President Donald Trump faces a formal impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-controlled House after he asked the newly elected Ukrainian president to investigate one of his chief political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden led the Obama administration's diplomacy in Ukraine while his son, Hunter, was on the board of directors of a gas company.
Trump says his own behavior was appropriate. His critics say he had withheld military aid to Ukraine while he pressured its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on the Bidens. A whistleblower's complaint now before the Congress accuses Trump of "using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election." It further alleges that the White House engaged in a cover-up by hiding a transcript of the conversation on a computer server meant only for highly classified information.
Democrats have since raised questions about the roles of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. diplomats, Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Bill Barr, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and others in the president's interactions with Ukraine.
Here are some of the affair's main characters as fast-moving developments unfold.
WHISTLEBLOWER NUMBER ONE
The first anonymous whistleblower to come forward is a CIA employee who was detailed to the White House, information that was first reported by The New York Times. He wrote a formal complaint addressed to Congress and dated Aug. 12 in which he accused the president of using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election, by investigating one of his main political rivals, among other things. Trump has since released a memo of a call that he had with Ukraine's newly elected president on July 25, during which he did ask for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden's son, Hunter.
The whistleblower further alleges that senior White House officials had intervened to "lock down" all records of the phone call, by loading the transcript into an electronic system otherwise used to store especially sensitive classified information.
He wrote that he was not a direct witness to most of the events that he described but received information from more than a half-dozen U.S. officials during the course of his duties.
Lawyers for the whistleblower, who have signaled their client is wiling to testify before Congress, have objected to publishing any identifying details, saying that doing so will place the professional in a more dangerous situation.
The New York Times reported that he first brought his concerns about a potential abuse of power anonymously to the CIA's top lawyer, who shared them with White House and Justice Department officials. The whistleblower complaint, filed about the same time, was delayed in transmission to Congress as the acting director of national intelligence resolved issues of executive privilege.
WHISTLEBLOWER NUMBER TWO
A second whistleblower has come forward, the lawyers for the first confirmed the weekend of Oct. 6. Mark S. Zaid, one of lawyers representing the whistleblowers, confirmed that the second whistleblower worked in the intelligence field and had firsthand knowledge of Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president.
The New York Times had reported on Oct. 5 that a second intelligence officer was weighing whether to come forward. That official was among those interviewed by the intelligence community inspector general to corroborate the initial allegations, the Times reported.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s Personal Attorney
The one-time mayor of New York City who has been acting as Trump's personal attorney is at the center of attempts to push Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Bidens.
At times on his own and in other instances consulting with U.S. government officials, Giuliani has met with Ukrainians to press for information that would help Trump in his re-election bid. Trump began urging the newly elected president of Ukraine to work with Giuliani on "corruption" in his first congratulatory phone call in April, according to The New York Times. It also reported that Trump has been focused on Ukraine since it released information about cash payments that were damaging to Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Giuliani, meanwhile, has been making regular appearances on Fox News, shouting at his detractors to shut up and calling them morons and insisting that the State Department had asked him to meet with the Ukrainians.
“It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I’m not. And I will be the hero. These morons—when this is over, I will be the hero,” Giuliani told a writer for The Atlantic.
On Sept. 30, House Democrats subpoenaed documents related to Giuliani's attempts to press the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens.
Two of Giuliani's associates were arrested on Oct. 10 and charged with campaign finance violations for allegedly funneling foreign money to political candidates.
Vice President Mike Pence
When Pence was dispatched to Poland on Sept. 1 to fill in for Trump, he met with Zelenskiy and afterward told reporters that he had not discussed Biden with the Ukrainian president.
But when asked whether he could assure Ukraine that the delay in military assistance was unrelated to efforts to dig up dirt on the Biden family, he did not answer directly and referred to "great concerns about issues of corruption."
Trump himself urged reporters to review Pence's interactions with Zelenskiy, even as he insisted neither he nor his vice president had done anything wrong.
"And I think you should ask for Vice President Pence's conversation because he had a couple conversations too," Trump said during a news conference at the United Nations on Sept. 25.
Pence's name arose in a footnote in the whistleblower's complaint: The vice president was instructed to cancel his planned trip to Ukraine for the new president's inauguration and Energy Secretary Rick Perry attended instead. It was "made clear" that the president did not want to meet with Zelenskiy until he saw how he "chose to act."
Attorney General Bill Barr
Barr’s name appears at the beginning of the whistleblower’s report accusing Trump of seeking foreign interference in the 2020 election. “Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well,” the report says.
Trump raised Barr’s name in his July 25 conversation with the Ukrainian president, first to say he would like Barr to call Zelenskiy or his people over “a server.” Trump appeared to be referring to an unsubstantiated story that Ukraine had some involvement in the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. (Barr is overseeing a review of the intelligence community’s decision to begin an investigation into the Trump 2016 campaign for which the Department of Justice is interested in talking to Ukrainians.) During the phone call, Trump again brought up the attorney general when he urged an investigation into the Bidens. In a statement, the Department of Justice said Barr was first notified of the phone call several weeks after it took place “when the Department of Justice learned of a potential referral.”
DOJ spokesperson Mollie Timmons added: "The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine – on this or any other matter. The Attorney General has not communicated with Ukraine – on this or any other subject. Nor has the Attorney General discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani."
House Speaker Pelosi said she thought Barr has "gone rogue."
Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations
Volker, a special envoy with the State Department, met with Zelenskiy along with the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, on July 26, the day after the phone call during which Trump asked for an investigation into the Biden family. Volker and Sondland, according to the whistleblower's report, “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to 'navigate' the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy." Giuliani has been displaying a text message that he said he had received on July 19 from Volker that reads: "Mr. Mayor -- really enjoyed breakfast this morning. As discussed, connecting you here with Andrey Yermak, who is very close to President Zelensky. I suggest we schedule a call together on Monday -- maybe 10am or 11am Washington time? Kurt.”
The State Department has acknowledged that Volker put Giuliani in touch with Ukrainian officials. Volker was brought in by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help Ukraine resolve its conflict with Russia-sponsored separatists. Volker, the head of the John McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, resigned from the part-time, unpaid position on Sept. 27, a day after the whistleblower report became public. Arizona State’s student newspaper was the first to report his resignation. He has also resigned from the top job at the McCain Institute.
Marie Yovanovitch, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine
Yovanovitch is a career diplomat who was abruptly recalled from her post as the ambassador to Ukraine. At the time, the State Department said she was ending her term a few months earlier than planned, but during Trump’s phone call with the newly elected president of Ukraine, Trump called her “bad news” and said that she was “going to go through some things.” Her supporters say she was a respected diplomat pressing anti-corruption measures who ran up against some in the Ukrainian government. The Associated Press reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially resisted the push to recall her early. She previously served as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Congressional committees plan to depose her and four other State Department officials about the whistleblower's complaint, the AP reported.
She told House impeachment investigators on Oct. 11 that a top State Department official informed her that Trump had pushed for her removal for months. The State Department on orders from the White House had directed her not to appear for a voluntary interview, so the House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena for her appearance.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Pompeo confirmed on Oct. 2 reports that he was among the administration officials who listened in on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. He had deflected when asked on ABC News on Sept. 22 what he knew about the phone call and the whistleblower complaint. “So, you just gave me a report about a I.C. whistleblower complaint, none of which I've seen," he said then.
Pompeo has been subpoenaed for documents connected to the impeachment inquiry. House committees have scheduled depositions with five State Department officials. In a response on Oct. 1, he accused House Democrats of trying “to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State, including several career Foreign Service Officers, whom the committee is now targeting.” Pompeo claimed that the officials and the department needed more time to prepare and wrote that the requested dates for depositions were "not feasible."
Energy Secretary Rick Perry
Trump told Republicans on Oct. 5 that it was Perry who had prompted the phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president in which Trump pushed for an investigation of the Bidens. According to Axios, Trump said Perry wanted him to discuss “something about an LNG (liquefied natural gas) plants.” Meanwhile, Perry was key in attempts to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s gas company, Naftogaz, The Associated Press reported. On Oct. 7, Perry denied that he pressed for changes at Ukraine’s state energy company or that he planned to resign, as was reported, Politico wrote. His spokeswoman has said his conversations about Naftogaz were about creating an environment where Western companies could do business. The AP reported that a group with ties to Trump was trying to steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies.
He was issued a subpoena for documents by House Democrats on Oct. 10 as part of the Trump impeachment inquiry.
Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker
The speaker of the House long resisted calls for an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s behavior. She changed course after details began to emerge about Trump’s request in a phone call with the Ukrainian president that he investigate one of his top Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden. She announced a formal inquiry on Sept 24, saying, "No one is above the law." After the White House counsel asserted that the inquiry lacked a constitutional foundation, she assailed what she called “another unlawful attempt to hide the facts of the Trump administration’s brazen efforts to pressure foreign powers to intervene in the 2020 elections.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman, House Intelligence Committee
Schiff, a Democrat from California, heads the Intelligence Committee, which has been directed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take the lead on the impeachment inquiry into Trump, based on his dealings with the Ukraine president. A former assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who has been a persistent critic of the president, Schiff was blasted by conservatives for parodying Trump’s phone conversation with Zelenskiy during a hearing at which Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, appeared. But House Democrats praised Schiff for his questioning and his knowledge of national security. The Intelligence Committee is one of six in the House that is investigating Trump under the umbrella of the impeachment inquiry. His was the committee that released the declassified whistleblower complaint and letter from the Intelligence Community Inspector General. Trump routinely mocks Schiff on Twitter.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union
Sondland is the wealthy founder of Provenance Hotels, from Portland, Oregon, who tried to advance Trump’s demands in Ukraine. His role is revealed in a series of texts that he trades with Volker and William Taylor, the U.S. charges d’affaires in Ukraine.
In one widely quoted exchange on Sept. 9, Taylor writes, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland responds five hours later: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
Sondland broke with the president temporarily during the 2016 campaign over Trump’s treatment of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose Muslim American son died serving in the U.S. army in Iraq. But he is a major Republican donor and gave $1 million to the Trump inauguration committee.
He was set to testify as part of the congressional impeachment inquiry on Oct. 8, though the State Department barred his appearance hours before it was to begin. On Oct. 11, he announced that he would that he would defy the State Department and testify in the House impeachment inquiry.
William Taylor, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine
Taylor, a career diplomat, is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, served in the Middle East, oversaw reconstruction in Iraq and was a coordinator of assistance to Afghanistan. He notably raises a red flag in a series of texts with Sondland, writing: "As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Buzzfeed reports that his friends described him as "a straight-shooting, no-nonsense" diplomat, reluctant to return to Ukraine for the Trump administration, but who put policy over politics and worked for a stable, independent Ukraine.
Joseph Maguire, Acting Director of National Intelligence
Maguire, a retired three-star admiral and former Navy SEAL, became the acting director of national intelligence in August and was immediately thrust into decisions over how to handle an explosive, what he called "unprecedented," whistleblower report that accused the president of abusing his power of office to solicit foreign interference into the 2020 election. Maguire tried to navigate between supporting the whistleblower and defending his delay in turning over the report to Congress as called for by the intelligence whistleblower law. Maguire testified before the House Intelligence Committee that he first needed the White House to resolve issues of executive privilege because the accusation involved Trump on a call with the president of Ukraine. Democrats were critical of his decision to turn to the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel's Office. He refused to say whether he had discussed the whistleblower complaint with Trump.
Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community
Atkinson investigated the whistleblower’s claims and found them to be credible and urgent, but Maguire initially blocked the complaint from being forwarded to Congress as the law requires. The complaint was eventually submitted and Atkinson testified before Congress in a closed hearing.
In a letter to Maguire, Atkinson wrote that the whistleblower was not a direct witness to Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy, but that Atkinson found other information that supports the allegation that Trump sought to pressure Zelenskiy into helping Trump’s reelection bid. U.S. laws prohibit a foreigner from making a contribution of money or other thing of value in a U.S. election and prohibit someone from soliciting, accepting or receiving such a contribution. In his judgment, Atkinson wrote, seeking foreign assistance to influence a federal election would constitute an abuse under federal law that “would also potentially expose such a U.S. public official (or others acting in concert with the U.S. public official) to serious national security and counterintelligence risks with respect to foreign intelligence services aware of such alleged conduct.”
On Sept. 30, Atkinson released a statement disputing an account being advanced by Trump and his allies that rules requiring whistleblowers to rely only on first-hand information had been changed. Atkinson’s office said there had been no requirement for first-hand information — the whistleblower has acknowledged that he was not present for all the actions detailed in his complaint. What had been revised was a form that could be read incorrectly, the statement said.
Steve Linick, Inspector General of the State Department
The inspector general for the State Department asked for an “urgent” briefing to take place Oct. 2 with several House and Senate committees on documents related to the State Department and Ukraine. Linick, an Obama administration holdover who worked in the Justice Department under former President George W. Bush, was to meet with staff from House and Senate committees covering foreign relations, oversight issues and appropriations. The documents were given to the inspector general by the State Department’s acting legal adviser, according to The New York Times. Linick in August concluded that a department bureau that works with international organizations harassed staffers, accused them of political disloyalty to the Trump administration, and retaliated against them, The Washington Post reported. Inspectors general by law are to be independent and nonpartisan.
Lev Parnas, Ukrainian-born Businessman
The Ukrainian-born associate of Giuliani helped Trump’s personal lawyer to push the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. He and Igor Fruman, another Giuliani associate, were arrested on campaign-finance related charges at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington D.C. on Oct. 9 with one-way international tickets. The indictment against him outlines a scheme to help an unnamed Ukrainian government official, another person who is described as having "Russian roots" and others funnel foreign money to political candidates to try to buy influence. He was issued a subpoena for documents by House Democrats on Oct. 10 as part of the Trump impeachment inquiry.
Igor Fruman, Belarusian-born Businessman
Another associate of Giuliani, Fruman also helped to encourage the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. He was arrested with Parnas on campaign-finance related charges at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington D.C. on Oct. 9 with one-way international tickets. Like Parnas, he is accused of helping an unnamed Ukrainian government official, another person who is described as having "Russian roots" and others funnel foreign money to political candidates to try to buy influence. He also was issued a subpoena for documents by House Democrats on Oct. 10 as part of the Trump impeachment inquiry.
Pete Sessions, Former Texas Congressman
Texas Republican Pete Sessions represented a slice of Dallas and its suburbs in the U.S. House for two decades, rising through the party’s ranks to lead the successful GOP effort in 2010 to reclaim the House majority.
After running unopposed in 2016, Sessions lost his reelection bid in 2018 to Democratic newcomer Colin Allred.
The indictment of Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas refers to the involvement of a Congressman-1, who, according to multiple senior U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke to NBC News, is Sessions.
The indictment says that around May and June of 2018 Parnas and Fruman committed to raise $20,000 for “Congressman-1”. The indictment alleges that Parnas met with Congressman-1 to seek his “assistance in causing the U.S. Government to remove or recall the then-U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine.“
Sessions denied any wrongdoing. He did write a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for Yovanovitch’s removal, the Dallas Morning News reported.
“The letter that was written was private, to Mike Pompeo,” Sessions told the Morning News. “It was providing information that was based upon firsthand knowledge and information. ... She was very much against the administration, did not represent them and spoke publicly against the administration.“
Joe Biden, Former Vice President and 2020 Presidential Candidate
After Ukraine’s pro-Russia president was brought down by mass protests, the former vice president led U.S. attempts to clean up corruption there. One target of Biden’s efforts was the country’s then general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, thought to be soft on corruption. Other Western countries were in agreement.
Joe Biden threatened that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees before Shokin’s eventual firing.
Trump has accused Biden of working to oust Shokin because the general prosecutor was investigating a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings. Hunter Biden had taken a position on the company’s board.
But there is no evidence that either of the Bidens did anything wrong or that Joe Biden took any actions to help his son. Shokin was accused of moving slowly in an investigation of the owner of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, a former minister of natural resources. This is at odds with Trump's accusations - Joe Biden was attempting to oust a prosecutor that appears to have been friendly to Hunter Biden's boss. Zlochevsky denied any wrongdoing and he was never convicted of any crimes. Bloomberg News reported that the investigation had been dormant for about a year by the time Biden was leading anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.
Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's Son
The former vice president’s son accepted a position on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, in May 2014, and remained until April 2019. He was paid about $50,0000 a month, one official with ties to the company told the Wall Street Journal. The company had ties to the country’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, NBC News reported, and there was concern that younger Biden’s position could undermine his father’s work in the country. The Obama White House said there was no conflict of interest because Hunter Biden was a private citizen.
There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden, despite Trump’s claim that the former vice president pushed for the ouster of the country’s then general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, because he was investigating Burisma.
The United States and other Western countries advocated for Shokin’s removal because he was thought not tough on corruption. At one point before Shokin’s dismissal, Joe Biden threatened that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees.
The owner of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, a former minister of natural resources, was under investigation but he was never convicted of any crimes. Shokin, the general prosecutor that VP Joe Biden and others targeted, was accused of blocking investigations of Zlochevksy -- at odds with Trump's assertion that ousting Shokin would help Hunter Biden. Shokin was accused of impeding one probe by failing to cooperate with officials in the United Kingdom. Bloomberg News reported that the Burisma investigation had been dormant for more than a year by the time that the vice president was trying to curb corruption.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
The newly elected president is a first-time officeholder and a former comedian who played the president on a popular Ukrainian television show. He won a surprise landslide victory in April, defeating the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, with 73 percent of the vote after campaigning on clean government. He took over a country plagued by corruption, conflict with Russia and a faltering economy. Soon after, Trump froze nearly $400 million in military aid that was meant to help Ukraine stand up to Russia. Then in the July 25 phone call, Trump asked Zelenskiy about investigating the Bidens.
In September, Zelenskiy told reporters during his first face-to-face meeting with Trump at the United Nations: “I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to democratic, open elections of [the] U.S.A.”
“No, you heard, we had, I think, good phone call,” he said. “It was normal. We spoke about many things. So I think you read it that nobody pushed me."
In a later interview, reported by The Associated Press, Zelenskiy said that he had stressed the importance of the military aid to Trump, but “it wasn’t explained to me” why the money didn’t come through until September.
Yuri Lutsenko, Former Ukrainian Prosecutor General
Lutsenko, a former prosecutor who was fired from his position in August, told the Los Angeles Times that he repeatedly turned back Giuliani’s demands that he investigate the Bidens. He said that to his knowledge the Bidens had not broken any laws in Ukraine and he told Giuliani not to use Ukraine as a way to go after one of Trump’s political rivals.
“I told him I could not start an investigation just for the interests of an American official,” The Los Angeles Times quoted Lutsenko as saying.
Lutsenko characterized Giuliani as being obsessed with the Bidens, the newspaper reported. He told the BBC that any “possible embezzlement” at the Burisma Group gas company, where Hunter Biden was on the board of directors, happened two or three years before Hunter Biden because a board member.
But The Los Angeles Times also noted that Lutsenko was believed to have been behind the unproven allegations against Biden. The Bidens have denied wrongdoing and there is no evidence that they were engaged in any.
Earlier, Lutsenko had said he thought there were signs of Ukrainian collusion in the 2016 U.S. election. He referred to the black ledger that came to light showing secret payments for political lobbying to Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is now in prison. Manafort was found guilty of bank and tax fraud and conspiring to hide millions of dollars from Ukrainian politicians aligned with Russia.
Viktor Shokin, Former Ukrainian Prosecutor General
Shokin is at the heart of the unsubstantiated allegation from Trump and Giuliani that when Biden was vice president, he sought Shokin’s removal to try to halt an investigation of Burisma Group, the Ukrainian gas company where Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board of directors. But the vice president was not alone in wanting Shokin out. European diplomats and the U.S. State Department also wanted Shokin gone because he was not aggressive enough in fighting corruption. The investigation into Burisma was already dormant by the time Biden pushed for Shokin’s dismissal. The Obama administration threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees over Shokin, who served for 13 months before being dismissed in March 2016. Lutsenko followed him in the job.
Emilie Mutert contributed to this article.