Years of loyalty to Donald Trump are no guarantee he’ll return the favor. Just ask Rick Perry.
As an impeachment probe grows, Trump has offered a range of explanations for his July conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which spawned a whistle-blower complaint. The latest is that he only made the call at the behest of his energy secretary, one of Trump’s original cabinet stalwarts who is now said to be planning his departure.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Trump told Republican lawmakers in a phone call Friday that it was Perry who’d urged him to call Zelenskiy, an official familiar with the call said. Trump’s remarks were first reported by Axios, and were enough to get #RickPerryMadeMe trending on Twitter. Perry’s spokeswoman confirmed that the secretary urged Trump to make a call to the new Ukrainian leader to discuss energy issues.
But there’s no indication Perry urged Trump to withhold military aid, float an investigation of Joe Biden, or kick off a hunt for emails related to the 2016 presidential race.
Trump’s comment thrust Perry into the spotlight. Perry has met at least three times with Zelenskiy, including in May when he led a delegation to the new leader’s inauguration in place of Vice President Mike Pence. That trip was referenced in the whistle-blower complaint that sparked the House’s swift-moving impeachment inquiry.
While there, Perry announced the Trump administration supported sanctions against companies helping to construct Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which links Russia to Germany while bypassing Ukraine.
The U.S. has long viewed its abundant natural gas — as well as coal and oil — as a potent diplomatic weapon to curtail Russia’s sway over Ukraine, which has long been beholden to Russia for much of its natural resources.
In remarks to reporters in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius Monday, where Perry is meeting with officials from Central and Eastern Europe, Perry said said he had repeatedly asked Trump to speak with the Ukrainian leader about its energy independence.
“Absolutely. I asked the president multiple times: ‘Mr. President we think it is in the United States’ and Ukraine’s best interest that you and the president of Ukraine have conversations that you discuss the options that are there,” Perry said. “That was the message day in and day out.”
According to the memorandum summary released by the White House, Zelenskiy alluded to “energy independence” during his call with Trump yet Trump didn’t mention energy.
Trump has offered several explanations to either describe the call as harmless, or to even distance himself from it. He’s said the conversation was “perfect,” said it was about corruption generally, attacked the whistle-blower account largely corroborated by a call summary Trump himself released, and doubled down last week by publicly asking Ukraine and China to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.
Perry may be called to testify in the impeachment probe, Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin said last week. Perry has said he would cooperate with House Democrats curious about his role.
Perry wasn’t on the July 25 phone call, according to an Energy Department spokeswoman, and Perry told the Christian Broadcast Network that he never heard anyone from the White House bring up the Bidens.
“Not once, as God as my witness, not once was a Biden name — not the former vice president, not his son — ever mentioned,” Perry told CBN.
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also seeking more details about Perry’s role in dealing with Zelenskiy, including why he was tapped to lead the delegation to his inauguration instead of Pence.
“President Trump’s phone call and the allegations in the whistle-blower complaint raise serious questions about the messages that were communicated on behalf of President Trump to the government of Ukraine,” Menendez wrote in a letter to Perry.
The secretary went to Lithuania for discussions with two dozen European “energy leaders,” including Ukraine, energy department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said.
Perry, an Air Force veteran who was previously Texas’s longest serving governor, has been in Trump’s Cabinet since 2017. He’s said to enjoy a good rapport with the president, having avoided the missteps that led to the downfall of other figures in the administration. Perry has earnestly carried out Trump’s priorities, such as a thus-far-unsuccessful bid to subsidize unprofitable coal and nuclear plants.
Perry has told confidants that he plans to resign from the administration by the end of the year, according to two people familiar with the matter. He’d been contemplating an exit long before the Ukraine controversy erupted. Perry is said to have been paving a path for his likely successor, Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.
Speaking in Lithuania, Perry downplayed reports he would be departing, saying of his departure, “it’s not today, it’s not tomorrow, not next month.”
“I’m here. I’m serving,” Perry said. “They’ve been writing the story that I was leaving the Department of Energy for at least nine months now. One of these days they will probably get it right.”
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Bloomberg’s Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Milda Seputyte contributed.