Trump walked fine line on quid-pro-quo threat during call with Ukraine leader

'The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine,' Trump says before seeking 'favor'

President Donald Trump let Ukraine’s new president know during a July 25 call that he sees the United States as Ukraine’s best ally in countering Russian aggression. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump let Ukraine’s new president know during a July 25 call that he sees the United States as Ukraine’s best ally in countering Russian aggression. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted September 25, 2019 at 12:00pm

ANALYSIS | With President Donald Trump, it’s not always what he says. Sometimes it’s what he almost says — like on a call with Ukraine’s new leader that is central to House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

So it’s notable that while he didn’t overtly threaten during a July call with Ukraine’s president-elect to shut off the spigot of U.S. military aid, Trump made sure to let Volodymyr Zelenskiy know all that Washington has done for his country.

A five-page record of a 30-minute July 25 telephone conversation released by the White House Wednesday morning does not show Trump making an overt quid-pro-quo offer to Zelenskiy. Such an offer — a threat, really — would have been centered on the Ukrainian leader, once in office, reopening his government’s investigation of a Ukrainian energy firm that employed Hunter Biden, in return for Trump allowing a $250 million military aid package to go through.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, told reporters Wednesday that the transcript showed “a classic mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader.”

During the call, according to the transcript, Trump did not specifically bring up that military aid package or any U.S. assistance that has gone to the Eastern European country or was being cobbled together.

Perhaps the U.S. president knew he didn’t have to.

[Transcript: Trump pressed Zelenskiy to coordinate Biden investigation with Barr]

Trump, however, let Zelenskiy know his view that the United States is Ukraine’s best ally against aggression from Russia, which in 2014 invaded and annexed its Crimea region.

During the call — as he does regularly in public — Trump sharply criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders for, in his view, doing too little to help Ukraine.

He told Zelenskiy that Washington has done “much more than the European countries are doing, and they should be helping you more than they are.”

“Germany does almost nothing for you. All they do is talk. And I think it’s something that you should really ask them about. When I was speaking to Angela Merkel she talks Ukraine, but she doesn’t do anything,” the American president said. “A lot of the European countries are the same way.

“So I think it’s something you want to look at but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine,” Trump added. “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily, because things are happening that are not good, but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”

Zelenskiy responded by telling Trump this: “Yes, you are absolutely right. Not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent.”

“And I can tell you the following: I did talk to Angela Merkel, and I did meet with her. I also met and talked with Macron,” Zelenskiy said, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron. “And I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing. … The European Union should be our biggest partner, but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union.”

[Ukraine controversy may scare off would-be whistleblowers]

The new Ukrainian leader goes on to declare himself “very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine.”

That’s where the conversation tiptoes along the line of a quid pro quo. House Democrats are sure to seize on what was said next as they mull bringing articles of impeachment to the floor.

“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps, specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelines from the United States for defense purposes,” Zelenskiy said, referring to an American-made anti-tank missile system. (The portable, shoulder-fired system is important to Ukraine since the Russian military still uses tanks.)

In a potentially damning response, Trump then said, “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 goes on to mention Crowdstrike, a company hired to look into a hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems during the 2016 presidential election. He also mentions former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

A short time later, the U.S. president, who now is just the fourth to face a formal impeachment inquiry, turns the conversation to former Vice President Joe Biden, a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. And he mentions the Ukrainian prosecutor whom Biden — along with other Democrats and a list of Western leaders — viewed as corrupt.

“Good, because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good, and he was shut down. And that’s really unfair,” Trump said just before asking Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son. “A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved.”

John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.