White House release of April call summary backfires on Trump

Updated

On Friday morning, just as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s public hearing, the White House tried to change the conversation a bit. Officials released a call summary Donald Trump 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.

By most measures, it was a rather anodyne 16-minute conversation, featuring an exchange of pleasantries. The summary, which was not a word-for-word transcript, showed Zelensky clearly trying to get on the American president’s good side, while Trump made note of how impressed he is with his own accomplishments, highlighted his previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant, and assured Zelensky, “[W]e’re with you all the way.”

For Republicans, the underlying point seemed to be that Trump, in April, didn’t try to extort his counterpart in Kyiv. That’s apparently true, though it doesn’t negate everything else we know about Trump’s extortion scheme. There were related questions about what, exactly, prompted the American leader’s change in posture between April and September.

But it wasn’t long before observers started taking note of what the call summary didn’t say. As Slate noted:

[T]he rough transcript conflicts with how the White House initially described the interaction in April. A readout that the administration provided to reporters mere hours after the call states:

“President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskyy to congratulate him on his victory in Ukraine’s April 21 election. The President wished him success and called the election an important moment in Ukraine’s history, noting the peaceful and democratic manner of the electoral process. President Trump underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – within its internationally recognized borders – and expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.”

Nowhere in the summary that the White House released on Friday does Trump bring up corruption, sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic reforms, or prosperity.

Soon after, the White House blamed the discrepancy on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom Trump World is eager to undermine, though the Washington Post reported that Vindman wasn’t responsible for the official readout we now know wasn’t true.

Just as importantly, the Post reported that the summary of the call that the White House released in April was drafted before the two leaders spoke, and it reflected what White House officials expected Trump to say.

And that, as it turns out, is a highly relevant detail.

Politico quoted a source saying, “On April 21, 2019, President Trump did not raise the issue of corruption during the call with President-elect Zelensky, despite the [National Security Council’s] recommendation that he do so and specific talking points included in briefing materials addressing that important topic.”

In other words, White House officials urged Trump ahead of the phone meeting to bring up concerns about Ukrainian corruption, but the Republican didn’t bother. That’s significant, of course, because for the last few months, the official line from the president and his allies was that he held up military aid for Ukraine out of a deep and abiding concern about corruption – a word Trump has occasionally used with obsessive repetition since the scandal came to the fore.

For those following this story, the idea that Trump actually cared about corruption in Ukraine has always been impossible to take seriously, but thanks to the document the White House shared with the public on Friday morning, it’s even more farcical now.