Explosive texts messages have revealed the lengths US diplomats went to get Ukraine’s president to investigate the Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden this summer, weakening Donald Trump’s key rebuttal to the scandal.
The tranche of newly published messages shows that US State Department figures dangled the prospect of a White House meeting between Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s new leader, and Mr Trump while pressing for the probe.
From mid-July to early September the officials repeatedly pushed to secure an investigation into Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who once worked for a Ukrainian gas company, even going as far as to help draft an announcement to be put out by Ukraine.
However with almost $400 million of US military aid to Ukraine held back as talks continued, one senior diplomat begun to raise concerns, writing in one text: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
The messages from three US senior officials involved in Ukrainian policy and an aide to Mr Zelenskiy, which were released by congressional committees leading the impeachment inquiry, show the degree of arm-twisting happening behind the scenes.
Taken together they also provide a serious challenge to Mr Trump’s core defence line on the scandal now engulfing his presidency – that there was not “quid pro quo” between holding back the military aid and demanding the investigation.
On Twitter on Friday, Mr Trump defended his call for the Bidens to be investigated, suggesting the position has "nothing" to do with the fact that Mr Biden is one of the front-runners to face him at next year’s presidential election.
“As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile Ukraine’s new prosecutor general announced on Friday that he is reviewing cases involving the Burisma gas company where Hunter Biden sat on the board.
Ruslan Ryaboshapka told journalists in Kiev that his office was conducting an audit of previous investigations by the prosecutor general, including cases against Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma.
“We are now looking again at all cases that were closed or broken up or were investigated earlier to make a decision to reconsider those instances where illegal procedural decisions were made,” Mr Ryaboshapka.
The text messages were handed over to the congressional committees by Kurt Volker, the former special representative for Ukraine negotiations who resigned last month as the scandal erupted.
He was interviewed by the committees on Thursday and a selection of messages was released afterwards.
The two other US officials whose messages appear are William Taylor, the Charge d’Affaires at the US embassy in Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union and Trump supporter.
One text was sent the morning of the July 25 phone where Mr Trump would push Mr Zelenskiy to launch an investigation into the Bidens – a conversation now central to the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Volker wrote to an aide of Mr Zelenskiy: “Heard from White House – assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”
In two separate September texts Mr Taylor raises concerns about holding back aid to Ukraine. In one he writes: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Mr Sondland texts back: “Call me.”
In another Mr Taylor says it would be “crazy” to link aid to “help with a political campaign”. Mr Sondland denies this in his response, saying there is no “quid pro quo”.
The Bidens have always denied any wrongdoing in their dealings with Ukraine.
Mr Volker denied pushing for an investigation into the Bidens during the interview with congressmen, according to testimony obtained by Buzzfeed.
"At no time was I aware of or took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden," he was reported to have said.