- President Donald Trump’s latest defence in the impeachment inquiry is to call on people to “read the transcript” of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
- But legal experts say the transcript, which is actually a summary of the call and not a verbatim record, is one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Trump.
- “This is not hearsay, these are his own words,” Asha Rangappa, a lawyer and former FBI special agent told Insider. “What we hear him doing is using congressionally authorised aid as personal leverage for an election benefit.”
- Rangappa said Trump is trying to “normalize the call” and his insistence that the conversation was “perfect” amounts to a “Jedi mind trick.”
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“READ THE TRANSCRIPT.”
Trump seemingly believes a memo the White House released on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is exonerating, but legal experts say it’s an extremely damning piece of evidence and that releasing it could be the biggest mistake the administration has made in the escalating scandal.
The document, which contrary to Trump’s characterization is not a verbatim transcript but a summary of the call, shows Trump urging a foreign leader to investigate a top political rival. This could constitute an abuse of power that undermines US national security.
The so-called transcript is also corroborated by other documents and witness testimony in the impeachment inquiry that Trump has sought to discredit. To put it another way, Trump handed investigators evidence that could potentially be instrumental in him becoming the third president to be impeached.
Asha Rangappa, a lawyer, former FBI special agent, and Yale lecturer, told Insider the White House summary on the call “is one of the most damning pieces of evidence we’ve received.”
“This is not hearsay, these are his own words,” Rangappa added. “And what we hear him doing is using congressionally authorised aid as personal leverage for an election benefit.”
‘I would like you to do us a favour though’: A breakdown of the July 25 call
- During the call, Trump pushed Zelensky to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden, over the latter’s work for a Ukrainian natural gas company.
- There’s no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity on the part of either Biden, and no obvious benefit to US national security or interests in having Ukraine open an investigation into the Bidens.
- The July 25 call is at the heart of a whistleblower complaint from a US intelligence official that accuses Trump or using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election, as Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
- The complaint is ultimately what sparked the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
- Shortly before the call with Zelensky, the president moved to withhold roughly $US400 million in military aid to Ukraine. This has raised questions as to whether there was a quid pro quo involving Trump’s urging of Zelensky to launch an inquiry into the Bidens, as well as a separate probe into a conspiracy theory linked to the 2016 election.
- The summary of the call released by the White House, which Trump wants everyone to carefully read, shows Zelensky thanking the US for its “great support in the area of defence.”
- “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps, specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defence purposes,” Zelensky went on to say.
- Trump immediately replied, “I would like you to do us a favour though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
- He then went on to push Zelensky to open an inquiry into the debunked conspiracy theory on the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe before urging his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the Bidens.
Barbara McQuade, law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former US attorney, said in a recent Washington Post op-ed what’s revealed in the White House summary on the call is “precisely a quid pro quo, or ‘this for that,’ and it alone is sufficient to form the basis of a charge of bribery, one of the specified grounds for impeachment in the Constitution.”
“Asking for a thing of value in exchange for performing an official act constitutes bribery,” McQuade wrote. “Legally speaking, a quid pro quo may be explicit or implicit, and it’s almost always expressed in vague and plausibly deniable terms.”
Multiple witnesses have provided testimony to House lawmakers that’s corroborated the existence of some form of a quid pro quo.
But McQuade also said that “no quid pro quo is necessary to demonstrate abuse of power” and that Trump “demanding an investigation into a US citizen for his own political advantage is an abuse of power on its own even without any conditions attached.”
“Trump’s request is akin to soliciting a thing of value from a foreign national in relation to an election, a crime under campaign finance laws,” McQuade added.
The whistleblower complaint as well as testimony from a top national security aide who was on the call suggests there was great alarm about the July 25 conversation and subsequent efforts to conceal the details of it – including moving the record of the call to a covert server.
Trump has dismissed the whistleblower complaint as hearsay, but the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire last month told congressional lawmakers that it’s “in alignment” with the summary of the call released by the White House. Testimony from witnesses to House lawmakers has also corroborated the details of the complaint.
In short, the White House summary or memo on the call only bolsters a mounting slew of damning evidence against Trump, which could cause confusion as to why the president insists people read it.
Trump’s ‘Jedi mind trick’ approach
Rangappa said Trump is trying to “normalize the call” with this strategy, and his insistence that the conversation was “perfect” amounts to a “Jedi mind trick.” In other words, Trump hopes that by repeatedly claiming the call was appropriate, people will become convinced of this.
This could also be an effort from Trump to draw attention away from the fact the call was just one piece of a broad effort from the president and his allies to urge Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“The more Trump draws attention to the summary, the more he takes the focus off all the other activity involved in this scheme,” McQuade said. “Because maybe if we keep looking at the summary, we won’t see how Trump saws our nation in half.”
Echoing these sentiments, Rangappa said: “While the call is damning, what adds to the fact this was an abuse of power were the actions that were taken before and after the call…This isn’t some kind of off-the-cuff Trump call where he’s saying whatever comes to mind. There has been some deliberation put into how to approach Zelensky.”
Rangappa added: “From a defence point of view, I think the biggest mistake [Trump] made was releasing this transcript.”
- Read more:
- House Democrats just gave Republicans everything they wanted in the impeachment inquiry
- Meet Alexander Vindman: The refugee, Army colonel, and Purple Heart recipient testifying about his concerns over Trump’s Ukraine dealings
- House passes resolution formalising impeachment inquiry into Trump as GOP continues to slam process
- Democrats just dropped a big hint that they have everything they need to impeach Trump
- Trump-world is bent on outing the whistleblower, but it’s already too late for it to matter
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