As the White House prepared to release a summary of President Donald Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, administration sources told reporters there wouldn’t be much there.
They were wrong.
The summary, released this morning, is a wild look into the president’s mind-set and approach to his job. It shows a commander in chief consumed by conspiracy theories, strong-arming a foreign government to help him politically, and marshaling the federal government in his schemes.
Earlier this week, Trump said that his call with Zelensky “was largely congratulatory,” but the account of the call tells a different story. (It’s worth noting that it’s unclear how the account of the conversation was constructed—whether it was transcribed in real time or taped—nor is it possible to independently verify its accuracy. A note at the bottom cautions that it “is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion.”) Trump congratulates Zelensky on his election, and then begins to complain that Germany isn’t contributing enough money to Ukraine. (Trump yesterday cited supposedly weak European support as a justification for freezing U.S. aid for months.)
Then comes the really crazy stuff. Trump begins speaking about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election:
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. 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. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you said yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.
It’s difficult to puzzle out quite what Trump is talking about. The call took place the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony to the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. CrowdStrike is a cybersecurity firm that conducted work on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and accused Russia of having hacked the DNC’s servers. Ukraine has been a locus of pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the 2016 election, which claim that Ukraine’s government was aiming to assist Hillary Clinton. It is not clear, however, what “server” Trump is referring to.
Zelensky seems to deflect the specifics of the question, but he assures the president that Trump has friends in Kiev and that the Ukrainian government is eager to work with the United States. He also promises to have an investigation. Trump takes that as an invitation to delve into another conspiracy theory, this one about former Vice President Joe Biden:
Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved.
This misrepresents the situation badly. The prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was accused by both the international community and people within Ukraine, including his former deputy, of being overly lax in policing corruption. The United States, through Biden, worked to have him fired because he was too weak a prosecutor. Trump continues:
Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.
Here, Trump is bringing in both his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the attorney general of the United States, trying to work both official and private channels to dig up dirt on the Bidens. He adds:
The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that.
Here, Trump is referring to Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a career Foreign Service officer who was suddenly sacked, reportedly after Giuliani raised a series of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about her. Trump says:
The other thing, 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 would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.
That finishes the main substance of the call. Twice in the closing minutes of the call Trump says that he will have Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr call Zelensky. It’s not clear whether Barr ever spoke with Zelensky.
The call is bizarre on several levels. First, the United States has legitimate interests in Ukraine, but Trump is using his conversation with that country’s president to pursue his pet, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
Second, Trump appears—as has been alleged—to be engaging in a quid pro quo, asking Zelensky to assist him in pursuing those conspiracy theories, in exchange for help to Ukraine. Trump never puts it in plain terms—he’s too smart, and too experienced in shady business, to do that—but it requires willful blindness to miss what Trump is asking.
Trump begins by complaining that things are not “reciprocal” between the United States and Ukraine. Zelensky agrees, and then asks about buying Javelin missiles from the U.S. Trump responds, “I would like you to do us a favor,” and then asks about CrowdStrike. Zelensky says he will, and then Trump requests that he look into Biden. Zelensky, desperate for defense help, seems to have understood precisely what Trump meant.
Third, the call shows how Trump enlists the might of the U.S. government in his weird, personal, political schemes. About a week before the call, Trump ordered White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to freeze some $400 million in defense aid to Ukraine. The president has offered contradictory explanations for that move.
On the call itself, Trump pulls Barr into his conspiracy investigations. This is troubling in its own right because he is trying to use the attorney general to investigate his political opponents, but it is also a problem because of a whistle-blower complaint from an intelligence official about Trump’s dealings with a foreign leader, reportedly Zelensky. The law states that if there’s an “urgent” whistle-blower complaint that the inspector general for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence deems legitimate, the administration must turn it over to Congress. But the Trump administration first turned to an office of the Justice Department, overseen by Barr, which constructed a flimsy justification for refusing to turn it over. That seems like a clear conflict of interest, given Barr’s role in the call.
Even noting that seems almost quaint given the context, though. When the president is using international relations to pursue conspiracy theories and punish political opponents, what’s a little conflict of interest inside the executive branch?