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The Trump–Ukraine Transcript Contains Evidence of a Quid Pro Quo

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Louisiana from the White House in Washington, D.C., May 14, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

I haven’t been a litigator since 2015. I haven’t conducted a proper cross-examination since 2014. But if I couldn’t walk a witness, judge, and jury through the transcript of Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and demonstrate that a quid pro quo was more likely than not, then I should just hang up my suit and retire in disgrace. Far from being “scattershot” — as my esteemed colleague Kyle Smith declares — the actual sequence is extremely tight, and the asks are very clear.

Indeed, as I also laid out today in Time and on Twitter, the sequence unfolds quite literally in consecutive paragraphs.

First, right near the beginning of the call, President Trump signals his displeasure with Ukraine. He notes that while the United States has been “very good” to Ukraine, he “wouldn’t say” that Ukraine has been “reciprocal” to the United States. There’s nothing subtle about this statement. It’s plain that Trump wants something from Ukraine.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Nations strike deals all the time. It’s the nature of the proposed deal that’s potentially problematic, not whether two leaders bargain.

In the next paragraph, Zelensky responds with the key ask. He wants more Javelin missiles, an indispensable weapon system in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. It’s an anti-tank missile that helps address the yawning power imbalance between the two countries. It doesn’t level the playing field, but it does help deter Russian aggression by raising the possibility of substantial armor losses on the battlefield.

And what is Trump’s response? The next words out of his mouth are, “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.” He raises Crowdstrike, the firm the DNC used to investigate the Russian election hacks. From context, it seems as if Trump is asking for additional assistance in investigating the 2016 election-interference scandals.

Given the multiple layers of Ukrainian–American contact during the 2016 campaign cycle, a request for Ukrainian assistance in lawful American investigations of foreign interference is entirely proper. If that’s where the transcript ended, there would be no problems, and it’s entirely proper for Zelensky to respond “yes” and state that the matter was “very important to him.”

But then, in the following paragraph, Trump continues his ask. He says he is going to ask Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, to call Zelensky, and he asks Zelensky to take the call. Then, Trump says this: “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.” He continues, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”

And what is Zelenksy’s response? He pledges that the new Ukrainian prosecutor will be “100 percent” his person and that “he or she will look into the situation.”

I highlight the quid pro quo aspect of the transcript because the other published report — that Trump asked that Ukraine work with Giuliani to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden — is clearly and unequivocally established. The transcript provides proof that Trump made a completely improper request that the president of Ukraine work with Trump’s personal counsel to investigate a political rival. It provides strong evidence that this took place in the context of a quid pro quo for desperately needed military aid.

Trump’s comments to Zelensky should not be considered an offhand remark or word salad that’s merely “Trump being Trump.” Recall that Giuliani has been working on his Ukraine project for months. He has bragged that his efforts should be “very, very helpful to my client.” Trump has wanted to push Biden’s Ukrainian conflicts of interest into the center of the national debate.

More investigation is necessary. Congress needs to understand the full context of Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, it needs to hear the whistleblower’s complaint (though it appears that the whistleblower may have been mainly complaining about the call that we’ve now read), and it needs to determine what, if anything, Ukraine did in response to Trump’s requests. It also needs a full accounting of Giuliani’s odd actions on behalf of his client.

I’m honestly puzzled that Trump’s defenders online are claiming any kind of vindication over the contents of this transcript. It admits one profound abuse of power, and it implies another, even worse, violation of the public trust.

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