US President Donald Trump holds his first meeting in September 2019 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the United Nations in New York
Washington (AFP) - It started with a shadowy diplomatic campaign as Donald Trump bypassed official channels on Ukraine, and the unusual foreign policy bid has now triggered public hearings on impeachment -- the ultimate indignity for a US president.
The spark that lit the Ukraine affair, according to officials who have already appeared behind closed doors before Congress, was Rudy Giuliani, the voluble former mayor of New York who signed up as Trump's personal lawyer.
Determined to rebut the narrative that Russian electoral interference, which was documented by US intelligence, brought Trump to power, Giuliani pitched an alternative theory -- that not Russia but Ukraine, which has been battling Moscow-backed separatists, intervened in the 2016 vote, and in favor not of Trump but his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Despite the lack of evidence, the Ukraine theory gained currency among Trump supporters, who zeroed in on the role of Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president Joe Biden -- who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump next year.
Hunter Biden, whose troubled life has included struggles with alcohol, served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, but insisted he did not lobby his father.
- Fixation on Ukraine -
Giuliani claimed that Joe Biden, then in office, demanded that Ukraine dismiss a prosecutor to save his son from investigations.
There is little evidence behind the theory as other Western nations and the IMF also sought to remove the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who had been tarnished by corruption allegations.
Giuliani, according to numerous officials, was instrumental in securing the early departure in May of the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, after a whispering campaign that she supported the Democrats.
She told Congress that the State Department earlier had asked her if she wanted to extend her tenure into 2020.
William Taylor, the US diplomat who became acting ambassador in Kiev, said that Yovanovitch was "caught in a web of political machinations."
Also in May, Ukraine inaugurated a new president, 41-year-old comedian and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky. Returning from his inauguration, the US special envoy on Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, implored Trump to meet Zelensky.
Sondland later said that Trump's response was, "go talk to Rudy." And the former mayor was ready -- according to Sondland, Giuliani said Zelensky needed to promise publicly to investigate both Burisma and Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 election.
In a released text message, Taylor told Sondland, a political appointee who donated money to Trump, that Zelensky was concerned that Ukraine was "merely as an instrument" in US electoral politics.
Volker, a respected veteran diplomat who resigned in September, was even more blunt, telling lawmakers that in seeking an investigation of Burisma, "Giuliani was interested in Biden."
- Criticism of 'drug deal' -
Trump accepted to talk to Zelensky by telephone and ramped up pressure in the run-up. On July 10, Sondland told Ukrainian officials in Washington that a summit with Trump was conditioned on the desired investigations.
John Bolton, a Republican stalwart who was then Trump's national security adviser, ended the meeting and ordered that it be reported to a White House lawyer, purportedly saying he did not want to be part of a "drug deal."
But Volker in a text message confirmed to the Ukrainians that the White House would find a date for Zelensky's visit only if the new president convinced Trump in the phone call that he was serious about an investigation.
The trio of Volker, Taylor and Sondland, however, apparently did not tell the Ukrainians of a major step -- the freezing of a vital chunk of military aid to Kiev needed to fight Russian-backed forces.
Trump and Zelensky spoke by telephone on July 25. The Ukrainian leader thanked the United States for providing anti-tank missiles and Trump replied, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."
Trump, according to a release by the White House, asked for Ukraine to launch the investigations.
Trump complained of Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, telling Zelensky that "they say a lot of it started with Ukraine" and also mentioning "a lot of talk about Biden's son."
The US leader said that Giuliani would follow up with Zelensky and denounced "that woman" -- Yovanovitch, who had been sent back to Washington -- as "bad news."
The conversation so alarmed Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, that he alerted the internal legal chief.
Under pressure, the White House in September put out what it said was a transcript of the call, setting off the impeachment process by Democrats.
- Quid pro quo? -
The impeachment hearings will focus on a key question -- whether Trump held up the military aid for partisan ends.
On the sidelines of World War II commemorations in Poland on September 1, Zelensky asked about the assistance when he met Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled instead of Trump as the president said he would monitor a hurricane.
In Warsaw, Sondland informed a Ukrainian official that aid would not resume unless Zelensky publicly pledged to conduct a probe.
At issue in the impeachment hearings is if Trump insisted on a "quid pro quo," Latin for demanding one thing for another. Taylor, citing Sondland, said the orders on aid came explicitly from Trump.
The tycoon turned president denied the quid pro quo and said he had a "perfect" conversation with Zelensky.
Sondland, in a text message released by Volker, said that Trump "has been crystal clear" that there was no quid pro quo, an assertion he made to House investigators.
But Sondland, seen as a vital witness for Trump, recently reversed himself, saying that aid "likely" would not resume without Zelensky's pledge to investigate.