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Trump Escalates Political Jeopardy With Release of Ukraine Call

Chris Strohm and Justin Sink
Trump Escalates Political Jeopardy With Release of Ukraine Call

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump placed himself in deeper political jeopardy by ordering the release of a confidential memorandum recounting his July 25 call with Ukraine’s president, a document showing the president imploring the leader of a country dependent on U.S. aid to help him smear a political rival.

Read the memorandum here. 

The memorandum -- which amounts to a rough transcript of the call -- reveals Trump wielding his powers as the country’s chief executive to his personal benefit, either indifferent or oblivious to any consequences.

In a single phone call, Trump sought to enlist a foreign government’s aid in his re-election campaign by investigating a person who was at the time the front-runner to challenge him; use his own personal lawyer to sidestep diplomatic channels; and deploy the top law enforcement officer in the U.S. to assist a patently political endeavor.

The call also illustrates the extent to which clever foreign leaders seek to ingratiate themselves with a U.S. president who made his fortune and reputation running a business built on his personal brand. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, noted to Trump that the last time he visited New York, he stayed at Trump Tower.

Trump’s allies said the transcript clears the president because he didn’t explicitly link U.S. aid to his request that Ukraine investigate his rival. And Zelenskiy said in a meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that “nobody pushed it” in their phone call.

“We had, I think, good phone call,” Zelenskiy said in English. “It was normal. We spoke about many things.”

He later switched to Ukrainian and told reporters: “I don’t owe anyone anything, you all understand.” He said that the country’s new prosecutor-general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, “should investigate whatever the cases. What kind of promises can there be?”

What Trump said during the 30-minute exchange with Zelenskiy has become central to an impeachment inquiry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday. Lawmakers are probing whether Trump pressured Ukraine to re-open a criminal inquiry linked to former Vice President Joe Biden’s family in exchange for restoring U.S. military aid that Trump halted prior to the call.

@realDonaldTrump Read the rough transcript, just released by the White House, of the call between Trump and the president of Ukraine https://t.co/TdNtNrOjxH pic.twitter.com/ltjF2wuHaT

— Bloomberg (@business) September 25, 2019

The memorandum shows that Trump did pressure Zelenskiy to re-open the Biden investigation. All that remains in dispute is whether Zelenskiy understood Trump’s demand to be a quid pro quo: dirt on Biden in exchange for further U.S. aid.

“I respect the responsibility of the president to engage with foreign leaders as part of his job,” Pelosi said in a statement on Wednesday. “It is not part of his job to use taxpayer money to shake down other countries for the benefit of his campaign.”

“Clearly, the Congress must act,” she said.

The Trump administration has reversed course and on Wednesday will provide Congress an unnamed intelligence official’s whistle-blower complaint concerning a sequence of events including Trump’s Zelenskiy call, a person familiar with the matter said. The complaint, filed Aug. 12, sparked an investigation by three House committees that has developed into the impeachment inquiry.

The person asked not to be identified discussing plans to distribute the confidential document.

‘Deeply Troubled’

Some Republicans have indicated they are also uneasy about Trump’s interactions with Zelenskiy. “I remain deeply troubled,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters on Wednesday, after the memorandum was released.

The memorandum holds implications not only for Trump but also Attorney General William Barr, whom the president said he wanted Zelenskiy to speak to about the Biden investigation, and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has sought to investigate and amplify allegations about Biden’s activities in Ukraine.

Trump mentioned Biden several times during the call as he described claims that, as vice president, Biden pushed to oust Ukraine’s top prosecutor to help a company that employed his son Hunter Biden -- allegations that are disputed by officials and documents in Ukraine.

https://t.co/lZCUyp40hL pic.twitter.com/Hod65VRU32

— Bloomberg TV (@BloombergTV) September 25, 2019

“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,” Trump told Zelenskiy, referring to Barr.

Zelenskiy, whose country is dependent on U.S. military aid, told Trump he would try to accommodate him. The Ukrainian leader, who was elected in April, told the U.S. president that after he appointed a new chief prosecutor, “he or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”

But Trump, speaking Wednesday to reporters in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, said the transcript showed “there was no pressure whatsoever” on Ukraine and called the House inquiry “the single greatest witch hunt in American history.”

Confidential Conversations

Conversations between U.S. presidents and their foreign counterparts are generally confidential, and the memos documenting them are closely-held secrets. Trump expressed reticence about releasing the Zelenskiy transcript out of concern about setting a precedent. The president ordered the document declassified after mounting pressure from Democrats as well as some Republicans.

The Zelenskiy memorandum was originally labeled “secret,” “eyes only” and “do not copy,” but a notation on the publicly released version reads: “Declassified by order of the President,” dated Tuesday. The transcript was developed using voice-recognition software along with note-takers and experts who were listening.

The memo states that the call was 30 minutes long, but a note at the bottom of the first page cautions readers that it “is not a verbatim transcript.”

Trump did not explicitly tell Zelenskiy that future U.S. military assistance would be conditioned on an investigation of Biden, and he brought up Biden after Zelenskiy first mentioned wanting to meet with Giuliani -- two points the White House is certain to argue are exculpatory.

And while the president told Zelenskiy early in the call that the U.S. “does a lot for Ukraine,” that comment was in the context of complaining about Germany, which Trump said “does almost nothing for you.”

Trump also never specifically mentioned a military aid package he froze shortly before his call with the Ukrainian leader. Early in the call, Zelenskiy thanked Trump for U.S. assistance and said he’s preparing to order more U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles -- an indication he wasn’t aware that the aid had been halted.

But Trump responded: “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.” That remark sparked a conversation between the two men about various investigations Trump wanted pursued, including the Biden probe.

The president said Tuesday that he had withheld the military aid to Ukraine over a previously unknown dispute with Europe.

DNC, Biden Investigations

Trump first asked Zelenskiy for help probing the 2016 hack of a Democratic National Committee computer server and an ensuing investigation by the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, which was also involved in tracking Russian interference in the the last presidential election.

“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump told Zelenskiy, according to the White House document. “There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”

Zelenskiy responded that “it is very important for me and everything that you just mentioned.” He told Trump that he had recalled Ukraine’s former U.S. ambassador and would appoint a new one “who will work very hard on making sure that our two nations are getting closer,” and offered to meet with Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.

“All the investigations will be done openly and candidly,” Zelenskiy assured Trump.

Trump responded: “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.”

In 2016, Biden led an Obama administration effort -- in concert with other Western nations -- to pressure Ukraine to remove its former prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was considered ineffective and had been publicly accused of corruption by his deputy. Shokin had opened an investigation into a company connected to Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, but the probe had gone dormant well before the Obama administration sought his ouster, the deputy told Bloomberg News in an interview earlier this year.

Trump told Zelenskiy in the call: “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... it sounds horrible to me.” Zelenskiy agreed to re-open an investigation, promising that the prosecutor general he appointed “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”

Trump also disparaged Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill as “an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started in Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”

Zelenskiy repeatedly tried to ingratiate himself to Trump in the call, at one point telling the president that the “last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower.”

Whistle-Blower Complaint

The whistle-blower complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atikinson, led him to suggest Trump may have violated campaign finance law. The inspector general referred the matter to the Justice Department and FBI for investigation.

Democrats demanded a copy of the complaint after becoming aware it had been filed, but the Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire objected, with the support of the Justice Department.

The Justice Department conducted an investigation and concluded last week that Trump didn’t violate campaign finance laws in the course of the Zelenskiy call, department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. But the Justice Department didn’t take into consideration that Trump was withholding military aid to Ukraine at the time of the call, one official said. The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The intelligence whistle-blower didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the call, and Atkinson determined there was some indication the person has a “political bias” in favor of one of Trump’s political rivals, the Justice Department said in a legal opinion.

The department’s Office of Legal Counsel also determined that the complaint from the intelligence official didn’t fall under a law requiring it to be provided to Congress.

Although Trump talked about involving Barr in an investigation into Biden, Barr has not recused himself from the matter, the Justice Department official said. Kupec said Barr never discussed the matter with Trump or Giuliani and hasn’t been in contact with Ukraine.

Lawmakers are still seeking additional information about Trump’s actions, including the whistle-blower complaint.

But many Republicans said the transcript should exonerate Trump.

“There was no quid pro quo and nothing to justify the clamor House Democrats caused yesterday,” House Judiciary’s top Republican Doug Collins of Georgia said of the transcript. “The real danger here is that Democrats keep using baseless accusations in hopes of crippling a successful presidency.”

--With assistance from Billy House, Steven T. Dennis and Polly Mosendz.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net;Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, ;Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum

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