Ukraine

Trump to Zelensky: ‘We Do a Lot for Ukraine’

The big takeaways from the release of the memo describing the president's call with Volodymyr Zelensky.
September 25, 2019
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Photo credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

“Nasty little invasion you’re dealing with. Be a shame if someone were to stop helping you fight it.” That’s basically Donald Trump’s message to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the memo released by the White House.

On July 25, President Trump called Zelensky to congratulate him on his party’s victory in the recent parliamentary elections. But the subject of the call quickly turned to other matters, including foreign aid for Ukraine, which has been fighting off a Russian invasion for five years.

[W]e do a lot for Ukraine[.] We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing,” Trump told Zelensky, leading into a complaint about Germany and Europe before concluding, “so I think it’s something you want to look at but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.” (Emphasis added.)

Zelensky at first appeared to think Trump actually wanted to talk about the Europeans—he mentioned that they don’t provide as much aid as the U.S. or enforce sanctions on Russia as strictly. But that’s apparently not what President Trump had in mind.

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” the president said, “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.”

President Trump has this timeline upside down and backward. He seems to think that Biden intervened to get a dogged prosecutor fired for the benefit of his son, Hunter, who was doing consulting work for an oil company that the prosecutor was investigating. The opposite is true, as Tim Miller spelled out in perfect detail:

(1) Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, did take consulting work for a Ukrainian oil company, Burisma, that was under investigation by a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, for the work under the prior Russian-allied regime. This is where the true part of the Trump disinformation comes to an end.

(2) The problem was that Shokin actively stood in the way of international investigations that the U.S. and other democratic reformers were pursuing.

(3) Vice President Biden, U.S. diplomats, and our E.U. allies all called on the prosecutor to be fired so the corrupt oligarchs could be investigated MORE AGGRESSIVELY. This includes the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine calling out by name Mykola Zlochevsky, the oligarch who ran the company Hunter Biden worked for, as someone this prosecutor was letting off the hook.

The Ukrainian government then led by Viktor Yanukovich was under pressure from the United States and European countries to replace its prosecutor general because he was too easy on corruption—not because he was making problems for Hunter Biden. How the president arrived at his topsy-turvy understanding of these events in unknown.

“I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out. I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor so good luck with everything.” Just a reminder: Rudy Giuliani is the president’s personal lawyer. He is not an employee of the Justice Department, the State Department, or any government at all.

There are those who claim that there’s no quid pro quo in the memo. But there is one passage in which Zelensky mentions military aid and Trump has an—er—unconventional response.

Zelensky: …We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps [–] specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins [anti-tank missiles] 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 say 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.

Zelensky responded by suggesting a meeting between the two presidents, after which President Trump brought up his Biden idea.

As damning as this document is, it’s useful to remember that this isn’t a verbatim recitation of what was said. It’s not the kind of “transcript” stenographers take in court. Instead, it’s a memo written about the phone call based on contemporaneous notes takes by one or more staffers, which is then filtered through National Security Council and other White House staff to remove anything they don’t want in the record, before being sent to file.

If this is the document they released to the public, what did they filter out?

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Javelin as an anti-aircraft missile. The text has been corrected to indicate that the Javelin is an anti-tank missile.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.