In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.
On Wednesday, the morning after House Democrats launched an official impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, the White House released what it called a "transcript" of Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Already, Trump has admitted to asking Zelensky to investigate the Ukraine business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—and, more consequentially for the 2020 race, to look into the former vice president's involvement in that country's politics, too.
For days, Trump has insisted that the conversation was "absolutely perfect" and "totally appropriate," and denied suggestions that he conditioned Ukraine's receiving U.S. aid on Zelensky's willingness to look for dirt on one of Trump's political rivals. After seeing the document the White House released, House speaker Nancy Pelosi did not agree with his assessment. "The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security," she said in a statement. "Clearly, the Congress must act."
At Pelosi's "notes of the call" language indicates, what the White House released is not a "complete, fully-declassified, and unredacted transcript," as Trump promised. It is a "Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation"—a document cobbled together from staffers' notes and polished for posterity's sake. Since this is the White House that allowed the president to use a Sharpie to doctor a hurricane map that didn't match his amateur weather forecasts, there is good reason to be skeptical that these notes are a full accounting of what the two leaders discussed. Everything it claims that either man "says" should be taken with a Kellyanne Conway-sized grain of salt.
Even with this caveat in mind, the document is an astonishing record of how untroubled Trump seems to be with abusing the powers of his office, and doing so for personal gain—classic hallmarks of what previous congresses have treated as impeachable conduct. "The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine," he 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."
Hearing Trump's unhappiness, Zelensky quickly agrees. "You are absolutely right," he says. He thanks Trump for the United States's commitment to his country, and especially for its "great support in the area of defense." Consistent with this good working relationship, he reminds Trump that he intends to purchase more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States sometime in the near future.
It is at this point—when Zelensky mentions the sale of arms to support its ongoing military conflict with Russia—that Trump breaks in to ask that Zelensky do something about one of the "things that are happening that are not good" that Trump referred to moments earlier. "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 says. "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."
It isn't clear what's going on, exactly, in this jumble of Fox News buzzwords. (Especially here, the use of an ellipsis is rather conspicuous.) CrowdStrike is a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm that concluded Russia was behind the 2016 Democratic National Committee hacks. But Trump doesn't explain the significance of this information to Zelensky. His invocation of a "server" could refer to debunked conspiracy theories that the FBI didn't seize a DNC server purportedly containing evidence that someone other than the Russian government directed the pro-Trump 2016 hacks. It could be a sloppy reference to the alleged efforts of Ukrainian government officials to support Hillary Clinton's 2016 candidacy. His usage of Robert Mueller's name could mean that this is just a general condemnation of the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which has placed Trump under a cloud of suspicion.
In any event, Trump makes clear that his request is a serious one. "Whatever you can do," he says, "it's very important that you do it, if that's possible." As I wrote this morning, a quid pro quo need not be explicit to be understood by everyone involved: Given the power imbalance between the two nations and Ukraine's reliance on receiving U.S. aid and buying U.S. arms, making clear that a "favor" is "very important" implies that Ukraine's failure to perform as requested could lead to harmful consequences. As California congressman Adam Schiff noted, it is an international diplomacy version of the classic mafiosi threat: Beautiful country you have there. It'd be a real shame if something happened to it.
Again, Zelensky does what he can to assuage Trump's somewhat-nebulous concerns, this time by bringing up former New York City mayor and current Trump TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has spent months lobbying Ukrainian officials to take a closer look at the Biden family's activities in Ukraine. "One of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently," Zelensky confirms, "and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine, and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine." He pledges that "all investigations will be done openly and candidly."
And again, Trump seems pleased. "Good," he replies. "Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man."
Here, Trump extends his earlier request for an investigation to what he calls "the other thing": the Biden family. "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," he says. He then suggests that U.S. attorney general William Barr might be able to be of assistance: "Whatever you can do" with Barr, Trump adds, "would be great." It seems that Zelensky got the message loud and clear: According to Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, Zelensky privately expressed concern that, in Murphy's words, "aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence for their unwillingness, at the time, to investigate the Bidens.”
For a third time, Zelensky acquiesces to Trump's request, promising that his new prosecutor general will begin working on the matter upon their approval by the Ukrainian parliament. (After a ten-month investigation, the previous Ukraine prosecutor general had cleared the company for which Hunter Biden worked of wrongdoing.) In turn, Trump twice promises to have Giuliani and Barr call to offer their assistance and, as he puts it, to "get to the bottom of it."
During a lengthy exchange of goodbyes, Zelensky casually slips in the fact that he stayed at Trump Tower during his most recent trip to New York City. After everything else that this call revealed, it's easy to forget that before we knew Trump was enlisting foreign heads of state to help fight his political battles, the efforts of foreign heads of state to curry the president's favor by staying in Trump-branded properties was already among the chief rationales for his impeachment.
Perhaps the most incredible detail about this document is that it is, presumably, what Trump and his White House see as the good version of what happened on this phone call. (After the release, the White House circulated talking points claiming that the notes "clearly show there was no quid pro quo or anything inappropriate.") What the public hasn't seen, however, is the document that kickstarted this entire controversy: a whistleblower report that an anonymous intelligence official, alarmed by something about Trump's call with Zelensky, filed with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community last month. The White House, of course, can spin its in-house record of the call, but not the account of an outside whistleblower.
Trump's acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, at first seemed to ignore federal law that requires him to turn the report over to Congress. But yesterday, Schiff revealed that the whistleblower's lawyers have reached out to schedule testimony before the House Intelligence Committee he chairs, perhaps as soon as this week. In the meantime, these call notes reveal a president with absolutely no qualms about hijacking the powers of the presidency to try and sink a political opponent. By releasing them, the White House gave any Democratic lawmakers still leery of impeachment plenty of reasons to support an inquiry.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect the Director of National Intelligence releasing of whistleblower complaint late on Wednesday.
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Originally Appeared on GQ