Chances are you’ve heard that the House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over the revelation that he pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate one of Trump’s main political rivals, Joe Biden.
But you may not have heard that the story has a significant Arizona connection in the form of Kurt Volker.
Who is Kurt Volker?
Volker is the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a Washington-based think tank run by Arizona State University that seeks to develop “character-driven leaders” in memory of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Volker previously worked under Sen. McCain and was also a former CIA analyst and foreign services officer. He later served as European director at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and then as temporary U.S. ambassador to NATO, before being replaced after Barack Obama’s election.
What does he have to do with the Ukraine scandal?
Until last Friday, when he resigned, Volker was also the Trump administration’s special envoy to Ukraine, a part-time, unpaid position he held since 2017 in which he was tasked with fostering negotiations between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Volker matters because he’s become a critical part of the White House defense to a whistleblower account claiming that Trump withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine and then pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to do him a “favor.”
That favor, according to notes released by Trump’s own White House, included opening an unwarranted investigation into former Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the Board of Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.
Volker was reportedly not on the phone call, but his alleged role in facilitating communication between Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, and officials from the new Ukrainian government is under scrutiny.
The whistleblower report paints Giuliani as someone who freelanced and went rogue as he tried to get the Ukrainian government to do Trump’s bidding, but Giuliani insists that the State Department and Volker knew about his work and even helped coordinate it.
What Rudy says
Giuliani insists that Volker reached out to him prior to the July 25 call and connected him with one of Zelensky’s top aides, Andriy Yermak. Giuliani has shared screenshots of text messages he claims Volker sent him, arguing they prove that the State Department wanted him involved in its interactions with Ukraine.
The State Department has acknowledged Volker put Giuliani “in direct contact” with Yermak around the same time as Zelenskey’s call with Trump. Since Volker and the State Department were involved and aware of his communications with Ukraine, Giuliani insists that means he and Trump did nothing wrong and were simply conducting foreign diplomacy.
What the whistleblower says
Volker has yet to comment publicly since the emergence of the Ukraine scandal, but the whistleblower complaint tells a different story about his role.
The day after the July 25 phone call, Volker traveled to Kiev, where he and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a Trump ally, “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky,” the whistleblower wrote.
In short, the whistleblower claims Volker tried to do damage control following Trump’s inappropriate request; an allegation that three House committees are now examining.
While Giuliani claims that Volker and the State Department wanted him involved, the Washington Post reports that Volker’s efforts seem to have been aimed at separating Giuliani’s obsession with investigating Biden and his son from official American dealings with the Ukrainian government.
Volker was frustrated by Giuliani’s attempts to pressure Zelensky into investigating the since-disproven allegations of corruption by Democrats, and was concerned that Trump was going along with Giuliani’s agenda, the Post reported.
Why did Volker resign?
Volker did not give a reason for his resignation, which was first reported last Friday by the State Press, the student newspaper at ASU, but the New York Times cited a source saying Volker didn’t think he could effectively do his job any longer.
ASU President Michael Crow offered a bit more detail to the Arizona Republic on Friday; “The envoy efforts seem to have been directed towards a broader agenda and he felt it best to not be engaged in such things,” Crow said.
Volker, who continues to serve as the McCain Institute’s executive director, is scheduled to testify in front of Congress on Thursday. Democrats are certain to ask him about his role in facilitating Giuliani’s interactions with Ukraine, as well as his reported efforts to do damage control following the July 25 phone call.
What Volker says could play a significant role in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and if the past week is any indication, it’s unlikely that Trump and Giuliani will respond calmly should Volker reveal damaging information.