The Transcript: Neither a 'Quid Pro Quo' Smoking Gun, Nor an Exoneration

Posted: Sep 25, 2019 12:50 PM

The White House-provided transcript of President Trump's now-infamous phone call with the leader of Ukraine has been published, prompting a deluge of parsing and narrative-crafting.  Having read it twice, here are my overall takeaways -- with the important caveat that I still would like to see and review the full whistleblower complaint, something the White House agreed to release last night:

(1) President Trump unmistakably asked the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, which is glaringly inappropriate.  Here is the extent of that exchange: 

"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."

We'd been told that Trump invoked Biden "about eight times."  But I count three references here, all in a fleeting portion of the wider conversation.  As I've written previously, I believe Biden must answer serious questions about conflicts of interest, about his son pulling an eye-popping salary from a foreign company despite possessing zero relevant experience or knowledge in the field, and about his false assertion that he never spoke about foreign business dealings with his son (I also wrote that I think the 'Biden corruption' angle here has been overblown by many GOP partisans, based on currently-available evidence).  Still, none of those issues and concerns justify what Trump did.  A sitting president leaning on a foreign head of state to dig into his own domestic political rival -- who happens to be leading him consistently in head-to-head polling -- is unethical, self-interested and wrong.  It's reckless at best, corrupt at worst.  Also, Trump is way off base when he refers to the fired Ukrainian prosecutor as "very good."  In fact, the man was basically globally understood to be deeply corrupt, which is why Biden's stance on his termination mirrored the Obama administration's, the European Union's, the IMF's, etc.  

(2) There was no explicit quid pro quo request from Trump to Ukraine's president.  At no point was a clear suggestion made that absent a Biden probe in Ukraine, US aid would be withheld (though I believe we must still get to the bottom of why Trump personally held up Congressionally-approved funds for a period of time, eventually sending the money to Kiev after this phone call).  There were, however, references to America's generosity toward Ukraine, compared to other European nations:

I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are...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.

This can be read several ways.  There's the extortion interpretation, of course: It'd be a shame if the US stopped being so 'very very good' to you, wouldn't it?  By the way, I need some favors.  But even minus a clear and specific demand, any request for help from a US president can reasonably be received by a foreign leader as a very serious 'ask,' with potential unspoken consequences if not followed through upon.  That's why Trump asking for a personal political favor here was wrong.  Nevertheless, there's also the non-incriminating angle of Trump dumping on European leaders he doesn't like, a favorite pastime of his, and insisting that other nations pull their financial weight (another familiar Trump refrain and point of emphasis).  As for the mention of reciprocity, that brings me to my next point...

(3) The president's primary political concern vis-a-vis Ukraine appears to be Kiev's role in helping Hillary Clinton in 2016.  This is a real issue, and it's understandable that any president -- especially a guy like Trump -- might harp on it under these circumstances:  

Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found.

In the transcript, Trump brings up Robert Mueller and, apparently, Hillary Clinton's email server.  My suspicion is that Ukraine's 2016 meddling is what Trump is referring to in his 'reciprocity' dig, as well as in his requests that Ukrainian officials help the Attorney General (he may have meant the AG-authorized Durham investigation on various 2016 machinations).  It almost reads like Trump's myopic brain worm crawls from mentioning the "whole [2016] situation with Ukraine" to raising another perceived grievance over Ukrainian officials potentially putting their thumb on the scale in a manner that could hurt Trump electorally.  

It's impossible to get into the president's mind, obviously, but my reading of this transcript once again reinforces my belief that rather than being calculatingly corrupt, Trump's defective moral compass often steers him toward any statement or action that he believes would be helpful to him in the moment -- which he conflates with the national interest.  What's good for me is good for America, so this is fine.  It's part of the reason I think Trump genuinely believes there's nothing problematic in this transcript, and why so many of his reflexive defenders are playing along.  This episode once again reflects poorly on Trump's judgment, ethics and fitness, in my mind, but I'm not convinced it rises to the level of being conduct for which this duly-elected president should be removed from office.  And yes, I've expressed similar sentiments before.

I'll leave you with divergent perspectives from other right-leaning journalists: Philip Klein arguing that the transcript is damning, and Kimberly Strassel (who also flags official concerns about possible partisan bias on the part of the still-anonymous whistleblower) contending the opposite.  Finally, this has become a somewhat familiar feeling in recent years: