WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called John Bolton at home to complain after he saw a CNN report last December that said the U.S. Navy was preparing to sail a warship into the Black Sea as a show of strength following Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian vessels and sailors, a State Department official testified. The maneuvers were canceled after the then-national security adviser conveyed these concerns.
That’s one of the eyebrow-raising, Russia-related revelations in the three transcripts released on Monday night by House impeachment investigators, as they prepare for the start of televised hearings Wednesday. The disclosure hints at Trump playing a more hands-on role in Ukraine policy than his defenders want to acknowledge as they search for possible fall guys to pin the blame on.
Trump talks a big game about how important it is to be strong on the world stage, and he’s declared that “nobody has been tougher on Russia” than he has been, but his recurring impulse to disregard Vladimir Putin’s provocations has been anything but. It’s put him at odds with many of the more hawkish aides he installed in the national security firmament.
“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report. And that may have just been that he was surprised,” said Christopher Anderson, a senior Ukraine specialist at the State Department. “I can’t speculate as to why, but that operation was canceled.”
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Anderson recalled hearing Bolton joke about how Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, seemed to pop up every time Ukraine was mentioned, according to the 118-page transcript of his Oct. 30 deposition. He also said that Gordon Sondland, the Trump megadonor who got appointed as ambassador to the European Union, played an outsized role, even though Ukraine is not a member of the E.U.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has orchestrated a separatist war in the eastern part of Ukraine that has left at least 13,000 people dead. In November 2018, Russia escalated the conflict again by capturing three Ukrainian-flagged military vessels and detaining 24 sailors in the Kerch Strait as they headed to a Ukrainian port in the Sea of Azov.
“While my colleagues at the State Department quickly prepared a statement condemning Russia for its escalation, senior officials in the White House blocked it from being issued,” Anderson testified.
Instead, it was left to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to condemn the move. Later, Trump would cite the Russian seizure of the vessels when he canceled a scheduled meeting with Putin during the G-20 summit in Argentina. But Anderson said that Ukrainian officials noticed Trump’s silence, especially as other Western leaders spoke out, and they asked their counterparts in the American government why the White House never expressed support.
Ironically, Anderson explained, the CNN story that prompted the president’s complaint to Bolton was overblown. (He said during the hearing that he thought it came out in early January, but the piece was published in December.)
“The news report seemed to be, in my understanding, exaggerating the situation, because all the Navy had done was file a standard notification under the Montreux Convention that they were planning to transit into the Black Sea,” Anderson said.
The Montreux Convention is a 1936 treaty that requires any country without coastline on the Black Sea to notify Turkey at least 15 days before transiting a military vessel through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, which connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
Anderson, a career foreign service officer, added that U.S. officials forged ahead with a subsequent operation in February to show support for Ukraine by deploying an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Russian invasion of Crimea.
Other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have also linked the Russia and Ukraine sagas. George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, testified that Trump appeared to sour on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky between their calls on April 21 and July 25 partly because of conversations he had with Putin, the Russian president, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
A belief that Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence has been cited by other inside sources as a possible explanation for Trump’s treatment of Kyiv. During a meeting with his own aides in the fall of 2017, before a sit-down with Ukraine’s previous president, former aides have told us that Trump grumbled that Ukraine is not a “real country” and that it had always been a part of Russia.
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In another transcript released Monday night, State Department Ukraine specialist Catherine Croft revealed that Mick Mulvaney — before he became acting White House chief of staff — placed a peculiar hold on the sale of Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. It was “highly unusual,” she explained, because he was running the Office of Management and Budget at the time. She said the policy concern he expressed related to how the Russians would react, which was outside of his primary portfolio, and came after the secretaries of defense and state had signed off. Ultimately, Croft said, then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster had her brief Mulvaney on the value of the weapons and he dropped his hold after “a week or two.”
“In a briefing with Mr. Mulvaney, the question centered around the Russian reaction,” Croft testified. “That Russia would react negatively to the provision of Javelins to Ukraine.”
Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, said during her deposition that it, similarly, seemed peculiar when budget office officials froze aid to Ukraine this summer. The Pentagon had greenlighted the money, and there was consensus that the money was essential across the national security apparatus, when the budget office blocked the money from being transferred, reportedly at Trump’s apparent behest.
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The latest tranche of testimony further undercuts the Trump team’s talking point that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo because Ukrainian leaders didn’t find out that nearly $400 million in congressional approved security assistance had been frozen until Politico reported on it in late August. Croft said the Ukrainians “found out very early on” after the budget office froze the funds at Trump’s behest on July 18.
Cooper told investigators that Kurt Volker, the special envoy for Ukraine and Croft’s boss at the time, led her to make a “very strong inference” that the Ukrainians knew weeks before the freeze became public. The deputy assistant secretary of defense testified that Ukrainian leaders would never have entertained Volker’s request for a public statement about launching investigations unless they were doing so in exchange for “something valuable.” Furthermore, Cooper noted that acting ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor was also sounding “alarm bells … that there were Ukrainians who knew” about the freeze before it became publicly known, though she didn’t provide specific dates.
Cooper testified that her team at the Pentagon was especially concerned the funds were being held up by the White House this summer because it weakened Ukraine’s hand in negotiations with Russia. “They are trying to negotiate a peace with Russia, and if they are seen as weak, and if they are seen to lack the backing of the United States for their armed forces, it makes it much more difficult for them to negotiate a peace on terms that are good for Ukraine,” she said.