Among the key figures embroiled in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump is Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who announced last week that he will be resigning later this year.
It was Perry who led the U.S. delegation to Ukraine when newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was inaugurated back in May. And it was Perry who urged Trump to make that now-infamous July phone call to Zelenskiy — a phone call that’s at the heart of the inquiry.
In that call, Trump asked the Ukrainians to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his potential rival in the 2020 presidential campaign. The call triggered the whistleblower complaint from an intelligence officer and led to allegations that Trump abused his power for personal political gain.
So how did Perry, who just a few years ago was attempting to cha-cha his way through Dancing With the Stars, become a major figure in the impeachment probe?
Perry’s roots go back to tiny Paint Creek, Texas, in rural Haskell County.
“They used to call him ‘the rascal from Haskell,’ ” says Scott Braddock, who’s editor of the Texas political newsletter Quorum Report and has covered Perry for many years. “He grew up not exactly dirt poor but not far from it.”
The son of tenant farmers, Perry would become a master politician, an expert at cultivating relationships.
After winning a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, Perry went on to be elected state agriculture commissioner and lieutenant governor. He assumed the Texas governorship midway through George W. Bush’s second term as governor, when Bush won the presidency. Perry was then elected governor three times, serving for 14 years and making him the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
“He took being a wheeler-dealer basically to the level of an art form,” Braddock says. “Perry was somebody who would always figure out the way to get what he wanted.”
At first, it might have seemed absurd that what Perry wanted was to join the Trump administration.
After all, in 2015, during his second presidential run, Perry scorched Trump in a speech, calling his Republican opponent’s candidacy a “cancer on conservatism” and “a barking carnival act.” Trumpism, Perry warned, was “a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.”
But apparently, all was forgiven after the 2016 election, when Trump picked Perry to head the Energy Department.
“Well, you know, feelings change about people all the time,” says Deirdre Delisi, who served as chief of staff to then-governor Perry. She worked on four of his campaigns and remains a confidante. “He was asked to serve his country, and as he has done so many other times, he agreed to serve his country, and he did a great job.”
Many noted the irony that Perry was assuming control of a federal department that he had vowed to eliminate when he was running for president — a promise that led to Perry’s notorious “oops” moment during a presidential debate when he couldn’t remember which department he had promised to ax.
“I would do away with the Education,” Perry said haltingly. “Uh, the um … Commerce. And … let’s see … I can’t. The third one. Sorry. Oops.”
As energy secretary, Perry has pretty much flown under the radar up until now, avoiding scandal.
He has focused heavily on opening global markets to U.S. oil and gas. At a news conference this month in Lithuania, he described his dealings this way: “I’m a Texas governor, former governor, and I know how to sell stuff. And my job is to go sell, first off, American product.”
That’s the Perry trademark, says Braddock of the Quorum Report. “He was always real good at selling Texas,” he says. “Governor Perry’s slogan was ‘Texas is open for business.’ And I think that he wanted to bring that to the national stage and to the international stage — that we’re open for business.”
Specifically: the business of liquefied natural gas, or — as Perry’s Energy Department has dubbed it — “freedom gas.” It’s a growing U.S. export, and Ukraine is a potentially huge market.
Historically, Ukraine has depended heavily on natural gas from Russia. So, the thinking goes, if the U.S. could replace Russian gas with U.S. gas, it would be a big win for American companies and for U.S. foreign policy. Ukraine is a critical counterweight to Russian influence in the region.
But the country has also been notorious for corruption, especially in the energy sector, and that has stifled Western investment. So, for years, U.S. administrations have pressed Ukraine to root out corruption.
It was in this context that Perry headed to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in May, leading the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of the newly elected president, Zelenskiy.
According to the whistleblower’s complaint, Vice President Pence was supposed to head that delegation, but Trump instructed Pence to cancel his trip and Perry went in his place.
Also with Perry were Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt Volker, then the U.S. special representative for Ukraine. The trio called themselves the “three amigos.”
Within days of leaving Kyiv, those “three amigos” were back in the Oval Office, meeting with the president. They told Trump that Zelenskiy was a reformer, and they wanted the president to call him.
Perry was asked about this meeting during his visit to Lithuania this month.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I asked the president, multiple times, ‘Mr. President, we think it is in the United States’ and in Ukraine’s best interest that you and the president of Ukraine have conversations and discuss the options that are there.’ So, absolutely yes.”
But Trump wasn’t having it. Here’s how Perry described what happened next, in an interview on the podcast The Journal, which is produced by Gimlet Media and The Wall Street Journal.
“[The] president’s like ‘Ehhhhhhh, until I’m comfortable that these guys have straightened up their act.’ And so, what does ‘straighten up their act’ mean? And the president said, ‘Visit with Rudy.’ “
That would be Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who had been on a crusade for months, alleging that Ukraine colluded with Democrats in the 2016 election.
As Perry told Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Puko, he did what Trump told him to do. He called Giuliani.
“And I called, and we had never had a conversation before,” Perry said. “I called Mayor Giuliani and said, ‘OK, tell me what’s goin’ on here. We’re tryin’ to get these folks in to meet so that we can move forward with some good economic development — sell ’em gas. And the president just ain’t interested in talkin’!’ And as I recall the conversation, [Giuliani] said, ‘Look. The president is really concerned that there are people in Ukraine that tried to beat him in his presidential election. He thinks they’re corrupt.’ “
As Perry recounted that phone call, Giuliani insisted that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election and that it did so to hurt Trump.
That’s a conspiracy theory that has been debunked.
One thing that was not mentioned, Perry told The Wall Street Journal, was the name Biden.
“Never,” Perry said emphatically, as he pounded the table in the interview. “Not in one conversation. Not from the president. Not from Gordon Sondland. Not from Kurt Volker. Not from anybody on the Zelenskiy team did I ever hear the name Biden. Never. Not once.”
Remember, that’s at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Democrats want to know whether Trump tried to force a foreign power to interfere in the 2020 election.
In effect, was Trump telling the Ukrainians, “Unless you agree to dig up dirt on my opponent Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, you won’t get your invitation to the White House, and we’ll hold your military aid hostage?”
Perry has said repeatedly that he didn’t know of any such quid pro quo. But Democrats in Congress aren’t convinced.
“First of all, can we please see your emails and your texts so that we can know if what you just said is true?” says Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry.
“That’s the core question,” Himes says. “And of course since Rick Perry was very much at the center of the communication with the Ukrainians and presumably with the president, all of our questions would pertain to the extent that he observed U.S. policy being sidelined in favor of the president’s personal political agenda.”
Speaking outside the White House on Wednesday, Perry called the impeachment investigation a “charade.”
“I’m not gonna participate,” Perry told reporters. “The White House has advised us not to participate. My general counsel has told me not to participate in what they consider to be an unprecedented effort to try to use an inquiry in an unlawful way.”
There’s another wrinkle to all this, and it has to do with Ukraine’s state-controlled behemoth oil and gas company, Naftogaz, which has widely been seen as a playground for Ukraine’s oligarchs, rife with corruption.
The company seems intent on challenging that reputation: In a Naftogaz corporate video, the words “transparency” and “new rules [to] tackle corruption” flash on the screen in English.
We know now that two Republican donors who are business associates of Giuliani were trying to install new management at Naftogaz, as they were trying to get lucrative gas contracts funneled their way.
Their names? Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They’ve been arrested and have pleaded not guilty to charges of campaign finance violations.
One question is, was Perry also trying to engineer a shake-up of Naftogaz senior leadership to benefit private interests in the U.S.?
When he was asked about this by reporters in Lithuania, Perry answered, “The government of Ukraine did in fact ask us for, you know, ‘Who are the people that can help come and modernize?’ “
But Perry disputed a detailed report by The Associated Press that said he was trying to force an overhaul of the Naftogaz board and install a “friendlier management team.” Perry said he simply gave the Ukrainians the names of American energy experts who could advise them.
“That was a totally dreamed-up story, the best I can tell,” Perry said. “We gave recommendations at the request of the Ukrainian government and will continue to.”
So, where does all of this leave Perry as he heads for the exit at the Energy Department?
Delisi, the longtime Perry aide, believes he’s leaving the administration unscathed.
“I don’t think he’s in trouble, and I don’t think he’s troubled,” she says, “and certainly no conversation I’ve had with him has made me believe that.”
But Braddock of the Quorum Report sees things differently: “Interesting that Perry, who had done such a good job, was there from the beginning with Trump, a member of the Trump administration who had kept his nose clean all the way until now with no even whiff of a scandal, and now he’s caught up in the thing — the thing that is leading to this impeachment movement in Washington. Very, very ironic.”
For his part, Perry’s swan song to his colleagues at the Energy Department came in the form of a highly produced, four-minute-long farewell video titled “The Coolest Job I’ve Ever Had.”
Perry ends the video by saying, “I thank President Trump for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m so glad that I said yes.”