In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.
On Wednesday, the morning after House Democrats launched an official impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, the White House released what it called a “transcript” of Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Already, Trump has admitted to asking Zelensky to investigate the Ukraine business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—and, more consequentially for the 2020 race, to look into the former vice president’s involvement in that country’s politics, too.
For days, Trump has insisted that the conversation was “absolutely perfect” and “totally appropriate,” and denied suggestions that he conditioned Ukraine’s receiving U.S. aid on Zelensky’s willingness to look for dirt on one of Trump’s political rivals. After seeing the document the White House released, House speaker Nancy Pelosi did not agree with his assessment. “The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security,” she said in a statement. “Clearly, the Congress must act.”
At Pelosi’s “notes of the call” language indicates, what the White House released is not a “complete, fully-declassified, and unredacted transcript,” as Trump promised. It is a “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation”—a document cobbled together from staffers’ notes and polished for posterity’s sake. Since this is the White House that allowed the president to use a Sharpie to doctor a hurricane map that didn’t match his amateur weather forecasts, there is good reason to be skeptical that these notes are a full accounting of what the two leaders discussed. Everything it claims that either man “says” should be taken with a Kellyanne Conway-sized grain of salt.
Even with this caveat in mind, the document is an astonishing record of how untroubled Trump seems to be with abusing the powers of his office, and doing so for personal gain—classic hallmarks of what previous congresses have treated as impeachable conduct. “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine,” he says. “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.”