Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia 'Shocked' By Ukraine Text Messages
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program by looking back on an explosive week in Washington. And if you haven't been able to follow every twist and turn in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump, we'll try to catch you up.
On Thursday, former Ukrainian Envoy Kurt Volker took questions from House lawmakers for nearly 10 hours. During that testimony, he handed over dozens of text messages between U.S. diplomats. A partial transcript of those texts was later released by House Democrats - the text to pick a plan to tie U.S. aid to Ukraine and to suggest that President Trump would not meet with Ukraine's president unless there was an investigation by Ukraine into Trump's political opponent. Then, in a moment that many people found shocking, on the White House lawn, President Trump said, quote, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens," unquote.
Here to discuss all this is Michael McFaul. He served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014.
Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us once again.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Sure. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So let's start with these text messages between diplomats. And we need to be clear again that only a partial transcript has been released. But what struck you about them?
MCFAUL: Well, I was completely shocked, to be honest. I think they are explosive in that they underscore that this was not just a phone call between President Trump and President Zelenskiy of Ukraine. It was a plan that they worked out over several months with various iterations and talks with Ukrainians to do exactly what you just said - a quid pro quo. You get to meet with President Trump in the Oval Office, and you get to get your military assistance back as long as you do two things - investigate my political opponent's son, Hunter Biden, and two, which is even crazier - to relitigate who intervened in 2016 during that presidential election.
The president has a theory that it was the Ukrainians. And what is especially striking is how many people were involved in trying to put together this quid pro quo. That's what we get from these text messages.
MARTIN: Now, we've heard from a handful of Republican members of Congress over the last couple of days who are insisting a couple of things. One, some are insisting there's nothing wrong with this. Some are suggesting they didn't see evidence of a quid pro quo. But others are saying, in essence, this is just how it works. So I'm going to ask you about that latter there. From your experience, is this true? I mean, do - is this the kind of conversation that diplomats sometimes have working behind the scenes?
MCFAUL: Well, so in addition to working in Moscow for two years, I also worked at the White House at the National Security Council and was part of many phone calls that President Obama made with his Russian counterparts and other leaders around the world. And to make things happen, we did do quid pro quos. But they were always in the American national interest. I just want to keep stressing that. So yes, did we offer a visit with President Obama to a Ukrainian official? We actually did that in 2010, but it was to secure nuclear materials.
What is absolutely extraordinary and wrong in my view is that they were using the office of the president and military assistance - otherwise known as American taxpayer money, by the way - to try to get something for President Trump's personal electoral prospects in the upcoming presidential election. And that's just wrong. And I've never heard anything even remotely close to that during my time in government.
MARTIN: Some of the president's defenders are suggesting that the president was pressing Ukraine to deal with a corruption problem that everybody agrees is a problem. Did you hear that?
MCFAUL: No, I didn't. First of all, we've had the president and candidate Trump on the record for years now. He has had more press time than anybody, I think, in history as a president and as a candidate. Not once did he ever say fighting corruption, broadly speaking, is something he is concerned about, let alone in Ukraine. And when you single out one individual who just happens to be the son of your electoral opponent, that's not a fight for corruption. That's using the law for your own political ends.
MARTIN: What - then I do want to go into what the president said on the White House lawn. He seems to be insisting that there's actually nothing wrong with asking a foreign government to look into a political rival. So I'm going to ask you, what do you think are the implications of the president saying something like this?
MCFAUL: It's wrong. It's outrageously wrong. Go back to our founding fathers, where they warned about foreign interference in our domestic affairs. He is asking the president of Ukraine to help him win re-election in 2020. That other - I mean, I understand maybe he has to double down and defend that because he did it. And by the way, he had lots of people conspiring with him to do it. He dragged them all in.
But how anybody else could look at that and say, well, there's nothing wrong with that - I just really don't understand that logic. Whether it's impeachable or not, I'll let others decide that. Is it wrong? Absolutely. It's wrong and should never happen again.
MARTIN: Let me ask you about the role that Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, the president's personal attorney, played in all of this. This was completely outside of normal diplomatic channels. I think everybody would know that. And you said that his involvement in this muddied the waters and creates dangerous confusion. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
MCFAUL: Well, first, it's very clear from the texts that have been released that Mr. Giuliani was pushing hard to try to get the Ukrainians to open the investigation. And they pushed so hard, by the way, that it wasn't enough just to have them open an investigation of Vice President Biden's son. They wanted the Ukrainians to put it on the record.
And you see in those texts that Mr. Giuliani is interacting with Ambassador Volker. He's interacting with Ambassador Sondland to try to make this happen. And I - again, I served five years in government. I can never remember a private citizen getting so involved in something related to national foreign policy generally. But here, it's something that obviously he's not pursuing America's national interests.
And the second thing that I find tragic just because I know some of these players - I know Mr. Volker, I know Ambassador Taylor, who's also in these talks - what Giuliani did and what Trump did was drag our diplomats into work that you can tell they're not comfortable with, if you read those text closely. Mr. Volker chose to play along, and I think he needs to be held accountable for that.
But there is a hero in this - Ambassador Taylor, who was put out in Ukraine after the Trump administration fired the previous ambassador. It's clear from these texts that he knows this is wrong. And he says, if it goes any further, I'm going to quit. And I think that's a good testimony to that there are some civil servants in the Foreign Service that put national interests over the personal interests of the president.
MARTIN: That's Michael McFaul. He was U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He's also - as he also mentioned, he worked in national security at the White House.
Ambassador, thank you so much for talking to us.
MCFAUL: Sure. Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.