We finally know what President Trump talked about in that July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, thanks to a rough transcript released by the White House on Wednesday.
2. Trump does suggestively mention the U.S. being ‘very, very good to Ukraine’
Reports had suggested Trump talked with Zelensky about investigating potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden and his son but that there was no explicit quid pro quo — and that Trump didn’t mention that he had been withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.
But the document indicates Trump made a point, very early in the call, of telling Zelensky how good the United States is to his country.
“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine,” Trump says. “We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time.”
Then Trump twice tells him the United States had been “very, very good to Ukraine” and suggests Ukraine hadn’t been living up to its end of the bargain.
“The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine, " Trump says. “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good, but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
That’s significant because, even in the absence of a quid pro quo, Zelensky might logically have believed aid or some other form of assistance was tied to his decisions. Trump’s comment that the relationship hasn’t been “reciprocal” certainly suggests Ukraine isn’t doing what it should.
3. Trump immediately launches into asking for investigations
After Zelensky responds, Trump’s very next comments deal with investigations he’d like to see. The first involves the Russia investigation by Robert S. Mueller III and CrowdStrike, a U.S.-based Internet security company that initially analyzed the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s servers in 2016 and pointed to two hacker groups believed to be linked to Russia.
“I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump said, in reference to those investigations.
“Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” Trump says of CrowdStrike.
Trump soon adds: “The other thing: There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. ... It sounds horrible to me.”
The proximity of Trump talking about these things and his comments about how “very, very good” the United States has been to Ukraine makes it even more suggestive.
4. An explicit threat would matter, but it’s not the whole ballgame
Plenty of ink has been spilled about whether Trump engaged in an explicit quid pro quo with Ukraine. And that’s an important question, both because the whistleblower has alleged some type of “promise” and because it might be especially damning for Trump.
But even without an explicit quid pro quo, consider where we are. Trump asked for what amounts to foreign assistance for his 2020 reelection campaign. (His personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani had been pushing for this by publicly noting it would be helpful to his client. So there’s really no disputing that.)
Shane Harris on Post Reports: Trump “does not specifically say to Zelensky in this call, ‘Unless you investigate these people, I won’t give you the aid,’ but the context of that is all over this call.”
Trump also withheld nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine shortly before the call took place. The United States is in a position of power relative to Ukraine, because of this aid and its stature in the world. And on the call, Trump repeatedly asks for Ukraine to do specific things.
It’s difficult to see how Zelensky could interpret that set of circumstances as something other than a strong suggestion and even a veiled threat. It’s equivalent to your boss repeatedly suggesting you do something — while noting what your compensation is — without explicitly making a demand. What are you going to do: believe it to just be a gentle suggestion? No, you’re going to think there could be some relation between your pocketbook/job status and your future actions.
And we shouldn’t be surprised if we never find an explicit quid pro quo. That’s not how Trump works, as Michael Cohen explained in his testimony. The president’s former fixer said when Trump is talking about unsavory things, he “doesn’t give orders; he speaks in code. And I understand that code.”
It’s difficult to believe Zelensky couldn’t decode it too.
5. This is hardly an exoneration, and it’s only a piece of the puzzle
The rough transcript is not the exoneration Trump claims.
The first reason is that the whistleblower complaint involves multiple events and no single communication, as the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, testified last week. This is the highest-profile known event involving Trump and Ukraine, but there are many unknowns. We don’t even know what other events might be involved, much less what transpired in them.
Indeed, the fact that Trump released the call before relenting and handing over the whistleblower complaint to the House Intelligence Committee suggests this piece of evidence is perceived as being better for him than the rest. It could also have been a trial balloon to see how the call was received before making a decision on the full complaint.
The second is that, as Philip Bump wrote Tuesday, the whistleblower reportedly wasn’t even privy to the call; they heard about it secondhand. And Atkinson reviewed their complaint and determined it to be both credible — suggesting there was some corroboration — and of “urgent concern.” So both of them seemed to be relying upon plenty besides this call.
Also to keep in mind, the rough transcript is not a verbatim account of the conversation. It is a White House memorandum that is based on the notes and memories of officials in the room. A disclaimer in the rough transcript warns that a number of factors “can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent.”
6. Zelensky brings up corruption first
The White House’s defense here has centered on the idea that Trump just wanted Ukraine to root out corruption — even as the instances of alleged corruption he focused on were entirely self-serving.
It’s worth noting, though, that Zelensky is actually the first one to bring up corruption, telling Trump, “Well yes, to tell you the truth, we are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country.” (Zelensky notably uses Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra.)
It’s not surprising Zelensky would bring this up, given corruption in Ukraine has been a major concern in the West for years. But the White House has held up the fact that Zelensky broached these matters first, at least in broad terms.
7. Intriguing comments about ousted U.S. ambassador and Ukrainian prosecutor
Viktor Shokin is the prosecutor general who was ousted in 2016 thanks to the efforts of then-Vice President Biden and other Western leaders. The Trump team has argued that this was corrupt because Shokin at one point had been investigating a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma Holdings, that employed Biden’s son Biden. (U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said that investigation was dormant when Biden helped force out Shokin.)
But despite that prosecutor being widely criticized inside Ukraine and elsewhere for being soft on corruption, Trump actually seems to side with him.
“Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair,” Trump says. “A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved.”
Trump adds later: “I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor so good luck with everything.”
Trump also criticizes his former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who Democrats have said was being targeted for removal by the Trump administration in a “political hit job.” She was recalled in May, two months before her scheduled departure date.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that,” Trump says.
Zelensky then says he appreciated Trump having been the first to warn him about Yovanovitch prior to this call.
Trump responds, perhaps ominously: “Well, she’s going to go through some things."