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Democrats Say Trump’s Ukraine Call Was “Far More Damning” Than They Expected

Trump’s explicit request that the Ukrainian president help dig up dirt on Joe Biden is “exactly the crime that we were concerned about,” one House Democratic leader said.

Last updated on September 25, 2019, at 1:39 p.m. ET

Posted on September 25, 2019, at 1:23 p.m. ET

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reads like a “classic mafia-like shakedown,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

The record of the call was, he said, “far more damning than I and others had imagined.”

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries called the conversation “lawless,” “unpatriotic,” “an abuse of power,” and said it “undermines the electoral process and our democracy.” Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark said it was “exactly the crime that we were concerned about, blurring those lines between the political, our national security, and the official role of the president of the United States.”

The release of the transcript (which was not verbatim) comes one day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would be entering a formal impeachment inquiry, asking six committees with jurisdiction to investigate the president under that umbrella.

After months of resistance, Pelosi’s decision to get on board the impeachment train was spurred by a series of reports that Trump withheld aid from Ukraine and pressured its president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden’s family ahead of the 2020 election.

Trump has largely admitted to doing so, though he has denied withholding funds from the country is connected to the investigation. On Wednesday morning, the White House released the record of the call, which Trump had promised would make it clear he did nothing wrong.

It did not.

According to the document, Trump explicitly asked Zelensky to “do [him] a favor” and investigate “the whole situation in Ukraine,” then made vague references to former Special Counsel Robert Mueller and CrowdStrike, the company hired to investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.

On the call, Trump also said it “would be great” if Ukraine could look into former vice president Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who had business in the country.

“Shocking,” Rep. Jim Himes said in a text message to BuzzFeed News after reading the document.

“This goes beyond poor judgment or an ethical lapse on the President’s part,” he added later on Twitter. “This is premeditated, criminal behavior. It appears in the conversation after a discussion of military aid, and reeks of a proposed quid pro quo.”

Republicans pushed back on the significance of the call, with many saying that the conversation did not amount to quid pro quo (Sen. Lindsey Graham memorably tweeted that it was a "nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.")

Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said that while most people would not handle the conversation that way, it fits with Trump's free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness style of speaking. "The way that he communicates is just that loose. When I read that transcript I thought, yup, that looks like a typical conversation,” said Lankford. “That is who he is."

Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, went further in a tweet — daring Democrats to take a vote on their impeachment investigation in the wake of the call.

Those who believe that the transcript is a “Smoking Gun” for impeachment, do something about it - have the courage of your convictions. The House of Reps should take a vote to formally open an impeachment inquiry. Let the American people see where Members of Congress stand!

Ahead of its release, many Democrats were asked whether anything in the transcript could change their minds about impeachment. In an interview with BuzzFeed News before the call became public Wednesday, Rep. Harley Rouda said nothing in the transcript could change his mind. (Rouda was one of the first freshman “frontliners” — Democrats the party sees as most vulnerable in 2020 — to call for impeachment.)

“No, because we have evidence of corruption by the president, that the president admitted to trying to influence a foreign government for the purposes of influencing the potential 2020 election, looking for dirt on his number one opponent based on polling right now,” Rouda said. “We don’t need quid pro quo.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal shot down questions about the transcript altogether. “It was never about the transcript. I think we need to get off the transcript," she said, pointing to public statements Trump had already made as evidence enough.

Ultimately, the substance of the call was a gift for Democrats hoping to move forward with impeachment.

“The transcript is hard evidence that President Trump is running our government like a criminal enterprise,” Sen. Martin Heinrich said in a statement, adding that “moving forward with impeachment proceedings is not only the right thing to do … it is our constitutional duty.” Heinrich sits on the Intelligence Committee, which will meet with the Director of National Intelligence and the intelligence community inspector general on Thursday.

In a joint statement, Schiff, Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel said the call was an “unambiguous, damning, and shocking abuse of the Office of the Presidency.” The four committee chairs are leading the House’s impeachment investigation alongside Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters and Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal.

“The record of the call released by the White House confirms our worst fears: that the President abused his office by directly and repeatedly asking a foreign country to investigate his political rival and open investigations meant to help the President politically,” their statement said. “Not once, not twice, but more than half a dozen times during one telephone call. This was a shakedown.”

Pelosi released a statement at noon, almost two hours on the dot after the call was made public.

“The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security. The President has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad,” she said in the release. “I respect the responsibility of the President to engage with foreign leaders as part of his job. It is not part of his job to use taxpayer money to shake down other countries for the benefit of his campaign.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the House will vote on a resolution condemning Trump over the initial whistleblower complaint about Trump’s call with Ukraine. The resolution is non-binding but marks the first floor vote related to the still-unfolding ordeal.

Whether impeachment itself will get a vote on the House floor remains unclear. Several Democratic members told BuzzFeed News Wednesday that it depends on what the committees handling the inquiry find, but the caucus is largely hopeful that it will happen.

“I think there’s a good shot at it,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, who announced his support for impeachment along with more than a dozen other Democrats Tuesday.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney said leadership has not yet indicated where they stand on a floor vote, but told BuzzFeed News, “Personally I think it will get to the floor for the vote. I really do.”

Kadia Goba and Paul McLeod contributed reporting to this story.

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