WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asked the president of Ukraine to do him a “favor” and investigate the origins of the Russia probe as well as former vice president Joe Biden, according to a transcript of the July 25 call.
The ask, which came during a 30-minute phone call monitored by other White House officials, came immediately after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Trump for the United States’ defense support and said his country was “almost ready” to buy more US military technology.
Trump then asked Zelensky to do a “favor” and investigate the “whole situation in Ukraine.” Trump made vague references to CrowdStrike, the company hired to investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election, and former special counsel Robert Mueller.
When Zelensky agreed, Trump then brought up what he referred to as the “other thing,” saying that it “would be great” if Zelensky could also look into unsubstantiated allegations against Biden — that he used his position to influence an investigation in Ukraine into his son Hunter.
“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,” Trump said on the call, appearing to refer to US Attorney General Bill Barr. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
The White House released the transcript on Wednesday morning. The document is styled as a transcript of the call, but includes a warning at the bottom of the first page that it isn't a "verbatim transcript of a discussion." The text was written by staff "assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place." Asked if there was an audio recording of the call, a Justice Department official said to ask the White House.
Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have argued that Biden tried to use his influence as vice president to sideline an investigation into a Ukrainian company where his son served as a board member, but they have offered no evidence to back up the claim.
Trump has downplayed the significance of his July call with Zelensky and denied there was any quid pro quo. The release of the transcript and explicit references to Biden are unlikely to quiet the political firestorm, however. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that Democrats would officially launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump; the Ukraine call — and how the administration handled a whistleblower complaint about it — was front and center.
A senior Justice Department official said that the Criminal Division explored whether the July call merited opening a criminal investigation into potential campaign finance violations by the president. The department concluded it did not — that the information discussed on the call didn’t amount to a “thing of value” that could be quantified, which is what the campaign finance laws require.
Here are five key takeaways from the transcript:
Trump directly asked another foreign leader to investigate a political rival
Trump repeatedly used Biden’s name and directly asked Zelensky to investigate him. Although Trump told Zelensky that he would have Attorney General Bill Barr call the Ukrainian leader, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement that Barr didn’t learn about the call until several weeks later, that Trump had never spoken with Barr about investigating Biden or his son, and that Barr has not communicated with Ukrainian officials about Biden or “any other subject.”
Barr did not recuse from the matter — senior DOJ officials stressed on Wednesday that the attorney general was not involved in analyzing whether to open a criminal investigation into the allegations against Trump. The head of the Criminal Division, Brian Benczkowski, made the final call, although Barr has authority over all investigations as the head of the department absent a recusal.
Pelosi said in a statement that the Justice Department had been "complicit in the President’s lawlessness."
Trump also asked the Ukrainian president to help attack the Mueller investigation
The president’s first ask of Zelensky wasn’t about Biden — it was about the Mueller investigation, which by July had already ended. Trump said he wanted to have Barr call Zelensky or his people, adding, “I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
“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,” Trump said on the call.
Trump then referred to Mueller’s public congressional testimony the day before.
“As you saw yesterday, the whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
Trump and congressional Republicans have clamored for more information about the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, claiming it was rooted in political bias. Kupec said in a statement Wednesday that US Attorney John Durham is leading a DOJ team that "is separately exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election."
Trump repeatedly talked about involving his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani
Zelensky was the first one to bring up Giuliani, who is Trump’s personal attorney and is not a government official. The Ukrainian leader told Trump that one of his assistants had spoken with Giuliani “just recently” and that he hoped he’d be able to meet Giuliani on a future visit.
“I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us,” Zelensky said.
Trump told Zelensky that he wanted Giuliani and Barr to speak with Zelensky.
“Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy,” Trump said. “If you could speak to him that would be great.”
Zelensky name-dropped Trump’s property
Near the end of the call, Zelensky mentioned that the last time he visited New York — he didn’t say when — he stayed at Trump Tower. Trump is facing multiple lawsuits that accuse him of violating anti-corruption provisions of the US Constitution by continuing to keep his interests in his businesses, even as foreign officials have reportedly said that they’ve patronized those businesses in order to curry favor with the president.
The two presidents repeatedly talked business as Trump asked Zelensky to do him favors
Trump’s first request, about the Russia investigation, came on the heels of Zelensky thanking Trump for the United States’ enforcement of sanctions against Russia and the likelihood that Ukraine would buy more US military technology.
Later in the call, Zelensky also talked about cooperating with the United States on “energy independence.”
“We are buying American oil but I am very hopeful for a future meeting. We will have more time and more opportunities to discuss these opportunities and get to know each other better,” Zelensky told Trump.
Zelensky also frequently called Trump a “great teacher” and parroted his rhetoric during the call. Zelensky said that he had learned a lot from Trump. “We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example for our elections,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky then used a favorite phrase of Trump’s.
“We are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,” Zelensky said. “We brought in many many new people. Not the old politicians, not the typical politicians, because we want to have a new format and a new type of government. You are a great teacher for us and in that.”
Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky came under scrutiny after news broke earlier this month of an intelligence community whistleblower complaint that reportedly involved Ukraine and a phone call Trump had with a foreign leader where the president made a “promise,” according to the Washington Post.
The text of the whistleblower complaint hasn’t been released yet, but in the wake of reports about the existence of the complaint and about the Zelensky call, Trump admitted that he had delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine before the July conversation. But he denied that it had anything to do with Biden, one of his main Democratic opponents, or that there was any quid pro quo involved. There was no discussion of the withholding of military aid on the call.
The reports that Trump asked a foreign government to dig up dirt that could be damaging to Biden ahead of the 2020 election had raised alarms in Congress and strengthened calls for impeachment among Democrats, culminating in Pelosi announcing Tuesday that the House was launching a formal impeachment investigation. Pelosi focused in particular on the Trump administration's refusal to turn over the whistleblower complaint in making the announcement.
The Justice Department on Wednesday released a legal opinion prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel defending the decision not to turn over the whistleblower's complaint to Congress. Although the inspector general for the intelligence community concluded it was a "credible" complaint and a matter of "urgent concern" — a specific legal term that triggers the congressional disclosure requirement — the Justice Department disagreed. The complaint involved Trump, who was not an official who fell under the authority of the director of national intelligence, and the substance of the call did not involve intelligence activities, they concluded.
The White House is in the process of declassifying the whistleblower's complaint for public release, however, according to a senior Justice Department official. The whistleblower has also asked for guidance from the director of national intelligence about testifying before members of Congress.
The Justice Department's legal opinion included new details about the as-yet-unidentified whistleblower and the events that followed after the complaint was first made to the inspector general. The whistleblower made the complaint on Aug. 12 after hearing about Trump's call with Zelensky from "White House officials" — the whistleblower did not have firsthand knowledge of the call. The whistleblower said based on the information they received, they believed Trump had tried to pressure a foreign leader to take action to help Trump's 2020 campaign.
The legal opinion noted that the inspector general found "some indicia of an arguable political bias" by the whistleblower, but still concluded that the allegations "appeared credible." The inspector general determined the complaint involved a matter of "urgent concern" because it could be evidence of campaign finance violations, and that there could be serious national security or intelligence risks if a senior US official was trying to get a foreign government to interfere in a US election.
Steven Engel, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote that the inspector general's reporting responsibilities didn't cover officials outside of the intelligence community, including the president, and that the call with Zelensky didn't involve an intelligence operation or other activity involving intelligence-collection.
"Although the DNI and the intelligence community collect intelligence against foreign threats, the ICIG's responsibility is to watch the watchers in the performance of their duties, not to investigate and review matters relating to foreign intelligence threats themselves," Engel wrote.
A criminal referral did go to the Justice Department, though, in light of the allegations of a potential campaign finance violation. A senior Justice Department official said that career prosecutors from the Public Integrity Section were "looped in" and were part of the analysis. The official said the attorneys looking into the complaint relied on the "best evidence" available, which was the transcript of the call. Asked if they interviewed anyone who was in the room, the official would only repeat that they relied on the transcript as the "best evidence" and that they determined it was "reliable."
Barr was not involved in the analysis of whether to open a criminal investigation or the development of the Office of Legal Counsel opinion, according to senior DOJ officials.
Another senior DOJ official said that the fact that the complaint involved a sitting president was not a factor in deciding whether to open a preliminary investigation into campaign finance violations — prosecutors just looked at whether the facts available would support it, based on what's required to prove a campaign finance case. Under current Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Asked if the Justice Department was investigating Biden or the whistleblower, the senior DOJ officials said the department does not discuss the existence, or not, of a particular investigation.