The Ukraine transcript, not damning and not as advertised [UPDATED]

The White House has released a memorandum about the conversation between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. The document memorializes, in the form of a transcript, what the two heads of state said to each other on July 25 of this year.

It’s based on note taking by people who were in the White House situation room during the conversation. As such, while it may not be a perfect transcript, I think it must come pretty close to recording what was said.

It’s clear from what I’ll call the transcript that President Trump did not tell his Ukrainian counterpart that U.S. aid was contingent on Ukraine investigating the Bidens. There was no quid pro quo.

Initial reports were that, indeed, no quid pro quo was discussed, but that Trump repeatedly pressed Zelenskyy to investigate the Bidens. He may have, but the transcript doesn’t show this.

What it shows is that, Trump asked Zelenskyy to cooperate with Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Barr in their exploration of the matter. Trump said:

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. . . .

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.

(Emphasis added)

I draw a distinction between a U.S. president asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival of the president and asking a foreign leader to assist Americans who are conducting such an investigation or making inquiries.

As I see it, the former — asking a foreign leader to conduct an investigation — is wrong under almost any circumstance. But asking a foreign leader to assist in an American investigation will often be appropriate. When potential wrongdoing by an American (whether a president’s rival or not) involves actions committed overseas, it may not be possible for Americans to investigate without foreign cooperation.

Thus, if all Trump asked for was Ukrainian cooperation in the inquiries of Americans, I agree with John that Trump did nothing wrong during this conversation. And that’s all the transcript shows Trump did.

Immediately after Trump asks Zelenskyy to speak with Giuliani and Barr, the Ukrainian president volunteers that he will ask the Ukrainian prosecutor to look into Hunter Biden’s company. But that’s not what Trump asked him to do during the conversation (at least insofar as the transcript shows).

Maybe Trump or someone on Trump’s team had already communicated to Zelenskyy that this is what the president wanted. Maybe Zelenskyy understood Trump’s comments about cooperating with Giuliani and Barr as code for having his own prosecutor investigate.

However, the transcript itself establishes only that Trump wanted cooperation with American investigators. That’s not an unreasonable request (though it does raise the question of whether it was appropriate for Trump to have his private attorney, Giuliani, conducting as investigation of the Bidens that would draw in a foreign government).

Since impeachment is now on the table, I’ll add a final note. If it turns out that Trump did ask Ukraine to launch an investigation of the Bidens, I would consider the request highly inappropriate (for reasons I’ve previously discussed and will set forth in more detail if we get to the point). But that doesn’t mean it would be grounds for impeachment.

Most presidents do their share of highly inappropriate things, and Trump seems to do more than his share. If the public believes it has seen enough, it can vote the president out of office.

That’s the proper remedy for highly inappropriate (or serial inappropriate) presidential conduct. Impeachment is the remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors.

UPDATE: Although President Trump asked the Ukrainian president to speak with both Rudy Giuliani and William Barr, the Justice Department states that Trump never asked Barr to speak with the Ukrainian president, and that Barr hasn’t done so.

The matter of the Biden’s dealings with Ukraine seems to have been Giuliani’s assignment, for better or for worse.

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