The memorandum of the phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on 25 July that triggered an impeachment investigation into the incumbent of the White House has only served to convince his opponents they were right to do so.
Mr Trump is adamant that he has done no wrong and there is no explicit quid pro quo in the document released of the call, but Democrat presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has called it a “smoking gun”.
It certainly is not the exoneration that Mr Trump claims it to be. The call, for which the transcript is very likely not complete, is merely one element of a whistleblower complaint that involves multiple events and no single communication, as the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, said last week.
This is the highest-profile event involving Mr Trump and Ukraine, but there will be other unknown elements.
But what can we glean from the partial transcript of the call? Below are extracts of what was said and what might have been meant.
President Trump: “Congratulations on a great victory. We all watched from the United States and you did a terrific job. The way you came from behind, somebody who wasn’t given much of a chance, and you ended up winning easily. It’s a fantastic achievement. Congratulations.”
The US president begins by congratulating Mr Zelensky on his recent electoral successes. Enjoying his own unlikely victory in 2016, Mr Trump is always quick to congratulate those who he thinks have followed his example. Having dabbled in the world of entertainment himself, Mr Trump likely appreciates Mr Zelensky’s background as a comedian and actor. This early use of pleasantries sets the tone for the rest of the call.
President Zelensky: “Well yes, to tell you the truth, we are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country.”
Mr Zelensky is actually the first to mention corruption, not Mr Trump . Use of the Trump-coined phrase “drain the swamp” is indicative of a leader trying to get on Mr Trump’s good side. Mr Zelensky calls Mr Trump “a great teacher” for Ukraine when it comes to creating a new type of politics.
President Trump: “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are”
This is the start of the key paragraphs. Mr Trump drops from discussion of the “swamp” to how much the US does for Ukraine. While there is no explicit quid pro quo when it comes to discussion of an investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter later in the call, Mr Trump mentions very strongly that Kiev is relying on Washington more than European nations.
“A lot of the European countries are the same way so I think it’s something you want to look at but 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.”
Twice in this section of the call Mr Trump actually mentions that Washington has been “very, very good” to Ukraine . In the absence of any quid pro quo this could be significant, as Mr Zelensky could have taken that to mean that some form of aid or assistance could be tied to his actions. The fact that Mr Trump says that the partnership is not “reciprocal” suggests that the US president does not believe that Kiev is doing all it can for Washington.
President Zelensky: “I’m very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine. Much more than the European Union especially ... we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defence purposes.”
Mr Zelensky responds by agreeing with Mr Trump that leaders like Angela Merkel in Germany and Emmanuel Macron are not doing enough for his country. He says he agrees “1000%”. He then goes on to add that Kiev is “very grateful” to the US and is almost ready buy more Javelin missiles for the purpose of defence against Russia. The Ukrainian president is making it clear how much his nation needs the US. Mr Trump does not mention on this call the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine he delayed a few days before speaking to Mr Zelensky, but the business-like nature of the relationship is clear.
President Trump: “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. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine...”
With the relationship seemingly now clearly defined, Mr Trump immediately asks for a favour, about helping him with an investigation. Essentially asking for help from a foreign power that could eventually assist him in his attempt to get re-elected in 2020.
“I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
“Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
“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.”
Repeatedly over the next few exchanges, Mr Trump pushes the idea of Mr Zelensky getting in contact with Mr Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, and Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to try and help with an investigation into the actions of a company involving Hunter Biden. It also involves Joe Biden, a potential Trump rival for thew White House in 2020. Mr Trump alleges that Joe Biden pushed the prosecutor out over the case against his son, although the US, World Bank and other organisations all wanted him removed as he wasn’t enough of a reformer. There is no evidence of inappropriate behaviour by either of the Bidens.
President Zelensky: “The next prosecutor general will be 100% my person... He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”
Mr Zelensky promises that a new prosecutor who is “100%” his person. Again, the inference can be made he is looking to impress Mr Trump.
President Trump: “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call. Give us a date and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.”
Mr Trump ends the call with the offer of a visit to the White House, which would be politically valuable to Mr Zelensky in his homeland. Pictures in Washington will show the strength of the bond to Russia.
President Trump: "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."
President Zelensky: "... It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%. Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new President well enough."
President Trump: "... Well, she's going to go through some things."
The pair appear to be talking about the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat appointed by Barack Obama but recalled to the US in May. The Washington Post said she had been a target of "wild accusations" by Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as he visited Ukraine in search of compromising information on his boss's political rivals. Mr Giuliani told the paper: "“She should be part of the investigation as part of the collusion." This may explain the apparent veiled threat from the president in the phone call - "she's going to go through some things".
It is not clear whether the Ukrainian president had had any problems with Ms Yovanovitch or whether, as elsewhere in the conversation, he was seeking to flatter and agree with his US counterpart.
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