Kurt Volker, Ukraine and a Turbulent End in the Trump Administration

WASHINGTON — “Please don’t publish this letter,” Kurt D. Volker, a former career foreign service officer, pleaded in 2016 with Eliot A. Cohen and Eric Edelman, two former Republican officials leading a “Never Trump” letter-writing movement.

Their arguments were not wrong, Mr. Volker told them, as both sides remember it. But he argued that Donald J. Trump might actually win the election. And Mr. Volker, who had seen his foreign service career cut short after a new President Barack Obama swiftly removed him as the United States ambassador to NATO, was not going to blacklist himself from a senior post in another administration.

He got a lot more than he wanted.

Mr. Volker, who was President Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine until his abrupt resignation late last month, is today a central player in a political uproar that is threatening Mr. Trump’s presidency with impeachment and contaminating American’s relationship with Ukraine. It has also saddled Mr. Volker with legal bills and may force his resignation from another post, that of executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, based in Washington. (A final decision had been postponed.)

One bright spot for Mr. Volker, 54, a serious-looking policymaker with wire-rim glasses and a thick crop of salt-and-pepper hair, is that he was to be married Saturday afternoon at Washington National Cathedral to Ia Meurmishvili, a journalist and television anchor for Voice of America’s Georgian service. They met when he was her first guest on her television program; it is his second marriage.

Mr. Volker, who viewed his task as helping Ukraine remain independent against Russian aggression while working for a president with a curious crush on President Vladimir V. Putin, has emerged from his assignment as a man who seems a willing participant in an effort by Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to pressure a foreign government to investigate Democratic political rivals at home.

Friends counter that Mr. Volker is another victim of the Trump era — a career diplomat who thought he could reconcile his own ambition and public service while working for a president who blurs the line between personal gain and the country’s interests.

“I have no doubt he was trying to do the right thing,” said Daniel Fried, a former ambassador and 40-year State Department official who was Mr. Volker’s former boss at the National Security Council. “The question is not what his motives were, but whether what he was trying to do was just impossible because he was facing a situation so compromised, he couldn’t fix it with his usual skills.”

But friends who read the testimony that Mr. Volker gave to Congress on Thursday also said they were frustrated that Mr. Volker was papering over his own role rather than taking responsibility for it. They pointed to a disconnect between Mr. Volker’s testimony and a series of incriminating text messages he provided voluntarily to Congress, in which he is revealed as party to a plan for Ukraine to conduct politically helpful investigations for Mr. Trump as a condition for a White House visit.

Mr. Volker stated in his testimony that “at no time was I aware of or took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden.” He said that Joseph R. Biden Jr. was “never a topic of discussion” in the text messages. But the messages include references to Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden, a son of Mr. Biden, was on the board. The subtext, foreign policy experts said, was impossible not to understand.

Mr. Volker, for his part, views himself as blameless, according to people who have spoken with him. He has said told associates that the text messages do not capture the whole story.

“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 a visit to Washington,” Mr. Volker wrote to a top aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on July 25.

The text seems to show that Mr. Volker understood that pursuing a policy outcome he wanted — setting up a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky in order to reset the relationship — meant using highly questionable means and what critics call an extraordinary abuse of presidential power — to get there.

But Mr. Volker testified to congressional investigators on Thursday that ultimately he advised the Ukrainians to drop the arrangement and that he was, as he has told associates, simply trying to “stop something bad from happening.”

Mr. Volker, friends said, has remained upbeat, committed to the idea that he helped steer Ukraine policy in a successful direction, and that his decision not to sign the “Never Trump” letters and to serve in the Trump administration was, even in retrospect, the right thing to do.

When Mr. Volker joined the administration in July 2017, he was taking on a difficult task under normal circumstances — supporting democracy and reform in Ukraine while deterring Russian aggression. The added burden, friends said, was doing it all under Mr. Trump, a leader who ran a separate off-the-books foreign policy through Mr. Giuliani, and who wanted to maintain a close relationship with Mr. Putin.

In his testimony to Congress, Mr. Volker said he was aware that Mr. Trump viewed Ukraine as a corrupt country full of “terrible people” who were “trying to take me down.” That view, he said, was fueling a “negative narrative” that stood in the way of building a bilateral relationship with the new Ukraine government.

Mr. Volker — whose part-time, unpaid role as special envoy meant that he functioned outside of any formal State Department process — tried to explain his rationale for involving himself in Mr. Giuliani’s push for Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

He faced a choice, Mr. Volker said in his testimony: “Do nothing, and allow this situation to fester, or try to fix it. I tried to fix it.”

Foreign policy experts said that view was naïve.

“Donald Trump is certainly not someone who can be boxed in or fixed,” said Andrew S. Weiss, who was a Russia adviser to President Bill Clinton. “Everything we know about Giuliani points in the same direction.” Mr. Weiss said that under Mr. Trump’s leadership, “the level of dysfunction on Ukraine policy is stunning.”

The State Department declined to comment on Mr. Volker’s testimony, or his work in the administration. Mr. Volker declined to comment as well, and Mr. Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment.

But in an appearance on Fox News on Friday night, Mr. Giuliani described Mr. Volker as “a great diplomat” who “doesn’t know anything about investigating, doesn’t know anything about crime.’’

Mr. Volker’s former colleagues pinned the blame on the man who sets the tone for his administration from the top.

“Experience has demonstrated that the closer you get to Trump, the harder it is to stay clean,” Mr. Fried said. “Decent people are put in impossible positions. I don’t think Kurt deserves to be hurt. It could have been me.”

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