President Trump told his Ukrainian counterpart to work with the U.S. attorney general to investigate the conduct of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and offered to meet with the foreign leader at the White House after he promised to conduct such an inquiry, according to a newly-released transcript of the call.
Those statements and others in a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were so concerning that the intelligence community inspector general thought them a possible violation of campaign finance law. In late August, intelligence officials referred the matter to the Justice Department as a possible crime, but prosecutors concluded last week that the conduct was not criminal, according to senior Justice Department officials.
The document released Wednesday, in keeping with White House practice, is a memorandum of a telephone conversation and is not a verbatim account. A cautionary note on the memo of the call warns that the text reflects the notes and memories of officials in the Situation Room and that a number of factors “can affect the accuracy of the record.”
The administration’s disclosures underscore how the president’s phone call has consumed the federal government in recent days, and how the White House is now scrambling to defuse the situation by offering more details of what the president said to Zelensky.
While the Justice Department has concluded the call did not violate campaign finance law, a growing number of Democrats are pushing for impeachment, saying the president’s conduct — seeking a foreign country’s aid in discrediting a political rival — betrayed his oath of office and endangered national security.
White House officials said the transcript does not show the president seeking an investigation of Biden’s son in exchange for providing aid to Ukraine, and that accusations the president offered a quid pro quo to kneecap a political rival are unfounded. When the president reminds Zelensky of how the U.S. helps Ukraine, Zelensky responds that he appreciates the tough sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia.
The administration also detailed behind-the-scenes discussions about how to handle the accusations and revealed that, as public reports emerged about the call and pressure mounted to impeach the president, prosecutors quietly considered whether they should again investigate whether Trump committed a crime. They declined to do so.
The call begins with Trump congratulating Zelensky on his election victory, but quickly devolves into the president pressing for an investigation of his political rivals and endorsing an apparent conspiracy theory. He seems to suggest Hillary Clinton’s private email server is in Ukraine and asserts that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation started with that country.
Speaking a day after Mueller had testified to Congress about his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump derides the special counsel for what he called “an incompetent performance,” and asks for Ukraine’s help investigating the DNC server issue.
Trump repeatedly says Zelensky should work with Attorney General William P. Barr or his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Giuliani had separately pressed Ukrainian officials for a Biden inquiry.
“I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it,” Trump says, according to the transcript.
He adds later: “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.”
Zelensky replied that “my candidate” for the prosecutor job “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”
At the outset of the call, Trump also asks for Ukraine’s help in finding the location of the Democratic National Committee server that U.S. officials say was hacked by Russian intelligence in the run-up to the 2016 election.
“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump says according to the transcript. “I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
Late in the conversation, after Zelensky said a prosecutor will “look into the situation” and noted he stayed at Trump Tower on his last visit to New York City, Trump invites him for a White House meeting — something the Ukrainian leader had wanted.
“Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call,” Trump says, according to the transcript.
Senior Justice Department officials said the director of national intelligence referred the concerns about the call to the Justice Department, after the intelligence community inspector general found that it was a possible violation of campaign finance laws that ban people from soliciting contributions from foreign sources. The inspector general later referred the matter to the FBI.
Career prosecutors and officials in the Justice Department’s criminal division then reviewed the transcript of the call, which they obtained voluntarily from the White House, and determined the facts “could not make out and cannot make out” the appropriate basis for an investigation, a senior Justice Department official said. As part of their reasoning, Justice Department lawyers determined that help with a government investigation could not be considered “a thing of value” under the law.
Their primary source for reaching that conclusion was the transcript, according to senior Justice officials. While prosecutors did gather information about how the White House memorializes presidential calls with foreign heads of state, they did not interview other White House officials who participated in the call. Justice Department officials still do not know who the whistleblower is.
In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said that the Justice Department’s criminal division “reviewed the official record of the call and determined, based on the facts and applicable law, that there was no campaign finance violation and that no further action was warranted.”
“All relevant components of the Department agreed with this legal conclusion, and the Department has concluded the matter,” Kupec said.
Kupec also said that Trump had never spoken with Barr “about having Ukraine investigate anything related to former Vice President Biden or his son,” nor had Barr talked about “anything related to Ukraine” with Giuliani.
Trump ordered the transcripts released following days of mounting pressure from Congress, and a new groundswell of support among Democrats who favor impeachment. The president’s decision followed reports that he pressed Zelensky, to investigate Biden, considered a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in 2020, and his son, Hunter Biden.
Trump has acknowledged publicly that he asked Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son, who served on the board of a Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that came under scrutiny by authorities there. Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation. As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, who Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases. At the time, the Ukrainians’ investigation was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
The July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky has been the subject of intense scrutiny since The Washington Post reported last week that a whistleblower had come forward with concerns about the matter.
Initially, the parameters of that person’s allegations were mysterious. Though whistleblower complaints to the intelligence community inspector general are typically forwarded to the intelligence committees in Congress, the Justice Department determined this one should not be provided to lawmakers for their review.
Justice Department officials released their legal reasoning for doing so Wednesday, asserting that because the matter did not concern the “funding, administration, or operation of an intelligence community” matter — but instead was an allegation of possible criminal conduct by the commander in chief — it should be more properly handled as a criminal referral. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel also noted that the whistleblower’s information was secondhand, based on the concerns of unidentified White House officials familiar with what Trump said on the call.
Trump has denied doing anything improper, but lawmakers have raised concerns about his directive to freeze nearly $400 million in military assistance for Ukraine in the days leading up the phone call with Zelensky.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced she was launching a formal impeachment inquiry, saying “the actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
The rapidly-escalating confrontation between the White House and Congress comes just months after Trump freed himself from the cloud of investigation led by Mueller. Now, he is back in the crosshairs of a resurgent impeachment effort over a fresh allegation of election season misconduct.
“You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call,” Trump tweeted shortly before Pelosi’s announcement. “No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”
Lawmakers have demanded to see not just the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky, but the whistleblower complaint as well. Administration officials are discussing the possibility of providing that document to Congress in the coming days.