How Rick Perry Became A Key Figure In The Trump Impeachment Probe Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged President Trump to make that now-infamous July phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But what's Perry's connection to Ukraine?

How Rick Perry Became A Key Figure In The Trump Impeachment Probe

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One of the key people involved in the impeachment inquiry is Rick Perry, the U.S. secretary of energy. It was Perry who urged President Trump to make that July phone call to Ukraine's president. In that call, Trump asked the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden. Then, a whistleblower filed a complaint. And here we are.

But how did the energy secretary become a key figure in the impeachment probe? NPR special correspondent Melissa Block has the story.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Back before he was energy secretary, before he attempted to cha-cha his way through "Dancing With The Stars"...


LITTLE TEXAS: (Singing) God Blessed Texas.

BLOCK: ...Before Rick Perry ran for president twice and in a debate famously couldn't remember the federal departments he had promised to eliminate...


RICK PERRY: I would do away with the education, the...



PERRY: ...Commerce. And let's see. I can't - the third, sorry. Oops.

BLOCK: And you can't make this up. That last department Perry wanted to ax but couldn't remember, it was the Energy Department, which he now heads. Anyway, before all of that, Rick Perry rose to become the longest serving governor of Texas.


PERRY: I, Rick Perry, do solemnly swear...

BLOCK: Fourteen years in office.


PERRY: ...So help me God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Congratulations, Governor.

PERRY: Thank you, sir.

SCOTT BRADDOCK: They used to call him the rascal from Haskell because he was from Haskell County, Texas.

BLOCK: That's Scott Braddock, editor of the Texas political newsletter the Quorum Report. He's covered Rick Perry for many years.

BRADDOCK: He grew up not exactly dirt-poor, but not far from it.

BLOCK: The son of tenant farmers in tiny Paint Creek, Texas, Perry became a master politician, expert at cultivating relationships.

BRADDOCK: He took being a wheeler-dealer basically to the level of an art form. Perry was somebody who would always figure out the way to get what he wanted.

BLOCK: And at first it might've seemed absurd that what Rick Perry wanted was to join the Trump administration. After all, during his second presidential run in 2015, Perry scorched his opponent. He called Trump's candidacy a cancer on conservatism and a barking carnival act.


PERRY: A toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.

BLOCK: But apparently, all was forgiven after the election.

DEIRDRE DELISI: Well, you know, feelings change about people all the time.

BLOCK: That's Deirdre Delisi, former chief of staff to then-Governor Perry. She worked on four of his campaigns and remains a confidante.

DELISI: He was asked to serve his country, and as he has done so many other times, he agreed to serve his country. And he did a great job.

BLOCK: As energy secretary, Rick Perry has pretty much flown under the radar up until now, avoiding scandal. He's focused on opening global markets to U.S. oil and gas. At a news conference earlier this month in Lithuania, he described his dealings this way.


PERRY: I'm a Texas governor - former governor. And I know how to sell stuff. And my job is to go sell, first off, American product.

BLOCK: That's the Perry trademark, says Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report.

BRADDOCK: He was always real good at selling Texas. Governor Perry's slogan was Texas is open for business. And I think that he wanted to bring that to the national stage and to the international stage - that we're open for business.

BLOCK: Specifically, the business of liquefied natural gas or, as Rick Perry's Energy Department has dubbed it, freedom gas. It's a growing U.S. export, and Ukraine is a potentially huge market. Historically, Ukraine has depended heavily on natural gas from Russia. So if the U.S. could replace Russian gas with U.S. gas, that would be a big win for American companies and for U.S. foreign policy.

Ukraine is a critical counterweight to Russian influence in the region. But Ukraine has also been notorious for corruption, especially in the energy sector. And that has stifled Western investment. So for years, U.S. administrations have pressed Ukraine to root out corruption. It was in this context that Rick Perry headed to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in May of this year.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Ukrainian).

BLOCK: He was leading the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of the newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. According to the whistleblower's complaint, Vice President Mike Pence was supposed to head that delegation, but President Trump instructed Pence to cancel his trip and Perry went in his place. Also with Perry were the other members of the trio who called themselves the Three Amigos - Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, then the U.S. special representative for Ukraine.

Within days of leaving Kyiv, those three amigos were back in the Oval Office meeting with President Trump. They told him Zelenskiy was a reformer, and they wanted Trump to call him. Rick Perry was asked about this on his visit to Lithuania this month.


PERRY: Absolutely. I asked the president multiple times, Mr. President, we think it is in the United States' and in Ukraine's best interest that you and the president of Ukraine have conversations, that you discuss the options that are there. So absolutely, yes.

BLOCK: But Trump wasn't having it. Here's how Rick Perry described what happened next in an interview on the podcast "The Journal," which is produced by Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal.


PERRY: The president's like, eh, you know, until I'm comfortable that these guys have straightened up their act. And so what does straighten up their act mean? And the president said, visit with Rudy.

BLOCK: Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer who had been on a crusade for months, alleging that Ukraine colluded with Democrats in the 2016 election. So as Rick Perry told Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Puko, he did what Trump told him to do. He called Giuliani.


PERRY: And I called. And we had never had a conversation before. I called Mayor Giuliani and said, OK, tell me what's going on here. We're trying to get these folks in to meet so that we can move forward with some good economic development, sell them gas. And the president just ain't interested in talking.

And as I recall the conversation, he said, look; the president is really concerned that there are people in Ukraine that tried to beat him during his presidential election. He thinks they're corrupt.

BLOCK: As Perry recounted that phone call, Giuliani insisted that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election and that it did so to hurt Trump. That's a conspiracy theory that has been debunked. One thing that was not mentioned, Perry told The Wall Street Journal, the name Biden.


PERRY: Never - not in one conversation, not from the president, not from Gordon Sondland, not from Kurt Volker, not from anybody on the Zelenskiy team - did I ever hear the name Biden - never. Not once.

BLOCK: And remember; that's at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. Democrats want to know whether Trump tried to force a foreign power to interfere in the 2020 election. Was Trump telling the Ukrainians, unless you agree to dig up dirt on my opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company - unless you do that, you won't get your invitation to the White House and we'll hold your military aid hostage? Rick Perry has said repeatedly that he didn't know of any such quid pro quo, but Democrats in Congress aren't convinced.

JIM HIMES: First of all, can we please see your emails and your texts so that we can know if what you just said is true?

BLOCK: That's the Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. He sits on the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry.

HIMES: That's the core question. And, of course, since Rick Perry was very much at the center of the communication with the Ukrainians and presumably with the president, all of our questions would pertain to the extent that he observed U.S. policy being sidelined in favor of the president's personal political agenda.

BLOCK: House Democrats have subpoenaed a raft of documents and communications from Secretary Perry about the Ukraine affair. The Energy Department has refused to comply with that subpoena. Yesterday, speaking outside the White House, Perry called the impeachment investigation a charade.


PERRY: I'm not going to participate. The White House has advised us not to participate. My general counsel has told me not to participate in what they consider to be an unprecedented effort to try to use an inquiry in an unlawful way.

BLOCK: There's another wrinkle to all this, and it has to do with Ukraine's state-controlled behemoth oil and gas company Naftogaz, which has widely been seen as a playground for Ukraine's oligarchs, rife with corruption.

BLOCK: In this Naftogaz corporate video, the words transparency, open markets and new rules to tackle corruption flash on the screen in English. We know now that two Republican donors who are business associates of Rudy Giuliani were trying to install new management at Naftogaz as they were trying to get lucrative gas contracts funneled their way. Their names? Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They've now been arrested and pleaded not guilty to charges of campaign finance violations.

One question is, was the energy secretary, Rick Perry, also trying to engineer a shake-up of Naftogaz senior leadership to benefit private interests in the U.S.? When he was asked directly about this by reporters in Lithuania - did you push for changes to the board of Naftogaz? - Perry answered this way.


PERRY: The government of Ukraine did, in fact, ask us for, you know, who are the people that can help come and modernize?

BLOCK: Perry said he gave the Ukrainians the names of American energy experts who could advise them. But he denied reports that he was trying to force an overhaul of the Naftogaz board.

So where does all of this leave Rick Perry as he heads for the exit at the Energy Department?

DELISI: I don't think he's in trouble, and I don't think he's troubled. And certainly, no conversation I've had with him has made me believe that.

BLOCK: That's the take of Perry's longtime former aide Deirdre Delisi. But editor Scott Braddock with the Quorum Report sees things differently.

BRADDOCK: Interesting that Perry, who had done such a good job, was there from the beginning with Trump, you know, a member of the Trump administration who had kept his nose clean all the way until now with no even whiff of a scandal, and now he's caught up in the thing - the thing that is leading to this impeachment movement in Washington. Very ironic.

BLOCK: For his part, Rick Perry's swan song to his colleagues at the Energy Department came in the form of a highly produced, four-minute-long farewell video.


PERRY: I thank President Trump for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm so glad that I said yes.

BLOCK: The video's title - "The Coolest Job I've Ever Had."

Melissa Block, NPR News, Washington.


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