Ed’s done a bang-up job of going through the transcript itself so read him if you haven’t yet. I sifted through reactions on political social media and it’s already clear as can be that this is an unusually stark Trump Rorschach test even in an era where virtually everything in American politics is a Trump Rorschach test. If you’re well disposed towards Trump, the transcript is a nothingburger. If you dislike him, the impeachment rocket has just lifted off. Case in point:
"I would like you to do us a favor…”
Folks, I am surprised the White House even released this transcript. It’s worse than we thought.
The President sought to use the powers of the United States government to investigate a political opponent.
We have no choice but to impeach. https://t.co/teZ8p83GXL
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 25, 2019
Pelosi sounds impeachment-minded this afternoon too:
“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. The President has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad.
“I respect the responsibility of the President to engage with foreign leaders as part of his job. It is not part of his job to use taxpayer money to shake down other countries for the benefit of his campaign. Either the President does not know the weight of his words or he does not care about ethics or his constitutional responsibilities.
“The transcript and the Justice Department’s acting in a rogue fashion in being complicit in the President’s lawlessness confirm the need for an impeachment inquiry. Clearly, the Congress must act.
The Democratic presidential candidates are also uniformly shocked and appalled, as you’d expect. Longtime Trump friend turned enemy turned friend turned enemy Mitt Romney strongly disapproves too, although because he’s a Republican he stops short of the I-word:
Mitt Romney says the transcript of Trump's call with Ukrainian president is "deeply troubling": "If the president of the United States asks or presses the leader of a foreign country to carry out an investigation of a political nature that's troubling" https://t.co/4qoCdvO3CN pic.twitter.com/bKNcOKcZXi
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) September 25, 2019
I expect the political class will spend the next few days debating what precisely Trump meant in the not-quite-transcript when Zelensky brought up U.S. missiles and Trump went on to mention a “favor.” Ed argued in his post that in context the “favor” refers exclusively to Trump’s interest in Hillary’s email server. Only after that did he bring up the Bidens. Philip Klein argues that “favor” clearly refers to both — and, what’s more, that these favors were obviously designed to benefit Trump politically, not the United States strategically:
Reading the full transcript, and understanding the broader context, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump was using the power and influence of the U.S. to advance his own political interests rather than the national security interests of the nation. There was not much talk about what Ukraine could do for America’s interests in the region, and a lot more talk about what he could do for Trump personally that would benefit him politically.
One point about the transcript that’s been overlooked in the commentary I’ve read is that Zelensky — not Trump — brings up Rudy Giuliani after Trump mentions CrowdStrike, assuring Trump that his assistant has already spoken to Rudy. Spoken to him about what? Here’s the exchange.
There’s some as yet unknown backdrop to this conversation about the “favor” Trump wanted from Ukraine, which involved Giuliani and of which Zelensky was clearly already aware. What was it? Remember, Rudy had already openly declared his interest in pressuring Ukraine to reopen the Biden investigation back in May in a story in the NYT:
Mr. Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.
One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch…
“We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview on Thursday when asked about the parallel to the special counsel’s inquiry.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he said. “Somebody could say it’s improper. And this isn’t foreign policy — I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
Again, this was two and a half months before Trump’s call with Zelensky. So here’s Zelensky in July acknowledging that his people had already been in touch with Rudy, and per the excerpt above, we know that Rudy was keen to talk to them about the Biden probe. So maybe Trump didn’t need to lean hard on Zelensky during the call … because Giuliani was already leaning hard on them behind closed doors. That is, if the defense to all this is that Trump never demanded a quid pro quo, that defense would be complicated if it turned out that *Giuliani* had demanded a quid pro quo privately on Trump’s behalf, with the president’s knowledge and blessing.
Which is how one would do something like this if one were intent on doing it, no? Why would Trump issue an ultimatum to Zelensky knowing that natsec aides were listening in on his call when he could have his loyal crony Rudy do it with no record of the threat being made?
Either way, Trump did know that Giuliani was trying to reach out to them in May according to Rudy himself. Giuliani told the Times that month that “his efforts in Ukraine have the full support of Mr. Trump.” Per WaPo, officials inside the government are also irritated at Rudy’s role in Ukraine diplomacy. “Rudy — he did all of this,” said one official to the paper. “This s—show that we’re in — it’s him injecting himself into the process.” Interestingly, though, aides worried that Trump himself might pressure Zelensky improperly during a call and reportedly tried to keep them from making contact:
The sequence, which began early this year, involved the abrupt removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, the circumvention of senior officials on the National Security Council, and the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid administered by the Defense and State departments — all as key officials from these agencies struggled to piece together Giuliani’s activities from news reports.
Several officials described tense meetings on Ukraine among national security officials at the White House leading up to the president’s phone call on July 25, sessions that led some participants to fear that Trump and those close to him appeared prepared to use U.S. leverage with the new leader of Ukraine for Trump’s political gain.
As those worries intensified, some senior officials worked behind the scenes to hold off a Trump meeting or call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky out of concern that Trump would use the conversation to press Kiev for damaging information on Trump’s potential rival in the 2020 race, former vice president Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter.
In other words, even some people inside the building feared that Trump and possibly Giuliani were involved in an illicit influence campaign, or so WaPo’s sources claim. But if Giuliani did demand a quid pro quo from Zelensky’s government on Trump’s behalf, how could House Democrats possibly prove it? Rudy will deny it, of course, and the Ukrainians certainly won’t risk Trump’s wrath by acknowledging it.
In lieu of an exit question, one other point to note about the Romney clip up top. Romney is asked about a quid pro quo and dismisses it as borderline irrelevant, which is the least Trump-friendly way of framing the issue here. Most Republicans insist that, absent an explicit threat to withhold military aid unless Zelensky played ball on the Biden probe, there was no wrongdoing. Romney counters by saying that it doesn’t matter if there was a threat or not. Merely *requesting* an investigation of an American political rival that would benefit you electorally is “deeply troubling,” even if it’s no more than a request. That’s the same argument Dems will make (and are already making) if they impeach Trump. Or, rather, when.