Trump, Ukraine and impeachment: a primer

Democrats in the US House of Representatives are building a case that could produce multiple impeachment charges against President Donald Trump (AFP Photo/JIM WATSON)

Washington (AFP) - In just three weeks, the official impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump has accumulated significant testimony and documentary evidence on allegations that he illegally pressured Ukraine to help boost his own political prospects in the United States.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are building a case that could produce multiple impeachment charges that Trump has abused the powers of his office, violated US election laws and illegally obstructed a Congressional investigation.

Here's where the investigation stands:

- Whistleblower complaint, presidential call transcript -

After his election in April, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought a meeting with Trump and also hoped to obtain some $400 million in military aid. In May, Trump told US diplomats to coordinate with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani says publicly that he is investigating whether Ukraine colluded with the Democrats in the 2016 election, and also is looking into Democrat Joe Biden -- who could face Trump in the 2020 election -- over Biden's son's ties to a Ukraine energy company Burisma.

In September, a whistleblower complaint came to light alleging that, in a July 25 phone call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate both cases. The whistleblower expressed concern that "the president had clearly committed a criminal act by urging a foreign power to investigate a US person for the purposes of advancing his own reelection bid in 2020."

The White House-edited transcript of the call shows Trump responding to Zelensky's request for military aid -- which Trump had frozen days earlier -- by saying: "I would like you to do us a favor though."

Trump asks Zelensky to get information regarding the alleged help for the Democrats in 2016 and regarding the Bidens. "A lot of people want to find out about that," Trump said, adding: "So if you can, look into it."

- Text messages add evidence -

The inquiry has found text messages between US diplomats showing awareness of what Trump and Giuliani sought.

A week before the Zelensky call, Kurt Volker, the special representative on Ukraine, texted two other diplomats: "Most impt is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation."

Hours before the call, Volker told Zelensky aide Andrey Yermak: "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. Good luck!"

On August 13, Volker texted a draft of a Ukraine statement to his colleagues that said: "We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 US elections."

- Testimonies bare worries over Trump -

The White House has refused House demands to provide documents related to the Ukraine dealings. But nine officials have testified to the inquiry behind closed doors.

Former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill told the inquiry that her boss, Trump's then-national security advisor John Bolton, was alarmed by the efforts to pressure Ukraine and branded it a surreptitious "drug deal."

Bolton also said that Giuliani is "a hand grenade who's going to blow everyone up," she testified.

On Thursday, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told the inquiry in written testimony that Trump ordered diplomats in May to work with Giuliani.

Giuliani "specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the President," Sondland said.

- Mulvaney admits quid pro quo -

One Thursday, Trump's chief of staff Mick Mulvaney stunningly admitted that there was indeed a quid pro quo: that the White House held up aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate whether the country had helped Democrats in 2016.

"Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that," Mulvaney told reporters.

"That's it, and that's why we held up the money."

Two hours later Mulvaney retracted his statement, but the damage was done.

"Things just went from very, very bad to much, much worse," said Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman leading the impeachment inquiry.

- What next -

Schiff said this week there are "a great many" interviews to come, but they are aware of the need to move quickly. Once finished, they will release the interview transcripts and then draw up articles of impeachment -- formal legal charges against the president.

That could happen as early as late November. The Democrat-controlled House is then expected to quickly vote to approve them. Then Trump would stand trial for removal in the Senate, which, according to one senator, could take place in December.

But convicting Trump could be difficult, because it would require two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Senate.