Trump impeachment: Who's who in the Ukraine story?


A mystery whistleblower, a former comedian and the president of the United States.

These are some of the main players in a story that is becoming ever more complex, and has now led to the president's impeachment trial.

1) Donald Trump

Image source, Reuters

Who is he?

The president of the United States of America.

What's his role?

Without him, there would be no story. Here's what we know about his involvement:

  • Mr Trump himself has acknowledged that he personally blocked nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine in July 2019
  • At about the same time, he spoke by phone with Ukraine's new president
  • In the call, Mr Trump pushed Ukraine's president to investigate a leading domestic political rival, Joe Biden
  • A complaint by a whistleblower in the intelligence community, who spoke with White House sources about the call, alleges Mr Trump used "the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the US 2020 election"

Mr Trump says the investigation is part of a "witch hunt" against him, and he denies that military aid was withheld in order to put pressure on Ukraine. He has also demanded to know who gave information to the whistleblower, saying the source was "close to a spy".

After his impeachment, his trial in the Senate begins on Tuesday.

2) Volodymyr Zelensky

Image source, AFP/Getty Images

Who is he?

Like Mr Trump, he's a former TV star. A one-time comedian with more than nine million Instagram followers (who now see fewer of his exercise videos, but more photos of him meeting world leaders), he was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide win in April 2019.

What's his role?

The man on the other end of that 25 July phone call. As our man in Kiev explains, the contents of the call proved to be a bit embarrassing for Mr Zelensky when they were released.

Not only were there a number of attempts to flatter Mr Trump, but it appeared that Mr Zelensky was willing to open an investigation into Mr Biden's son, at Mr Trump's request.

The big question - and one US investigators may be keen to ask Mr Zelensky and his associates - is whether the call (the two presidents' first detailed conversation since the Ukraine election) took place with a pre-condition that the Biden case be discussed.

3) Joe Biden

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Who is he?

The vice-president during Barack Obama's presidency for eight years, he is now one of the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election.

What's his role?

The fact that Mr Biden was, at the time of the Trump-Zelensky call, leading polls to be the Democratic candidate is the most relevant detail here. If chosen, he will be the man facing Mr Trump for the presidency in November 2020. Polls have suggested Mr Biden would win in this scenario.

In brief: Mr Trump alleges Mr Biden abused his power while in office. He suggests Mr Biden put pressure on Ukraine to back away from a criminal investigation that could implicate his son, Hunter (more on him later).

The issue is that if Mr Biden was just a retired member of society right now, Mr Trump's request to Ukraine would be of little consequence. But because Mr Biden is (for now, at least) one of his biggest rivals for the presidency, it opens Mr Trump up to claims he was working with a foreign power to influence the election.

"This isn't about me," Mr Biden said in September. "It's a tactic that's used by this president to try to hijack an election so we do not focus on the issues that matter in our lives."

4) Hunter Biden

Media caption,
What we know about Biden-Ukraine corruption claims

Who is he?

Mr Biden's 49-year-old son, who has worked as a lawyer and lobbyist.

What's his role?

His part in this convoluted saga relates to his position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, which he held for almost five years from 2014.

While Joe Biden was vice-president, Ukraine's most senior prosecutor was investigating the company but was then dismissed. Mr Trump and his allies have suggested that Joe Biden encouraged the prosecutor to be fired.

But there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden. The Ukrainian prosecutor who replaced the one who was fired (and continued his investigation into Burisma) told the BBC there was no reason for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and that any corruption within Burisma happened before Hunter Biden joined the board.

5) The whistleblower

Image source, Getty Images

Who are they?


What is their role?

The whistleblower first wrote to the chairmen of Senate committees on 12 August expressing concern over Mr Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president on 25 July.

They also alleged that the White House had acted to "lock down" all details of the phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky, and that the call transcript was not stored in the usual computer system.

All we know about the whistleblower is that they are a US intelligence officer - or at least were, when they wrote their letter. They specify in their letter to Senate officials that they do not work in the White House, but it is clear they are well connected to people who do. US media have reported they are a CIA officer who once worked at the White House.

Their lawyers then said a second whistleblower from the intelligence community had come forward (reportedly with direct knowledge of the allegations related to the Trump-Zelensky call). Lawyers then said "multiple" whistleblowers had emerged, though little has been heard about them since then.

6) Nancy Pelosi

Media caption,
Pelosi: "The president must be held accountable; no-one is above the law."

Who is she?

The woman who, as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, holds the key to Donald Trump's future in her hands.

What's her role?

After Democrats retook control of the House last November, Ms Pelosi resisted calls by some within her party to start impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump.

That changed on 24 September, when she announced the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry, saying the president "must be held accountable". In early December, she led the impeachment of the president.

Impeachment isn't the same as a criminal conviction, and it doesn't necessarily mean Mr Trump would be removed from office.

Mr Trump was formally impeached in mid-December, becoming only the third US president to suffer the same fate. He next faces a trial in the Senate.

But the proceedings are expected to stall there, where the president's Republican Party holds enough seats to prevent him from being removed from office by a two-thirds majority.

7) Rudy Giuliani

Image source, Reuters

Who is he?

The former mayor of New York and, most relevantly to this story, President Trump's personal lawyer.

What's his role?

Mr Giuliani, one of Mr Trump's most vocal cheerleaders, has been central in pushing the suggestion that the Bidens were involved in wrongdoing in Ukraine. He has been speaking to Ukraine's prosecutors - past and present - about the case since late 2018.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Mr Giuliani said he was simply "straightening out government" by calling for investigations into the Bidens.

"It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I'm not," he said. "And I will be the hero! These morons - when this is over, I will be the hero."

8) Viktor Shokin

Image source, Getty Images

Who is he?

The prosecutor fired by Ukraine's former government.

What's his role?

Joe Biden has been quite open about the role he played in getting Viktor Shokin dismissed, saying there were concerns he was not doing enough against corruption.

Mr Biden even said he threatened to withhold $1bn in aid to Ukraine unless Mr Shokin (the man who, at the time, was investigating his son's company) was fired. In January 2018, he recounted a conversation with Ukraine's government.

"I said, you're not getting the billion," Mr Biden said. "I'm going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: 'I'm leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money.'... He got fired."

Mr Biden was not the only political figure to demand Mr Shokin be dismissed, however, and other Western nations and the International Monetary Fund had criticised the prosecutor's inaction on corruption.

9) Kurt Volker

Image source, Getty Images

Who is he?

Until recently, he was the US government's special envoy to Ukraine.

What's his role?

He was the middleman between the White House and Zelensky's government, and appears to have helped urge the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens.

After Mr Volker gave evidence to lawyers in Congress in early October, the details of text messages (some of which involved Mr Volker) were released. In one, he indicates a visit by Mr Zelensky to Washington would happen only if he agreed to an investigation into the Bidens.

"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," the message said.

Another message shows he suggested what Mr Zelensky should say in a public statement.

10) Gordon Sondland

Image source, Getty Images

Who is he?

The US ambassador to the European Union, appointed by President Trump.

What's his role?

Mr Sondland, a hotelier who donated $1m to the president's inauguration committee, was appointed EU ambassador in 2018.

He first came under scrutiny after text messages surfaced that showed him discussing an effort to put pressure on Ukraine.

Mr Sondland gave closed-door testimony to Congress in which he denied that military aid was withheld from Ukraine for political reasons.

But, in a major reversal, he later revised his testimony and said he had told a Ukrainian official that the aid "likely" hinged on the country opening a political inquiry.

It was a significant revelation given that Mr Trump has denied using the aid as a bargaining chip.

On 20 November, in televised testimony to Congress, Mr Sondland said he was working at the "express direction" of Mr Trump when pressure was put on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

He added that the president and Mr Giuliani had sought to link a White House visit for Mr Zelensky with Ukraine publicly announcing a probe.

11) William 'Bill' Taylor

Image source, Getty Images

Who is he?

A senior diplomat and the acting US ambassador to Ukraine.

What's his role?

Mr Taylor told a private hearing that it was his "clear understanding" that the president had withheld military aid because he wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

He also said that Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was behind the drive to get Ukraine to announce an investigation.

Mr Taylor was the first official to testify in public televised hearings in Congress.

Learn more about Trump and the impeachment inquiry