Events are moving so quickly in the Ukraine controversy that news appears to break every hour. First, Michael Isikoff reported that the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee was opening “its own probe of Ukraine” and hoped to interview the whistleblower as early as Friday. Next, the Washington Post reported that Nancy Pelosi is expected to announce the opening of an impeachment inquiry later this afternoon. But the most interesting recent development was Donald Trump’s pledge this afternoon to release the un-redacted, unclassified transcript of his call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky:
….You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call. No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2019
As you can see from the second tweet in the series, Trump is providing a summary that is not inconsistent with the original, troubling Wall Street Journal report on the call. The Journal reported that Trump asked “about eight times” for Ukraine to work with Rudy Giuliani to investigate Hunter Biden. It also said that its source “didn’t believe Mr. Trump offered the Ukrainian president any quid pro quo for his cooperation on any investigation.”
Trump’s tweets strongly imply that he’s going to circle his wagons around the lack of an express proposed deal in the call. Obviously, the presence of an express deal would represent the peak version of the scandal. To explicitly place an ally under military duress for the sake of coercing an investigation of a domestic political rival would be one of the most brazen abuses of presidential power in American history.
But what if the transcript does reveal multiple requests for Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden even without an express quid pro quo? And what if he did actually request that Ukraine work with Giuliani, Trump’s own personal attorney? Trump still has no real defense to this conduct. It’s improper for a president to ask an ally to initiate an investigation of a domestic political rival. That impropriety is compounded when the president requests that the ally work with the president’s personal attorney. It is made obviously even worse when the request is made against the backdrop of withheld, much-needed military aid. The implied connection becomes hard to miss.
And no, it is no defense for Trump to claim that Biden engaged in similar conduct. He did not. While there was an obvious conflict of interest for Biden to serve as the messenger for the Obama administration’s demand that Ukraine take action against its state prosecutor as a condition of receiving American loan guarantees, the administration’s position was shared by our EU allies. The desire was to find a prosecutor who was more aggressive in rooting out corruption. It is not a defense of Hunter Biden’s business activities to say that the two situations are very different.
There is of course a scenario where the transcript release plays to Trump’s advantage, even if its contents are still problematic. If the transcript is substantially different from the Wall Street Journal report — even if it includes some mention of Biden — it will give multiple Republicans room to once again decry (with justification!) anonymous leaks and “fake news.” But it’s still the case that any presidential request for Ukraine to investigate Biden is improper. If Trump indeed made such a request, the remaining facts will tell us much about the severity of his abuse of power, not whether the abuse exists.