American politics is about to have a meltdown of epic proportions. Impeachment inquiries over a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will soon commence. Particularly central to the proceedings are accusations that Trump dangled US military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s past legal troubles in Ukraine.
In a situation like this of competing political narratives what was said and meant can get lost in the spin. So, what did Trump say and what did it mean? The transcript, of which an incomplete version was declassified and released to the public on Sept. 24, notes that the two leaders spoke for half an hour on the morning of July 25 of this year, four days after Zelensky’s massive win in the Ukrainian elections.
The call begins with niceties as Trump praises Zelensky’s big victory. He then mentions ongoing American contributions to Ukraine.
“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time,” Trump tells Zelensky. “Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.”
Trump then says that Ukraine doesn’t always help the United States in return for its goodwill and “things are happening that are not good.” Zelensky says he agrees “1,000%” and states his thankfulness, especially for American military assistance, leading up to Trump’s request.
“I would like you to do us a favour 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,” Trump says, referencing his belief that Ukraine has a server with information to what happened during the 2016 US election meddling. “There are a lot of things that went on, with 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.”
Tweeting in July of last year, Trump claimed the server could be part of a Deep State plot against him and prove the collusion against him by Democrats in 2016. He also said recently at the UN that he believes the server may contain past Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s infamous e-mails.
To return to the call, Zelensky states that he is “open for any future cooperation,” and also tells Trump that “one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.”
Trump encourages Zelensky to work one-on-one with Rudy Giuliani, then specifically mentions potential illegality from Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“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.”
Zelensky assures Trump he is on it and notes that he will be appointing a new prosecutor general who will “look into the situation” despite past missteps. Despite including the insinuation of a good relationship and hoping Zelensky helps out, the call certainly does not appear to indicate “betrayal” or other grand misdemeanours the Democrats and others have alleged.
Still, the call certainly brings up a lot of dissembling on Trump’s part and lack of clarity about what happened with the Ukraine aid. Recent reporting shows that the Pentagon had already cleared Ukraine for receipt of hundreds of millions in aid this past May and announced they would send in mid-June, aid which was blocked by Trump in July before his call with Zelensky. It was re-cleared and transferred on Sept. 11. Trump also said this Tuesday at the UN that he froze it not only because of corruption concerns but because other European nations were not contributing enough to Ukraine’s defence and expecting America to shoulder an undue burden. Germany and other countries have explicitly denied the allegation and say the United States never brought up the issue with them in any case.
Nonetheless, the truth is that this whole march to impeachment and outrage could go seriously sideways on the Democrats and the current front runner Joe Biden. Indeed, Biden has been fairly cautious compared to some other Democrats about jumping on the full outrage bandwagon. Perhaps it is because talking about what Hunter did or did not do in Ukraine is far from good for his campaign. It was already identified early on as a major weak spot for his campaign. Trump’s base is already deeply loyal and will not believe anything the Democrats say anyway, regarding them as traitors, while independents and non-Trump supporters who dislike the Democrats as well will be unlikely to be convinced that this call is really the actual final straw unlike all the other supposed final straws the Democrats have hyped up that fell flat.
Reports dating to the spring of 2015 detail how Hunter Biden was put in charge of a massively profitable Ukrainian energy company called Burisma in 2014, right as Joe Biden was at the centre of dealing with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Even though he had almost no experience in that industry, Hunter Biden was reportedly raking in up to $50,000 per month. The company was investigated in Ukraine and had its accounts frozen in the UK at the same time as it hired Hunter Biden, allegedly in an attempt to cosy up to the Democrats and shield it from trouble.
By 2016 Joe Biden strong-armed Ukraine into having its prosecutor general Viktor Shokin step down and said he would consider discontinuing some American aid if Shokin stayed in power. Shokin’s successor Yuriy Lutsenko closed down the Burisma probe, although he reopened it again in 2018. Biden’s team has scoffed at the characterization that he quashed justice, saying Shokin was corrupt and the Obama Administration as a whole wanted him out.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to move forward into impeachment inquiries was greeted by many Trump opponents in her party and elsewhere as a welcome step. Others noted that the call transcript does not indicate a quid pro quo (at least not one that would cross the threshold for impeachable behaviour) and is just typical Trump bluster. Pelosi’s decision to go whole hog on the initial breathless media reports and state that Trump had committed “betrayal” may well turn out to be a major overreach and could be the biggest mistake of her career.
For her part (and without any of the liability or consequences that Pelosi faces as a still politically powerful and relevant figure) Clinton tweeted out that she strongly supports impeachment and that Trump has “betrayed our country.” Media reports that claim up to 30 Republican senators reportedly would vote to impeach if their votes were secret have also stoked intense speculation. Utah Senator Mitt Romney referred to the transcript as “deeply troubling.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called claims that Trump was withholding aid to pressure Zelensky into investigating Biden “ridiculous” and stated that the transcript was a complete “nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky went further, saying that “Biden is the one who threatened Ukraine’s aid in the past, not Trump, and that has to be investigated.” Conservative commentator John Solomon echoed this sentiment, saying in a recent interview that the real story was the Democrats’ colluding with Ukraine in 2016 in an attempt to dig up dirt on Trump.
However, this saga turns out prepare for a chaotic media circus of stomping elephants and braying donkeys. As each side tries to wash their dirty laundry and stain the other side with all the dirt prepare for an endless spin cycle of apocalyptic rhetoric, accusations and made-for-TV moments. Things are about to get truly wild.