Favors, dirt, investigations: key takeaways from the Trump-Ukraine memo

Tom McCarthy
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The White House on Wednesday released a five-page summary of a 30-minute call between Donald Trump and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that lies at the heart of the growing impeachment process.

Here are five key takeaways:

1) Trump asks Zelenskiy for dirt on Biden and his son

The call summary establishes that Trump solicited help from a foreign power against a domestic political opponent, in apparent violation of both statutory law and, as the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said Wednesday, “the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security”.

In the summary, Trump presses Zelenskiy to help stand up a debunked conspiracy theory that the former vice-president Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to shelve an investigation of an energy company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter then sat.

Trump tells Zelenskiy that he will receive calls from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, and William Barr, the attorney general, to talk about “the way they shut your very good prosecutor down”.

“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,” Trump says, “so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.”

Zelenskiy replies: “I understand and I’m knowledgeable about the situation.”

good because

2) Trump ties his request to US aid

Trump and his defenders claimed the call summary did not feature a “quid pro quo” deal in which Trump asked Zelenskiy for something in return for US aid. Analysts said that no “quid pro quo” was necessary for the solicitation by Trump to be inappropriate and illegal – and also, there is a clear quid pro quo being negotiated.

According to the summary, Trump begins the call by highlighting US aid for Ukraine, which he had suspended without clear explanation in advance of the call. “We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time,” Trump says – but then he suggests Ukraine isn’t doing enough in return.

“The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine,” Trump says. “I wouldn’t say it’s reciprocal necessarily …”

Then Zelenskiy says Ukraine wants to buy more Javelin missiles from the United States, and Trump replies: “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 will say
zelenskiy - i would like to thank you

3) It’s not a ‘transcript’ – and there appear to be significant elisions

While Trump and his allies are referring to the call summary as a transcript, it is not. Instead, the document is a “memorandum of telephone conversation” kept by notetakers in the White House situation room. A note on the document advises: “A memorandum of a telephone conversation (Telcon) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion” and warns “a number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record”.

Prosecutors emphasized that beyond the call summary, it was paramount for Congress to obtain an unredacted version of a report filed by a whistleblower about Trump’s Ukraine contacts, because the report probably contains additional information and context not available in the summary.

But the summary itself appears to omit potentially valuable material. Previous reporting on the call had Trump pressing Zelenskiy about Biden “eight times” – more than represented in the call summary.

The summary also includes a single ellipsis, coming just when Trump explicitly asks Zelenskiy to “look into” Biden.

A tweet that raised questions about that ellipsis was retweeted Wednesday by a lawyer for the whistleblower, Mark S Zaid.

Trump: Biden went around

4) Trump describes past and future coordination

In the call summary, Trump lays out a plan for cooperation with Ukraine against Biden and Democrats that includes past conversations with Giuliani and future anticipated meetings, with Trump extending an invitation to Washington and Zelenskiy inviting the president to Kyiv. The extent of that planning could make it more difficult for Trump in the future to deny or cast doubt on the intentions behind the call, on his side.

Zelenskiy: I will personally tell
trump: i will have
Trump: I will tell Rudy

5) Trump does not talk about US regional interests

One key takeaway from the call summary is what was not part of the conversation. Trump does not discuss with Zelenskiy the countries’ supposedly aligned policies on Russia and counter-terrorism. They don’t discuss Nato, in which Ukraine has in the past sought membership, or energy policy, apart from a mention by Zelenskiy that Ukraine buys US oil.

Trump is focused on two things: Biden, and the US firm CrowdStrike, which was hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the last election to analyze an infiltration of DNC email networks. Trump makes a reference to CrowdStrike servers being inside Ukraine, apparently based on a conspiracy theory separate from the Hunter Biden one. So on Trump’s side, the conversation was used to pursue two conspiracy theories.

On Zelenskiy’s side, the main objective seems to be to flatter Trump into submission.

trump: i would like you to
Zelenskiy: Well yes, to tell you
Zelenskiy: Actually last time