So Trump defenders, including the president himself, are left with that second argument, that Trump was simply trying to get Ukraine to dig into issues important to the United States. Trump tried an argument along those lines on Twitter on Wednesday.
“When I said, in my phone call to the President of Ukraine, ‘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,’ ” he said. “With the word ‘us’ I am referring to the United States, our Country. I then went on to say that ‘I would like to have the Attorney General (of the United States) call you or your people.....’ ”
This fits in with the line of defense we heard from Republicans repeatedly during the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings. Trump was simply asking that Ukraine investigate corruption and possible interference by Ukraine in the 2016 election. That latter claim itself requires defending, since there’s no good evidence that Ukraine tried to interfere in the election in the first place.
But those defenses have another flaw, as surely as Trump’s Twitter defense does: It’s not what Trump asked for.
Here’s what Trump asked of Zelensky, according to the rough transcript released by the White House itself.
On “corruption”: “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. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
On “interference”: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”
It would have been remarkably simple, really, for Trump to have simply asked Zelensky to investigate corruption, perhaps focusing specifically on Biden. He didn’t even need to do that, really. Sondland had already informed Ukrainian officials during a meeting at the White House that a meeting between both presidents would be predicated on “investigations into the 2016 elections, the Bidens, and Burisma,” according to Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman who, as a member of the National Security Council, was present for the meeting. (Burisma is a Ukrainian energy company for which Joe Biden’s son Hunter worked and which is at the center of the unfounded theory involving the Bidens.)
Zelensky mentioned that his staff had already spoken to Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had been advocating publicly for investigations into the Bidens. But despite all that, Trump instead asked only about Biden.
As for the “interference” request, what Trump asked is light-years from what his defenders claim. Trump was focused on a conspiracy theory in which the determination that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 was erroneous and driven by ties to a Ukrainian oligarch — ties that routed from a firm that did initial analysis (CrowdStrike) through one of its founders to an organization he’s associated with to one of that organization’s founders.
Never mind that the U.S. government itself independently determined that Russia was culpable and that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team obtained an indictment against a dozen Russians on the strength of other evidence. Trump, furious about the investigation into Russian interference and looking for opportunities to undermine it, hoped Ukraine could at least cast some doubt, however small, on its origins.
This has all been obvious for more than two months. What the information collected during the impeachment inquiry reveals, though, is that there isn’t much evidence that Trump himself ever made requests that were any broader than the ones he made directly to Zelensky. In other words, while others in the administration spoke in broader terms about what Trump wanted, it’s not clear that Trump ever framed his concerns that way. And if he didn’t, the effort to rationalize his behavior as serving the collective “US” collapses.
Several individuals who gave testimony during the impeachment inquiry described what they had heard from Trump. So, too, did Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who had been told by Sondland in late August that aid was being held to pressure Ukraine to launch the investigations.
Johnson broached the issue with Trump in a call on Aug. 31, as the senator prepared to travel to Ukraine to meet Zelensky. He asked Trump whether he could tell Zelensky that the aid, blocked since early July, was being released. Trump said no while denying that Sondland’s link of aid to the investigations was accurate. (By this point, according to New York Times reporting, Trump already knew about the whistleblower complaint.)
Nonetheless, Johnson did say that Trump raised a concern related to what he’d asked Zelensky.
“What happened in 2016? What happened in 2016?” Trump said, according to what Johnson told reporters. “What was the truth about that?”
The vagueness (and the uncertainty whether this was a quote or a paraphrase of the president) makes it hard to evaluate what Trump was concerned about. It is also not exculpatory, however, with Johnson failing to say that Trump specifically asked about Ukrainian interference.
We get slightly closer to the Trump defenders’ claim in a conversation Sondland had with Trump shortly before the aid was released (a change that followed the announcement by House Democrats that they were investigating why it had been stopped).
“I just want Zelensky to do the right thing,” Sondland said he was told by Trump, “to do what he ran on — or words to that effect.”
The suggestion is that Trump was worried about corruption, since that’s what Zelensky campaigned on, but the “words to that effect” does diminish how much weight this should be given.
At the time, Sondland told Tim Morrison of the National Security Council about his call, telling Morrison that Trump insisted Zelensky “go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of ‘Biden and 2016 election interference,' " as acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. later testified, having heard about the call from Morrison. (Sondland testified that he had no reason to dispute this.)
By that point, Sondland and others acting on Trump’s behalf were using “Burisma” and “election interference” or “2016” as equivalent to what Trump had specifically asked Zelensky. When Sondland and Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker were working with a Zelensky aide on a statement that would publicly announce the investigations, the language they insisted be added was the bold part below, which falls precisely along those lines:
“We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 US elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future.”
When Morrison spoke with that same Zelensky aide, Andriy Yermak, following Yermak’s meeting with Giuliani in Madrid, he was told that “the statement would include specific mention of Burisma and 2016.” Yermak later tried to get the White House meeting confirmed before releasing the statement, which, he assured Volker and Sondland, would include “among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”
It’s not clear, then, if Trump told people such as Sondland that he wanted an investigation into election interference (for example) or into Ukraine and the DNC server, which his experienced aides then summarized as “election interference.”
We do know what Trump asked Zelensky. And we know what Trump said he wanted during an interview with Fox News last month. Trump was talking about his theory that he had been unfairly targeted in the Russia probe and then easily slid into his theory about the server and CrowdStrike.
“That’s a big part of this whole thing,” Trump said of this theory which, again, is utterly baseless.
“Well, that’s what the word is,” he continued, after one of the show’s hosts questioned the accuracy of the assertion. “And that’s what I asked actually in my phone call, you know. I mean, I asked that very point blank because we’re looking for corruption. There’s tremendous corruption we’re looking for. Why should we be giving hundreds of millions of dollars to countries where there’s this kind of corruption?”
With that, Trump circled back to the original point: His focus was corruption — though, again, that’s not what he asked Zelensky about.
One other individual backs up Trump’s claim that his real focus was corruption.
“I’ve been in the office a couple times with him, talking about this,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said at a news conference in October. “And he said, ‘Look, Mick, this is a corrupt place.’ … ‘I don’t want to send them a bunch of money and have them waste it, have them spend it, have them use it to line their own pockets.’ ” The halt was specifically to consider this question of corruption, Mulvaney claimed, though we’ve since learned that the Department of Defense had completed its own review of Ukraine’s progress on corruption and approved the aid to move forward months before Trump stopped it.
“So that was — those were the driving factors,” Mulvaney continued at that October news conference. “Did he also mention to me in pass[ing] the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
It was an absolute obliteration of the first claim we raised at the outset of this article, that aid wasn’t withheld to get the desired investigations and a secondhand defense, at best, of the other claim, that Trump’s real focus was on benefiting the country.
We’ll note that when asking for an investigation of Joe Biden, Trump didn’t frame it as doing “US” a favor.