In Depth

What Donald Trump said to the Ukrainian president

Facing impeachment the US president authorises the release of crucial telephone call transcript

Important details of the latest scandal swarming President Donald Trump came to light yesterday, after the White House released a memorandum of the 30-minute call he held with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on 25 July.

The US leader is accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine to coerce Zelensky into investigating former US vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter over unsubstantiated corruption charges.

With the document declassified and out in the open, both sides of the political war engulfing Washington are now significantly invested in how it resonates - if at all - with the public.

Each have taken huge gambles over the issue: the Democrats by launching impeachment proceedings, and the president by offering what, at this point at least, seems to be an unusual level of transparency around his conduct.

If the Democrats are correct, this could be one of the first of Trump’s many controversial moves to actually count against him politically. They have fought to make the issue high-profile because, says Carl Hulse in The New York Times, “they believe the new accusations against Mr. Trump are simple and serious enough to be grasped by a public overwhelmed by the constant din of complex charges and countercharges that has become the norm in today’s Washington”.

However, if Trump is right, this will be the latest in a series of scandals to glance off the “Teflon President”, and could go on to hurt Democrats who would continue to be accused of having launched the “single greatest witch hunt in American history - probably in history”, as Trump said in a press conference yesterday.

What did Trump say to President Volodymyr Zelensky?

While the words released look like a transcript, the document warns that it is not a verbatim account. “Instead, it was ‘developed with assistance from voice recognition software along with experts and note takers listening,’” says The New York Times.

During the call, Trump asks the Ukrainian president to ask his attorney general to launch an investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter.

“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,” said Trump during the call. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.”

According to the reconstructed transcript, Trump never says explicitly that US aid for Ukraine is contingent on Zelensky instigating the investigation into the Bidens. In a press conference held yesterday between the two leaders following the release of the transcript, the Ukrainian was clear.

“I think you read everything,” Zelensky said, backing his American counterpart. “Nobody pushed me.”

However, during the call, before requesting that Ukraine investigates his political rival, Trump nevertheless raises the issue of US aid, saying: “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine. 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.”

Much of the criticism surrounding the president centres around the fact that his request to investigate the Bidens follows so swiftly from his discussion of US help for Ukraine, a discussion that includes the concept of reciprocity.

The call also came a week after Trump had frozen nearly $400m of aid to Ukraine. And there can be little doubt how much Ukraine needs US support.

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“America remains the primary guarantor of Ukrainian security and sovereignty,” points out Mike Giglio in The Atlantic. “The separatist war in eastern Ukraine continues; the Crimean peninsula is still in Russian hands; there is always the threat of further Russian incursions. Any rollback of U.S. support, and any setbacks in the political relationship between the two countries, is cause for serious concern in Kiev.”

Trump was dismissive of the idea that there was any strong-arming evident - “It was a nothing call,” he said.

As Nancy Cook puts it in Politico, “like any public relations guru, [Trump] has sought to get out ahead of the Ukraine story, set the boundaries of the narrative so that Biden is in the bull's-eye, and overwhelm Americans with new and often conflicting information so the details change by the hour — and always at his bidding”.

The accusations came to light via a whistleblower, whose complaint has now been seen for the first time by members of the US Congress. It has been called both “disturbing” by one Democrat and “troubling” by a Republican.

The complaint apparently also relates to the way the records of the call were handled by White House staff.

What is Joe Biden accused of doing?

In 2016, Joe Biden led an Obama administration policy to oust the Ukrainian general prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was responsible for an investigation of Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings.

At the time, and until early 2019, Burisma paid Biden’s son, Hunter, up to $50,000 a month to sit on their board of directors.

“Mr Trump, Mr Giuliani and others allege that the vice-president's pressure, which included the threat to withhold $1bn in US loan guarantees to the country, was an effort to protect his son and his company from potentially criminal exposure,” says the BBC.

But “there's a huge loophole in those claims”, says Business Insider. “Government officials and Ukrainian anticorruption advocates say Shokin had hampered the investigation into Burisma long before Biden even stepped into the picture. In other words, Biden was doing the opposite of what Trump and Giuliani are implying: He was trying to oust a prosecutor who was slow-walking the investigation into Burisma, rather than actively targeting the company.” 

“In May, Ukraine’s top prosecutor had said there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens to investigate,” reports The New York Times.

However, Newt Gingrich, an informal adviser to Trump who served as House speaker when the Republicans launched their impeachment inquiry of Bill Clinton, disagrees. “My guess is that, in the long run, the White House and campaign think the media eventually and reluctantly will have to take a serious look at Hunter Biden’s business dealings both in China and the Ukraine, and it will be devastating,” he claimed.

Will the memorandum help or harm Donald Trump?

The phone call’s publication was a huge gamble for the president, but one that he felt strongly about. His order to declassify the transcript was made “against the advice of aides such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who warned him it would set a risky precedent”, report Kaitlan Collins and Jim Acosta for CNN. “Trump wanted to undercut the argument from Democrats that he acted inappropriately, he said, and felt he had nothing to hide.” 

“The most devastating aspect of this rough transcript is that Trump didn’t realize how devastating it would be for him,” writes Max Boot for The Washington Post, predicting that this latest indiscretion will indeed count against the president. “That shows he literally has no idea of what a president is supposed to do - and not do. Recall that Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said Trump often made illegal requests. The Trump-Zelensky phone call is Exhibit A.”

However, one senior White House official simply referred to this as the latest “outrage du jour... Everything is presented as Armageddon. The absolutely worst thing he has ever done. You can excuse the public for believing nothing is that way,” the official said.

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