Republican talking points were accidentally sent to Democrats.
Talking points are often sent out by think tanks who are funded by wealthy donors.
The White House on Wednesday released the transcript of President Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the news is that Mr. Trump was telling the truth about it. The conversation was largely routine diplomacy, and even the reference to Joe Biden was less than promoted by the press. Good luck persuading Americans that this is an impeachable offense.
The five-page transcript shows that Mr. Trump called to congratulate Mr. Zelensky on his party’s victory in Parliament. After niceties, Mr. Trump waxes on as he often does that the U.S. “spend[s] a lot of effort and a lot of time” on Ukraine, while complaining that European countries don’t do their share. At no point does Mr. Trump threaten a withdrawal of U.S. aid to Ukraine.
Mr. Trump does ask for a “favor”—that Ukraine look at 2016 election meddling. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike,” he says, referring to the company that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.
He also disparages former Special Counsel Robert Mueller—no surprise there—and notes that “they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.” Mr. Trump is clearly still sore about the attempt by the Hillary Clinton campaign to dig up foreign dirt on him, but there is nothing wrong with asking a foreign head of state to investigate meddling in U.S. elections.
Only after that does Mr. Zelensky mention Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has been publicly urging the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s activities in Ukraine. Mr. Zelensky says he is “hoping very much” that the former New York mayor comes to Ukraine. He promises that all “investigations will be done openly and candidly.”
Mr. Trump responds, “Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.” After some praise for Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Trump adds that “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution” of corruption in Ukraine. Mr. Trump also says that he intends to get Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to call, and he asks that Mr. Zelensky work with them.
That’s it. No quid pro quo. The references to the Bidens are in the context of fighting corruption, not as a prerequisite of U.S. aid. Mr. Trump was unwise to mention Mr. Biden, but the tenor of the conversation is congenial. It’s amusing to hear the same critics who call Mr. Trump an oafish thug on a daily basis now say this was all a subtle masterpiece of extortion. When is Mr. Trump ever subtle?
Democrats are making much of Mr. Trump’s references to Attorney General Barr, which were also imprudent in the Biden context. But the Justice Department says nothing came of it, that Mr. Trump never asked Mr. Barr to make that call, and Mr. Barr has never communicated with Ukraine, or with Mr. Giuliani about Ukraine.
Mr. Trump certainly was reckless to use the former New York mayor as an anti-corruption envoy, or for anything else. Rudy is an unguided missile on TV and can’t be much better in private. The Justice and State Departments have plenty of people who can work with Ukraine on corruption.
Keep in mind that all of this came to public attention because of a leak about a whistleblower complaint from the intelligence bureaucracy. The accusation is that Mr. Trump somehow attempted to cover this up, but it looks on the evidence released Wednesday that the Administration acted by the book.
The complaint went to the intelligence community inspector general, who found it credible and deserving of submission to Congress under the whistleblower statute. But the director of national intelligence general counsel rightly sought legal guidance from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, which is the authority on executive branch legal obligations.
The White House on Wednesday released OLC’s legal opinion that the inspector general was wrong because Mr. Trump is not a member of the intelligence community and that a “routine diplomatic call” does not count as “intelligence activity.”
Meanwhile, Justice says its Criminal Division evaluated the IG’s August referral that the phone conversation could be a violation of federal campaign finance law. A Justice Department statement said the Criminal Division determined there was no “violation” and that “all relevant components of the Department agreed with this legal conclusion.” In other words, no laws were broken. The IG will testify to Congress, so we can compare his case to the Justice Department’s.
If Democrats want to pursue impeachment on this thin gruel, then Americans should also consider the process by which this became a national political crisis. First a whistleblower who is still unidentified brings a complaint based on what he heard about a President’s phone call. By the way, the OLC memo says in passing that the IG’s review acknowledges “some indicia of an arguable political bias on the part of the Complainant in favor of a rival political candidate.”
Then the IG makes a flawed legal judgment that Congress must see the complaint. When his argument is rebutted, word leaks to the press, Congress cries coverup, and suddenly we are putting the country through another impeachment upheaval.
Is anyone else troubled that this is all it takes to impeach a President? If a bureaucrat who dislikes a President can trigger a complaint based on hearsay that forces the disclosure of presidential diplomacy, the conduct of foreign policy will be severely hampered. Democratic Presidents won’t be spared once Republicans figure out how this works.
Mr. Trump’s refusal to abide by the normal guardrails of presidential decorum is often offensive. It can also be risky—for himself and U.S. interests. We have often criticized him for it. But impeaching a President is voting to annul an election, and that should require far more evidence than we have from this Ukraine phone call.
Democrats may not be able to stop themselves now that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has joined the impeachment parade. But the voters should ask if impeachment on these terms will do far more harm to American democracy than Mr. Trump’s bad judgment.
I haven’t been a litigator since 2015. I haven’t conducted a proper cross-examination since 2014. But if I couldn’t walk a witness, judge, and jury through the transcript of Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and demonstrate that a quid pro quo was more likely than not, then I should just hang up my suit and retire in disgrace. Far from being “scattershot” — as my esteemed colleague Kyle Smith declares — the actual sequence is extremely tight, and the asks are very clear.
First, right near the beginning of the call, President Trump signals his displeasure with Ukraine. He notes that while the United States has been “very good” to Ukraine, he “wouldn’t say” that Ukraine has been “reciprocal” to the United States. There’s nothing subtle about this statement. It’s plain that Trump wants something from Ukraine.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Nations strike deals all the time. It’s the nature of the proposed deal that’s potentially problematic, not whether two leaders bargain.
In the next paragraph, Zelensky responds with the key ask. He wants more Javelin missiles, an indispensable weapon system in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. It’s an anti-tank missile that helps address the yawning power imbalance between the two countries. It doesn’t level the playing field, but it does help deter Russian aggression by raising the possibility of substantial armor losses on the battlefield.
Given the multiple layers of Ukrainian–American contact during the 2016 campaign cycle, a request for Ukrainian assistance in lawful American investigations of foreign interference is entirely proper. If that’s where the transcript ended, there would be no problems, and it’s entirely proper for Zelensky to respond “yes” and state that the matter was “very important to him.”
But then, in the following paragraph, Trump continues his ask. He says he is going to ask Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, to call Zelensky, and he asks Zelensky to take the call. Then, Trump says this: “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.” He continues, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
And what is Zelenksy’s response? He pledges that the new Ukrainian prosecutor will be “100 percent” his person and that “he or she will look into the situation.”
I highlight the quid pro quo aspect of the transcript because the other published report — that Trump asked that Ukraine work with Giuliani to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden — is clearly and unequivocally established. The transcript provides proof that Trump made a completely improper request that the president of Ukraine work with Trump’s personal counsel to investigate a political rival. It provides strong evidence that this took place in the context of a quid pro quo for desperately needed military aid.
Trump’s comments to Zelensky should not be considered an offhand remark or word salad that’s merely “Trump being Trump.” Recall that Giuliani has been working on his Ukraine project for months. He has bragged that his efforts should be “very, very helpful to my client.” Trump has wanted to push Biden’s Ukrainian conflicts of interest into the center of the national debate.
More investigation is necessary. Congress needs to understand the full context of Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, it needs to hear the whistleblower’s complaint (though it appears that the whistleblower may have been mainly complaining about the call that we’ve now read), and it needs to determine what, if anything, Ukraine did in response to Trump’s requests. It also needs a full accounting of Giuliani’s odd actions on behalf of his client.
I’m honestly puzzled that Trump’s defenders online are claiming any kind of vindication over the contents of this transcript. It admits one profound abuse of power, and it implies another, even worse, violation of the public trust.