The Republicans projected confidence going into Thursday. Reports that President Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son had finally nudged Democrats on Wednesday to announce an “official impeachment inquiry,” but some of Trump’s top defenders insisted that he would be exonerated by a transcript of the call between the two leaders—and implied that Democrats were walking into a trap.
“They’re going to be embarrassed when these transcripts come out,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement. “And I hope the American public wakes up.” Speaking to Fox & Friends, Rudy Giuliani handwaved the entire scandal, saying “there’s no mention of military aid, there’s no quid pro quo.” Trump himself was particularly cocky, tweeting, “You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call. No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”
Trump and Giuliani were right—sort of. The summary transcript, released on Wednesday morning, contains no explicit quid pro quo; Trump does not tell Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, or else lose $250 million in aid. But the summary is, in some ways, even worse than imagined—a damning document in which the president’s corruption is on full display. Far from being a trap, it only bolsters the Democrats’ case for impeachment.
The phone call was meant to be about establishing a working relationship between the two leaders—and Trump makes it abundantly clear that the best way to do so is by aiding his reelection. He urges Zelensky to speak with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr about investigating the Bidens (for complicated and unfounded reasons explained here). “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump tells Zelensky. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me.”
The message is apparent: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Months after claiming the Mueller report showed no evidence of collusion between Russian intelligence officials and members of his campaign, Trump is once again asking for foreign help in an election. By mentioning that the United States has been “very good” to Ukraine at the beginning of the call, moreover, Trump appears to suggest that future aid is contingent on Zelensky investigating his political opponents.
While the discussion of the Bidens will undoubtedly garner the most attention, the rest of the summary transcription is arguably more damning. For instance:
Zelensky: I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps, specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.
Trump: 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.
This section contains Trump’s first ask of Zelensky—and also appears to contain a quid pro quo. Their conversation took place, as Trump notes, a day after Robert Mueller’s July testimony before Congress. Trump, seeking to discredit Mueller, wants Zelensky to investigate Crowdstrike, the cybersecurity firm that investigated the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Here, Trump is echoing a conspiracy theory pushed by Giuliani and others that Ukrainian nationals hacked the DNC servers and then framed Russia. He’s also, importantly, pressuring Zelensky to discredit American law enforcement. At another point, he tells Zelensky that he plans on “causing problems” for Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was recently recalled after reportedly privately criticizing the president.
Zelensky’s conduct is just as troubling as Trump’s, and highly relevant to the nascent impeachment inquiry. The summary transcription, it should be noted, is not verbatim; it’s not clear if Zelensky is speaking through an interpreter, and large chunks of the conversation between the two leaders appear to be missing. Still, Zelensky is enormously flattering throughout, attempting to ingratiate himself to Trump by imitating his speech—going as far as to talk about “draining the swamp” in Kiev and referring to him as a “great teacher” throughout. “We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example for our elections,” Zelensky tells Trump. (It is also entirely possible that this Trumpian language was inserted by administration staffers who compiled the summary transcript, and does not accurately reflect what Zelensky said.)
Zelensky has clearly done his homework and knows the one trick guaranteed to form a lasting bond with Trump. “Last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower,” he says later in the call. Trump has, throughout his presidency, made it clear that he likes it when foreign leaders and governments spend money at his private properties. Knowing this, Zelensky makes clear that he is a Trump customer. While the discussion of the Bidens and military aid will undoubtedly receive the most media attention, Zelensky’s flattery—and Trump’s pea-brained susceptibility to it—is the most grotesque moment of the call, an embarrassment to both countries.
The summary transcript is the latest, and perhaps most significant, document to encompass the rot at the core of the Trump administration. But it’s also remarkably ordinary. This is how Trump conducts his presidency, often in plain sight. He wants world leaders to stroke his ego and patronize his businesses and take down his political enemies. As the call shows, he is less interested in one of the most critical parts of his job: advancing the national interest of the United States. Zelensky was prepared for all of this. He played his role perfectly, and got what he wanted: Trump later released the $250 million in military aid he’d been withholding.
Which is to say: We can be confident that there have been similar conversations with foreign leaders, and there will be more.