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The 'quid pro quo' in the Trump/Zelensky call transcript

Transcript of the July 25, 2019 phone call

Caveat within the transcript itself: "The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place. A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation."

Gordon Sondland, testifying publicly on Nov. 20, said:

...members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo?' With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.

In late September, a week after news broke that a whistleblower had reported an inappropriate call President Trump had with Ukraine's President Zelensky, Trump attempted to defend himself by releasing what he referred to as a "transcript" of the call.

The document itself says it is "not a verbatim transcript."

Yet, beginning on Oct. 2, Trump has repeatedly referred to the document as an "exact" transcript of the conversation, Philip Bump explained in the Washington Post.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was on the call, subsequently testified that he remembers elements of the call that are not included in the transcript.

There is a quid pro quo in the interaction even if the words "quid pro quo" are not present. Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post:

When Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein invited a woman actor to his hotel room, the conversation (according to tape) went like this:

“Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes,” he warned her. He said he was a “famous guy,” and if she left, she should “never call me again.”

One thing he didn’t say was, “This is a quid pro quo in which you’ll sleep with me or lose your career.”

Sentient humans could read between the lines.

She went on:

We have read Trump instructing Zelensky, 'I would like you to do us a favor.' We have read him saying, 'The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.' We’ve combed through it all.

One thing Trump did not say is, 'This is a quid pro quo in which you’ll give me dirt on Joe Biden; and, in exchange, I’ll stop withholding your aid.' ... He didn’t say, 'Let's move onto the illegal part of the conversation now.' He certainly didn’t say, 'Real quick, let me abuse my power.'

But when we talk about what Trump said on that phone call, we’re really talking about what powerful people never need to say at all.

Similarly, Lt. Col. Vindman also recognized it as a demand.

Trump's refrain, "Read the transcript," as if the transcript exonerates him, "is not an invitation for truth-seeking," Hesse said, but rather "a disingenuous feint provided by a powerful man who, like all people in power, knows that his wishes will be treated as commands, and his subtexts will be treated as boldface type." We need to acknowledge what we see in the interaction. As Hesse put it: "It’s such a bizarre folly to pretend we don’t understand what people are saying. It’s such a maddening exercise, to point at a collection of words and insist that the true meaning is in the white space between them. It makes you feel crazy."

Ukraine knew what Trump wanted (an investigation of the Bidens) as early as May.

Others have tried to argue that there was no quid pro quo in the request to investigate the Bidens because Ukraine didn't know the money was being withheld. Ukraine would certainly have known that they had not yet received money, however. And, while Ukraine may not have known at the time of the July 25 call that the money was deliberately held back pending their explicit compliance with launching an investigation of the Bidens, they knew later, in August.

Sondland's public testimony on Nov. 20 "disrupts — actually, destroys — the defenses of both the White House and congressional Republicans," Chris Cillizza explained for CNN, "who have insisted that the Ukrainians had no clue that there were any preconditions to getting what they wanted most — a meeting between Zelensky and Trump and then, later, the release of the nearly $400 million in military aid from the US to Ukraine." Sondland testified: "I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to 'run a fully transparent investigation' and 'turn over every stone' were necessary in his call with President Trump."

Sondland also testified that Zelensky was supposed "to announce the investigations. He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it." A request from Trump which, as Chris Cillizza pointed out in another article, is more consistent with Trump attempting to generate a PR disaster for his political rival Joe Biden in the 2020 election campaign rather than having a genuine interest in identifying and stopping corruption in Ukraine.

Others have tried to argue that there was no quid pro quo because Ukraine eventually got the money. This is a bad argument. Giving the money was the quid in exchange for which they requested a quo. And even if the entire deal fell apart, attempted crimes are still crimes.

Downplaying an incomplete crime is called the "Sideshow Bob" defense, after a Simpsons character who complained in a 1994 episode, "Convicted of a crime I didn’t even commit. Hah! Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?"

In Trump's case, the crime might even have been completed, since the goal was to temporarily withhold aid to prompt compliance from Ukraine; Trump may not have aspired for the hold to be permanent. Furthermore, releasing the aid may not have been Trump's decision. "It wasn’t Donald Trump who released the promised military aid to Ukraine," Mary Papenfuss wrote; it was federal lawyers who declared it was illegal for the White House Office of Management and Budget to block the aid. Because of this decision, a third of the money was quickly released, and, several days later, Trump claimed he had voluntarily chosen to release it.

Others (notably, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney) have tried to argue that such quid pro quos are done all the time and should not be a basis for impeachment. Ultimately, whether the offense is impeachable is up to Congress to decide (as per Article II, Section IV of the Constitution). A Vox/PerryUndem/Ipsos poll conducted November 5-6, 2019 found a partisan split about whether this quid pro quo is tolerable. A clear majority of Americans from both major political parties believe that “abusing the powers of office for political advantage” or “for personal enrichment” is a “high crime or misdemeanor.” (93% Democrats and 67% of Republicans have this assessment of “political advantage.” 95% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans have this assessment of “personal enrichment.”) However, when the question is narrowed to ask about “a president of the United States pressuring another country to investigate a political rival,” the Republicans drop out. (77% of Democrats believe this is a “high crime or misdemeanor,” but only 22% of Republicans make the same assertion.) Furthermore, Republicans are more likely to excuse this behavior as “something presidents do all the time.” (28% of Democrats say so; 65% of Republicans say so.) In other words, they don't think it's an abuse of presidential powers.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said on Nov. 17 that the quid pro quo situation could have been better "taken care of this behind the scenes," since "most people wanted to support Ukraine. We were trying to convince President Trump." He said it was unfortunate that a whistleblower "exposed things that didn’t need to be exposed." (Apparently, the thing that didn't need to be exposed was the president's ignorant machinations.)

Johnson said he would provide a written statement.


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