Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani constantly focus on the record of the call as proof that Trump did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has been conducting an impeachment inquiry for the past month that was initially set off by a complaint filed by a whistleblower alarmed about the call — in which Trump pushed Ukraine to investigate alleged interference in the 2016 election and corruption charges related to the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Trump and his investigators, it appears, agree on the basic facts of the matter: that Trump told Zelensky to investigate both Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, and whether the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers, hacked by Russian operatives in 2016, somehow wound up in Ukraine.
But it’s an illusion, and like all sleight of hand, the magic vanishes once you figure out the trick’s secret.
Trump has insisted for weeks that the summary of his call proves his innocence. “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” he tweeted on Thursday. The day before that, he declared that there was “NO Quid Pro Quo in the Transcript of the phone call.” That same day, he asked whether a White House official who testified that he was alarmed about the call “was on the same call that I was? Can’t be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call. Witch Hunt!”
Trump himself released the summary of the call in September with some glee, claiming it showed he participated in a “perfect call.” At that time, Giuliani tweeted: “The transcript really shows how dishonest news media is. Unlike Joe Biden, no military aid was withheld, no threats, and absolutely no pressure. Zelensky introduces me into the conversations, not POTUS Trump.”
Trump’s critics, on the other hand, see the call as incriminating, noting that the summary shows that immediately after Zelensky requested military aid, Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though” and then brought up his investigation request. At its worst, this call could reflect an abuse of power by Trump to request a foreign government to investigate a political rival. The call could even imply that this favor was a condition to receiving military aid that had already been approved by Congress to fight Russian aggression in Ukraine. If so, this conduct would undermine the foreign policy and national security of the United States.
Why, then, does Trump keep focusing on “the transcript”?
Although he refers to the document he released as a transcript, it is a summary, not a verbatim recitation of the conversation — and we learned this week that it appears to be missing some alarming details of Trump’s conversation. The summary was circulated and then marked up by those listening to the call. One person who listened to the call as it occurred was the witness Trump was so fired up about this week, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer who focuses on Ukraine. Vindman testified that when he saw the summary, he noted two key omissions: one, a reference by Zelensky to Burisma, and two, a reference by Trump to recordings of Joe Biden discussing Ukraine corruption. Vindman further testified that when he asked that the summary be corrected, his request was denied. Leaving out this information suggests that some member of the White House team understood the troubling nature of those references and omitted them, even after the omissions were raised.
Trump also suggests that he must be innocent if he engages in conduct in plain view. This strategy is sort of a reverse theory of consciousness of guilt — a legal concept that holds that the secretive nature of someone’s conduct suggests knowledge of guilt, because it shows awareness that exposure of the conduct would be incriminating. Trump, on the other hand, argues that what he’s doing can’t be wrong because he does it so openly. By constantly pointing to the very evidence the House wants to use to impeach him, Trump thinks he’s undermining the argument that he knows he did something wrong and had to hide it. Presto!
Finally, Trump argues that the summary is exonerating because it contains no quid pro quo. Perhaps he believes that if he repeats this point enough, people will believe him without reading the summary for themselves — even though he constantly urges them to. Or maybe he simply doesn’t understand what a quid pro quo really is.
Because, in fact, the summary shows that when Zelensky raised the issue of military aid, Trump immediately asked for investigations. This is precisely a quid pro quo, or “this for that,” and it alone is sufficient to form the basis of a charge of bribery, one of the specified grounds for impeachment in the Constitution. Asking for a thing of value in exchange for performing an official act constitutes bribery. Legally speaking, a quid pro quo may be explicit or implicit, and it’s almost always expressed in vague and plausibly deniable terms. Even though Trump did not use the phrase “quid pro quo” or specifically state that he would release the military aid only on the condition that Ukraine perform the investigations he sought, one could readily conclude from the summary of the call that he implied the aid was conditional on the “favor.”
Besides that, no quid pro quo is necessary to demonstrate abuse of power. Demanding an investigation into a U.S. citizen for his own political advantage is an abuse of power on its own even without any conditions attached. Trump’s request is akin to soliciting a thing of value from a foreign national in relation to an election, a crime under campaign finance laws. U.S. law prohibits foreign influence in elections because we want American citizens deciding the outcome of American elections, and we know that foreign governments act not in the best interests of the United States but in their own best interests. For a president to request that a foreign government intervene in an election undermines those interests.
And the more Trump draws attention to the summary, the more he takes the focus off all the other activity involved in this scheme. Giuliani met with Ukrainian officials in Spain, France, Ukraine, Poland and New York to discuss his request, as executive branch officials withheld the military aid for months. State Department officials have testified about Giuliani’s shadow diplomacy and efforts to have the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a noted foe of corruption, removed from her post.
The scheme to persuade Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was far broader than just the one phone call — which is exactly why Giuliani and Trump want the focus to remain on the call. Because maybe if we keep looking at the summary, we won’t see how Trump saws our nation in half.