It’s a nothingburger, of course, but it’s a nothingburger with a purpose. As Marie Yovanovitch prepares to tell what she knows about Donald Trump’s policies toward Ukraine, the White House declassified and published the transcript of the first call between the president and Ukraine’s then president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky. The call contains nothing but pleasantries and exchanges of personal congratulations, but it’s going to be curious enough to provide at least a little distraction:
NEW 🚨… as the second impeachment hearing is about to gavel in, the White House released the first convo between trump and Zelensky. Here it is pic.twitter.com/El8dg4EIvU
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) November 15, 2019
There’s not a whole lot to excerpt from this letter, which Jake Sherman’s tweet has in full with the attachments. Trump called Zelensky to congratulate him on his surprise electoral victory, and to tell him how “amazing” his accomplishment was. Zelensky called Trump “a great example” for his country and invited him to the inauguration. Trump didn’t commit to a personal attendance, but promised Zelensky a “very very high level” official would represent the US at the event. Other than a passing reference to Trump’s former ownership of the Miss Universe pageant, there’s nothing about any potential emoluments, commercial or political.
We already knew this April 21 conversation wasn’t going to have much substance. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman spoke about it in his deposition to Adam Schiff’s impeachment inquiry committee, describing it in glowing terms:
Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry who raised concerns to his superiors about the July 25 call, told lawmakers in a closed-door hearing last month that he felt the April conversation with Zelensky “was actually a very good call.”
“Everybody was happy, high-fiving from that call because we were moving in the right direction for Ukraine,” Vindman said, according to a transcript of his testimony released Friday.
The one fly in the ointment for the White House is that this transcript doesn’t look much like the way they described it at the time. It’s pleasant and diplomatic, but it doesn’t contain the support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and economic independence that the administration claimed at the time:
The call released today by the White House bares little resemblance to the readout they put out at the time. No mention by Trump of corruption, strengthening democracy or increasing prosperity. Or expressing unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. pic.twitter.com/oInUEAfLh9
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) November 15, 2019
They oversold a rather banal exchange, but the banality of the call is the real point of releasing the transcript, or at least one of the points. It shows that Trump had no animosity toward Ukraine nor toward Zelensky, instead being rather effusive in his praise for both. Neither of the men discussed policy at all, in fact, or hinted at any friction. Trump’s decision to publish this is to appear as normal as possible.
The other point of this release is to distract from Yovanovitch’s testimony. That will only work for a few moments, however, as people realize that there’s nothing to chew over from this transcript. One has to wonder whether the timing would have been better at mid-day, when news reports begin to synthesize Yovanovitch’s testimony into a narrative, but at least this will get a mention at the same time. It’s a good tactic, but probably meaningless in the long run — as is Yovanovitch’s testimony on the impeachment charge Schiff wants to bring.