Or something in between? As promised, the White House has released the transcript of the conversation between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky from late July that formed the core of the House Democrats’ latest impeachment push. Other than that, however, the transcript largely fails to live up to the promises of either side.
As apparently reported by the whistleblower, Trump did encourage the new Ukrainian president to investigate Hunter Biden as part of his new agenda. However, there is no mention at all of a quid pro quo, and in fact it was Zelensky who brought up the subject first. Zelensky mentions a recent meeting between Rudy Giuliani and one of his deputies and promised that Giuliani would continue to have access for his investigations in Ukraine:
Trump then responds by bringing up the Bidens:
Zelensky then thanks Trump for tipping him off to the “bad ambassador,” whom Zelensky had already recalled, and promised to send a more cooperative envoy in her place. Zelensky then also promised more cooperation with Giuliani to dig into the Burisma probe and the Bidens, whose names never come up again in the transcript.
At that point, Trump brings up William Barr in relation to the investigation, and adds in a comment about the Ukrainian economy that sounds out of place … for anyone but Trump, perhaps:
This is probably the trickiest part of the transcript for Trump and the White House. This could be read as expressing a threat to Ukraine’s economy if Zelensky doesn’t cooperate with Barr; your economy is going to get better and better, if … Trump comes back to Barr again at the end when he promises to have both Barr and Giuliani call on Zelensky. Any attempt to paint this conversation as malicious and self-dealing will have to rely on that exchange and the worst possible interpretation of it.
That interpretation runs into two problems, however. First, while the economy comments seems incongruous, it’s right in line with Trump’s normal stream-of-consciousness manner of speaking. It sounds less like a threat and more like the empty praise Trump injects when speaking with or about people he likes or wishes to ingratiate. Blah blah blah you’re big-league cool blah blah blah. The second problem is the tone throughout this transcript, which is very friendly and agreeable. There isn’t any real sense of negotiation at all, especially since Zelensky brought up the subject himself and pledged cooperation before Trump even thought to ask. In fact, Zelensiy led off the exchange by telling Trump that “we wanted to drain the swamp” as a consequence of winning the election, a clear sign of Zelensky’s desire to be seen as sympatico with Trump.
Looking at the whole conversation in context, this seems like a nothingburger. But is it the whole conversation? Washington Post reporter Annie Linskey seems to think not:
The biggest clue that the Ukraine conversation has been condensed is on the first page: It's a 30 min convo that's been conveyed in just five pages. pic.twitter.com/Ge2WDMJzEv
— Annie Linskey (@AnnieLinskey) September 25, 2019
The readout itself warns about the same thing:
The point in taking those notes is to capture the essence of the conversation for nat-sec and archival purposes. One has to presume that a quid pro quo for dirt on a political opponent would have made it into the nat-sec notes of this conversation. Absence of evidence may not decisively mean evidence of absence, but it does still mean absence of evidence, at least. In this readout, there’s no evidence of undue pressure or a demand for political assistance that was leveraged by abuse of foreign-policy authority. It’s not at all a smoking gun, at least not for the impeachable offense that Democrats first alleged. They will have to look elsewhere for that kind of evidence.
It’s also not evidence of a “perfect” conversation, either. It might not have been actionable, but Trump’s use of this conversation to advance the potential embarrassment of a political rival is petty at best, and certainly ripe for criticism. It shows Trump putting his personal agenda in front of the nation’s, which makes him pretty much like most of his predecessors in the Oval Office at one time or another, but that doesn’t make it “perfect” either. Just because it’s not at all impeachable doesn’t make this laudatory.
Update: Some are seizing on the juxtaposition of Zelensky’s mention of defense assistance and Trump’s request for a “favor.” However, the favor has nothing to do with the Bidens:
That’s about the DNC server hack, not the Bidens. It’s a bit mystifying why Trump even bothered about this, too, since the Russiagate business is pretty much dead. Also, it’s not at all a threat to leverage aid against their assistance. Again, it’s not particularly well thought out or laudable, but it’s not at all a threat or a corrupt use of presidential power.