded that the individual’s name be publicly released. He’s also mentioned the alleged whistleblower’s name in media interviews over the last few months.
The Kentucky senator again attempted to reveal the alleged whistleblower’s identity on Thursday when he submitted a question to Chief Justice John Roberts naming the individual during the question-and-answer session of the Senate trial.
Justice Roberts said he would not read the senator’s question explicitly naming the alleged whistleblower. Paul then expressed frustration in a press conference after arguing whistleblower anonymity protections do not apply to Trump’s case.
What we learned: Trump froze military aid at the same time he and Giuliani pressured Ukraine
The impeachment evidence shows that on July 25 – the same day as Trump’s now-infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – the White House froze American security assistance to that country.
Democrats say Trump used the prospect of a White House visit for Zelensky and the U.S. assistance, which Ukraine needed to fight Russian attacks on its sovereignty, as leverage to force Zelensky to open the investigations.
Just before the Trump-Zelensky call, Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, texted an aide to Zelensky with this message: “Assuming President Z (Zelensky) convinces trump he will investigate/”get to the bottom of what happened” in 2016, we will nail down a date for visit to Washington. Good luck!,” Volker told his Ukrainian counterpart.
“Those words couldn’t be much clearer,” Schiff said during the Senate trial. He noted that during the July 25 call, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and an unsubstantiated allegation that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
Trump and his GOP allies say the president halted the aid temporarily due to concerns about corruption in Ukraine. Trump’s lawyers argued that during the July 25 call, Trump did not make a direct link between the U.S. aid and investigations.
In addition, Trump’s team argued, the president eventually released the U.S. aid even though Ukraine did not announce the investigations.
“An explicit quid pro quo for alleged improper campaign interference would’ve had President Trump saying to his counterpart in Ukraine, ‘Here’s the deal,’ and followed up by explicitly linking a demand for an investigation of the Bidens to the provision or release of foreign aid,” attorney Robert Ray said.
What we didn’t learn: Was that a quid pro quo?
As the impeachment proceedings unfolded, two Trump officials said there was a direct link between the aid Ukraine needed and the investigations Trump wanted. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, said he came to the conclusion that Trump withheld the aid – as well as a White House visit for Zelensky – as part of a “quid pro quo.”
But Sondland said he did not have first-hand knowledge that Trump made that link directly.
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, also acknowledged the aid was withheld in part because the president wanted Ukraine to probe alleged election meddling, specifically the debunked assertion that a hacked Democratic National Committee server was in Ukraine.
Amid an uproar, Mulvaney later backtracked: “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” Mulvaney said in a statement trying to retract his earlier statements. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”
Trump’s attorneys said the Democrats were relying on assumptions made by Sondland and others about the president’s intent. And Democrats failed to secure testimony on the pivotal quid-pro-quo question from the most tantalizing witness: John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who has publicly hinted that he could offer a first-hand account of the president’s demands on Ukraine.
Bolton has remained a wild card throughout the impeachment proceedings – a star player, if a (mostly) silent one.
Bolton’s ability to offer salacious details about Ukraine became even more clear last week. First, the New York Times reported Sunday that Bolton, in the draft of a book he is writing, said Trump wanted to maintain the Ukraine aid freeze until Zelensky agreed to investigations of the Bidens. On Friday, the Times reported that Bolton’s book includes an account of Trump directly asking Bolton to pressure Ukraine for the Biden investigations.
Last week, the Senate voted against calling witnesses, including Bolton, to testify in the trial – leaving open the question of what he would have told lawmakers. His book, “The Room Where It Happened,” is scheduled for release in March of 2020.
Democrats warned that the absence of witnesses was a mistake that could haunt Republicans.