hill vindman SPLIT
Witness depositions reveal new details about Ukraine call
02:09 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

President Donald Trump and his team continue to dive into their grab bag of tricks to try to undermine the impeachment inquiry. Whether it’s criticizing the process, insulting witnesses, attacking the whistleblower, or pointing to exculpatory evidence that just doesn’t exist, the next phase of public hearings is likely going to be accompanied by a heavy dose of false advertising by the President and his supporters.

 Sam Vinograd

While global audiences prepare to listen to public testimony, there is already ample indication that making the Trump presidency a pay-to-play operation has created serious risks for US national security. While Trump has denied any quid pro quo, witness testimony to date – as well as public statements – indicate otherwise.

If the price is right

The National Security Council performs many functions, including recommending which foreign leaders are invited to meet with President Trump at the White House. That recommendation is usually the result of careful policy deliberation and prioritization: the President is in demand, and a White House meeting is a hot ticket to have.

From the US perspective – the national security one at least – experts typically advise scheduling a White House meeting with the President when it advances US national security objectives. This can include using the visit to publicly shore up a credible partner or to sign a major agreement. These meetings can also be used by the President to deliver carefully crafted, tough talking points to officials from whom we want to see a change in behavior.

Timing is everything, and even once there’s an internal recommendation to consider an invitation, experts think carefully about when to invite a leader. Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser, lays out some of these considerations in her deposition. She details her surprise at a preemptive invitation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit the White House – extended by ambassador to European Union, Gordon Sondland, reportedly in coordination with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. This invitation had not gone through the appropriate procedures, according to Hill. She also flags that in a May congratulatory letter to Zelensky, the President issued a general invitation to Zelensky to visit the White House – after Sondland reportedly dictated language to him and Mulvaney regarding this invitation. The NSC was not part of reviewing or approving this initial invitation, and Hill says she would have recommended more generic language.

But on July 10, Sondland raised investigations – into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and into Burisma – with Ukrainians and told NSC staff that he had an agreement with Mulvaney to schedule a White House visit if the Ukrainians agreed to the investigation. The price of a Zelensky White House visit – under this presidency – is doing the President’s political, not policy, bidding. Sondland circumvented the normal process for scheduling a White House visit. According to depositions, he coordinated with Mulvaney who, as acting chief of staff, is the gatekeeper of the President’s schedule and is deeply knowledgeable about established NSC processes for reviewing foreign engagements as well as why it’s so important. Mulvaney, who signs off on White House visits, appears to be directly involved in undercutting White House processes and staff, according to the deposition.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, is scheduled to meet with Trump this week, despite his track record of both manipulating Trump into ignoring the advice of US security experts and dangerous actions like invading Syria and being suspected of perpetrating war crimes against the Kurds in Syria (an allegation that Turkey has denied), violating US law and purchasing Russian S-400 missile defense system, and more. Presidents do often meet with leaders to hammer out differences, but Trump has a track record of buckling under Erdogan’s pressure even when they’re just on the phone.

It is unlikely that his home team would feel confident that he’d stick to his talking points when face-to-face with Erdogan. It’s unclear whether any actual policy process led to this White House invitation, but one thing is for sure – Trump is rewarding Erdogan for bad behavior which just means Erdogan will likely engage in more of it.

Based on officials’ depositions, global audiences now have good reason to wonder what price foreign officials had to pay in order to score a visit with Trump. Other countries know that offering to do the President’s dirty work – and going straight to Rudy Giuliani or Mulvaney – is a slam dunk if they want to get an Oval Office meeting on the books.

Easy targets

When top US diplomat in Ukraine Ambassador Bill Taylor, former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Eurasian and Europe affairs George Kent testify publicly, they will likely share their experiences dealing with disinformation campaigns. Yovanovitch has already expressed, during her closed-door testimony before Congress, incredulity that she was recalled based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.” Kent notes that Giuliani, who had been leading the charge against Yovanovitch, had aligned himself with Ukrainians who perceived they would benefit from Yovanovitch’s ouster, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony. Hill says that it was obvious to her, and other experienced colleagues, that the smear campaign against Yovanovitch was spearheaded by people who were smearing Yovanovitch based on their personal, business interests and who also may have wanted to discredit former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference and the separate Senate report on the same topic.

The President fell for this transparent disinformation campaign against Yovanovitch or knowingly failed to discuss these conspiracy theories with any actual experts – which signals that he’s an easy target for manipulation. Under Trump’s administration, private individuals or foreign governments can cook up paper-thin conspiracy theories and get a US ambassador fired just as long as Fox News commentators or other right-wing pundits promote their theories. Trump has signaled that he is an easy target, especially if anything related to the 2016 election is thrown into the conspiracy cooker.

Walking, talking, texting security risk

Despite the recently released deposition of Hill, who detailed how Sondland posed policy problems and exhibited counterintelligence red flags – using his personal cell phone, including to text Hill, giving out Hill’s personal cell phone number and meeting with foreign officials without getting appropriately briefed – Sondland is still going strong. He’s meeting with foreign officials supposedly on behalf of the US government.