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Report and Trump-Ukraine-Biden, Part Two
Previously, The Millennial Source reported the timeline of the scandal surrounding US President Donald Trump’s communications with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The eruption of the scandal in mid-September 2019 prompted US Nancy Pelosi to launch formal proceedings against Trump, which began with the congressional testimony of US Director of National Intelligence ( ) Joseph Maguire on September 26.
At the heart of the controversy is a phone call between Trump and Zelensky that occurred on July 25, 2019. With two key documents related to the call and the larger scandal now publicly available, US lawmakers and citizens have begun to weigh the evidence for themselves.
What Is in the Phone Call Record & The Whistleblower Report?
On September 25, the White House released a “rough transcript” of the July phone conversation between Trump and Zelensky. The documents released also included a disclaimer that the transcript is not necessarily a verbatim record of the call. A rough call transcript, also called a call memorandum, is sometimes generated from the notes of government officials authorized to listen in on the call.
One day later, the whistleblower report at the heart of the controversy also became available to the public, with the exception of redactions of classified information. The report was filed with the US Intelligence on August 12 by an anonymous intelligence agent.
Schiff opened the September 26 hearing at which Maguire testified by describing the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call as akin to “a classic organized crime shakedown”. He proceeded to embellish the rough transcript of the call in what he later called a “parody” of Trump’s behavior. Both during and after the hearing, Schiff received sharp criticism for blending facts of the case with what amounted to a fictionalized dramatic performance.
Here is a summary of what the transcript and whistleblower report actually reveal about three of the issues now dominating the headlines, without embellishment.
Trump requests a favor immediately after Zelensky asks for help
According to the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call, Trump and Zelensky began the call by exchanging pleasantries, with Trump congratulating Zelensky on his recent election victory. Trump then raised the topic of US aid to Ukraine. He emphasized that the US does “a lot” for Ukraine, while claiming that Europe offers less assistance. In particular, Trump asserted that Germany “does almost nothing for [Ukraine].”
As Politifact has reported, Europe has actually provided billions in aid to Ukraine since 2014, with Germany contributing $190 million in 2017 alone. However, the US is the primary provider of military aid to Ukraine, aid on which the country heavily depends. Russia has occupied about 7% of Ukraine’s territory since invading the Republic of Crimea in 2014. A truce between the two nations is currently in place, but they are still considered to be actively at war.
Zelensky seemed to agree with Trump’s assessment of Europe’s deficient role in providing aid, and then thanked Trump for his “great support in the area of defense.” He then stated that Ukraine is “ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically we are almost ready to buy more javelins [anti-tank missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.”
Trump responded by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though…”. He proceeded to ask Zelensky to work with US William Barr to investigate whether Ukraine has in its possession a computer server that was used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the summer of 2016. US Intelligence agencies and the have unanimously concluded that both a successful hacking of DNC servers in June 2016 and an unsuccessful hacking attempt a month later were perpetrated by Russian operatives.
However, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani has echoed a popular conspiracy theory that Ukraine was heavily involved in these cybercrimes, and that one of the DNC servers is now in Ukrainian hands. The theory centers on the fact that as part of its initial investigation of the hacking incidents, the DNC hired the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. Trump has asserted that CrowdStrike concealed evidence from the FBI and is owned by rich Ukrainians.
In reality, CrowdStrike is a publicly traded US corporation. One of its founders is a Russian-born US citizen.
The Ukrainian server claim is not consistent with the evidence presented in Robert S. Mueller’s extensive report on Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Some Trump supporters believe that exposing a Ukrainian role in the DNC server hacking would undermine the entire Mueller Report, and call into question whether Russia was actually behind the election interference.
During the July 25 call, after a brief discussion of the server issue and its relationship to the Mueller Report, Trump indicated that Rudy Giuliani would call Zelensky to follow up on the matter. He then pivoted to ask Zelensky to also investigate Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company for which Joe Biden’s son Hunter once worked.
Specifically, Trump indicated that he was looking for information on whether Joe Biden, in his former role as US Vice President, intervened in Ukraine to stop a criminal prosecution of Burisma and of Hunter Biden in particular. Ukrainian prosecutors launched an investigation of Burisma founder Mykola Zlochevsky in 2014, suspecting that Zlochevsky had used the company for corrupt activities including and tax evasion.
Several Ukrainian officials, including a former prosecutor, have stated that Hunter Biden was not implicated in the investigation and broke no laws in Ukraine. Nevertheless, any major investigation of the activities of the Biden family could seriously jeopardize Joe Biden’s chances of winning the 2020 US presidential election, and thus help Trump’s own chances for re-election.
An August 2019 Quinnipiac University poll showed Biden leading Trump by over 15 percentage points nationally. Biden has been the Democratic presidential primary front runner since announcing his candidacy in April 2019. However, September 2019 Quinnipiac polling indicates that Biden is now in a statistical dead heat with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg come in third and fourth place in the polling, respectively, with six other Democrats polling at 1% or higher.
Rudy Giuliani has been playing an ambiguous role in US-Ukraine relations.
Trump mentioned Giuliani multiple times during the July 25 phone call, and the whistleblower’s complaint portrays Giuliani’s heavy involvement in the Trump-Zelensky negotiations as a matter of concern.
Since Giuliani currently has no official role in the White House, the Trump Administration, or the US Government generally, the whistleblower raised the question of whether he has been engaged in “circumvention of national security decisionmaking [sic] processes”. If Giuliani presented himself to Ukrainian officials as an official representative of the US, he may have violated laws that strictly limit who may engage in diplomatic efforts on behalf of the country.
White House officials might have concealed the original call transcript.
In the report, the whistleblower alleges that the original transcript of the July 25 phone call was moved from the White House server normally used to store such transcripts to one that is reserved for highly sensitive intelligence information.
To a degree, White House staff members and the president have the discretion to store records as they see fit. However, it is quite unusual for a record of a conversation in which no highly sensitive or classified information was discussed to be “locked down” (to use the whistleblower’s words) in this manner.
Trump critics have pointed out that an Executive Order signed by President Obama in 2009 forbids designating government documents as highly classified in order to conceal criminal activity or protect an official from embarrassment. However, since phone calls between the US President and other world leaders are often initially classified to some degree as a matter of routine, it is not clear that the treatment of the July 25 call transcript violated that order or any other official regulation.
Schiff has announced his intention to investigate the storage of the call transcript and other records mentioned in the whistleblower report. Meanwhile, Pelosi has bluntly referred to such actions on the part of the Trump Administration as a “cover up” intended to hide presidential abuses of power.
What US Law Says About Foreign Assistance to Candidates
As USElections Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub reminded Americans in June, candidates for office cannot legally “solicit or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a US election”:
Weintraub was referring to a section of the US Code titled “Contributions and donations by foreign nationals”, as well as a related law and amendment passed in 2004.
The rough transcript offers compelling evidence that Trump solicited Zelensky’s assistance in investigating the Bidens, and there is no doubt that the President of Ukraine meets the definition of a “foreign national”. Therefore, Trump’s actions were only legal if one of the following is true:
- An investigation of the Biden family would not have any value to Trump in his re-election campaign;
- The proposed investigation is favored by Trump solely to protect US national (not his personal) interests, and therefore is not connected with a US election.
The rough transcript shows Trump saying that “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 [Barr] would be great.” These exact words, with their implication that the idea of pressing for an investigation of Biden came from someone other than Trump or his campaign team, might prove critical in the impeachment inquiry.
What Is a Quid Pro Quo, and Does It Matter If There Was One?
As this scandal continues to unfold, the phrase quid pro quo is becoming omnipresent in US media coverage. The Latin phrase refers to an exchange of favors – a service offered with the expectation of receiving something in return – often in the form of an unspoken agreement.
Many Democrats have cited Trump’s suspension of congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in advance of the July 25 phone call as proof that he sought a quid pro quo arrangement with Zelensky. The implication is that Trump intended to withhold the aid until Zelensky did his bidding with respect to investigating the Bidens, and only released the aid later because the secret deal was coming to light.
The whistleblower’s complaint also describes communications that might have occurred between Trump Administration representatives and Ukrainian officials in advance of the July 25 phone call. Specifically, the whistleblower alleges that the Ukrainians were informed that Trump would only agree to speak with Ukraine’s new president if Zelensky agreed to “play ball”.
On the other side of America’s political divide, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has emphatically stated that an honest investigation will reveal that there was never any quid pro quo, or even the suggestion of one.
Certainly, if congressionally investigators uncover strong evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement between Trump and Zelensky, that will significantly bolster their case for impeachment. It would strongly suggest corrupt intent – Trump deliberately abusing his powers as president to obtain aid from another country in support of his 2020 re-election campaign.
It is worth noting, however, that the statutes prohibiting soliciting or receiving in connection with an election make no mention of whether the candidate offers something in return. In the end, the quid pro quo question might prove to be irrelevant in determining whether Trump violated the law. The central question is what he asked for, not what he offered.
Trump’s September 26 Threats of Retaliation
On September 26, the same day that Maguire testified before, the Los Angeles Times obtained an audio recording of Trump speaking about the whistleblower at a private event.
In the audio, Trump refers to the whistleblower, along with anyone who provided information to that person, as “almost a spy”. He went on to say,
“You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart, right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
—President Donald Trump, September 26, 2019
The traditional punishment for spying and treason in the US was execution by hanging.