This past weekend, Donald Trump brought up a phone meeting he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April – three months before the Republican’s controversial “I would like you to do us a favor, though” conversation. Trump said he expected to release this second call summary on Tuesday, adding that in his mind, because this was his first call with Zelensky, it was more “important” than the second.
The American president shared the call summary with some Republican lawmakers yesterday, and this morning, just as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s public hearing was poised to get underway, the White House released the document to the public.
The White House released a record of President Donald Trump’s first phone conversation his Ukrainian counterpart on Friday, a call in which the two chat amicably and there’s no mention of the Bidens or the 2016 election.
The record of the April call was released at 9 a.m., just as day 2 of the House’s public impeachment hearings stemming from Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was set to begin.
For reasons that weren’t altogether clear, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, read the call summary out loud as this morning’s impeachment hearing got underway.
At first blush, the document is not especially provocative. It was a 16-minute conversation, featuring an exchange of pleasantries. Trump, being Trump, made note of how impressed he is with his own accomplishments, highlighted his previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant, congratulated the new Ukrainian president on his election victory, and assured Zelensky, “[W]e’re with you all the way.”
The same call summary made clear that Zelensky was eager to get on Trump’s good side – he made more than one reference to seeing Trump as a political model to follow – and repeatedly emphasized how much he would appreciate the American president visiting Kyiv around the time of his inauguration.
For some Republicans, these materials will probably be seen as exculpatory, since the document – which is not a word-for-word transcript of the call – does not show Trump threatening, leveraging, or extorting his Ukrainian counterpart.
But it’s not nearly that simple.
As we discussed the other day, one innocuous call doesn’t negate the more scandalous phone meeting that occurred a few months later. Imagine a bank robber who gets caught breaking into a vault, who later tells the police, “But what about the time I went to the bank a few months earlier and didn’t steal anything? Isn’t that important, too?”
The answer is no, actually, it isn’t.
What’s more, let’s not forget what happened in the aftermath of the April conversation. Zelensky was desperate for a show of solidarity with his American allies at his inauguration, but Trump (a) refused to go; (b) stopped Vice President Mike Pence from going; and (c) dispatched Energy Secretary Rick Perry, whose trip created the basis for an apparent side scandal.
But perhaps most important of all is the dramatic shift in Trump’s posture between April and September. In April, he wanted Zelensky to know the United States was with the new Ukrainian administration “all the way,” while in September, Trump had an extortion scheme in mind, and he expected Zelensky to go along.
The question, of course, is what prompted Trump’s radical change in posture. Did Trump’s conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, following the April phone meeting with Zelensky, perhaps force a change in perspective?
Update: In the original White House readout of this call, we were told Trump told Zelensky about the need to “root out corruption” in Ukraine. Now that we’ve seen the call summary, it appears Trump made literally no reference to corruption.