Trump's Ukraine phone call, annotated

The President pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate US political rivals

By Zachary B. Wolf and Curt Merrill, CNN Published September 25, 2019


SUBJECT: Telephone Conversation with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine
PARTICIPANTS: President Zelenskyy of Ukraine
Notetakers: The White House Situation Room
DATE, TIME: July 25, 2019, 9:03 - 9:33 a.m. EDT
AND PLACE: Residence

CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. 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. The word “inaudible” is used to indicate portions of a conversation that the notetaker was unable to hear.

Reminder from the Situation Room notetakers: What we’re seeing here are detailed notes and not, strictly speaking, a word-for-word transcript.

The President

Congratulations on a great victory. We all watched from the United States and you did a terrific job. The way you came from behind, somebody who wasn’t given much of a chance, and you ended up winning easily. It’s a fantastic achievement. Congratulations.

Zelensky assumed office back in April, but at the time of this phone call his party had just won big in parliamentary elections.

It’s also worth noting here the Zelensky is a former comedian who, before becoming the president of Ukraine, literally played the president of Ukraine in a sitcom on TV.

President Zelenskyy

You are absolutely right Mr. President. We did win big and we worked hard for this. We worked a lot but I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you. We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example to our elections and yes it is true that these were unique elections. We were in a unique situation that we were able to achieve a unique success. I’m able to tell you the following; the first time you called me to congratulate me when I won my presidential election, and the second time you are now calling me when my party won the parliamentary election. I think I should run more often so you can call me more often and we can talk over the phone more often.

Following a pattern seen with other world leaders, the President of Ukraine returned Trump’s compliment with flattery.

The President

That’s a very good idea. I think your country is very happy about that.

President Zelenskyy

Well yes, to tell you the truth, we are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country. We brought in many many new people. Not the old politicians, not the typical politicians, because we want to have a new format and a new type of government. You are a great teacher for us and in that.

Zelensky is echoing Trump’s own campaign rhetoric to drain the swamp in the United States.

The President

Well it is very nice of you to say that I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are. Germany does almost nothing for you.

The US Congress had OK’d a lot indeed, nearly $400 million in aid for Ukraine this year alone, but Trump, just before this phone call, had put the skids on that aid for the fiscal year that ends this month. If he didn’t know it when this phone call took place, Zelensky was about to find out.

Trump’s stated reason for holding up the funding was to get European nations like Germany to give more financial aid to Ukraine.

The President (cont.)

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. 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. 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.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily.” Every word here matters and will be closely scrutinized, this line no doubt chief among them. What does Trump mean here?

President Zelenskyy

Yes you are absolutely right. Not only 100%, but actually 1000% 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 and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions. They are not enforcing the sanctions. They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine. It turns out that even though logically, the European Union should be our biggest partner but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union and I’m very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine. Much more than the European Union especially when we are talking about sanctions against the Russian Federation.

Both the US and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Zelensky is viewed as pro-Western since he has sought help from Europe and the United States and wants Ukraine to join the EU.

President Zelenskyy (cont.)

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 Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.

Subtext: Included in that nearly $400 million aid package is $250 million in military aid the Ukrainians were expecting from the US. Trump had held that aid up, but it was ultimately paid after an outcry on Capitol Hill.

The President

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. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people.

There is nothing subtle about “I would like you to do us a favor.”

This is Trump’s first mention of US politics. Crowdstrike is the firm that investigated a DNC data breach during the 2016 election. It’s also at the center of Rudy Giuliani’s effort to investigate how convicted tax evader and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was implicated for work he did in Ukraine.

The President (cont.)

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. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.

Within a few sentences of Zelensky asking for missiles, Trump is asking for him to work with the US attorney general on a matter relating to helping Manafort. It was the Department of Justice, which Barr now leads, that tried Manafort.

This phone conversation occurred the day after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress about his report on interactions between Trump’s campaign and Russians and also Trump’s many documented efforts to squash the investigation. No one was charged with coordination with Russia on their election interference, but Manafort was convicted of tax evasion. He made millions in Ukraine he did not report as income.

President Zelenskyy

Yes it is very important for me and everything that you just mentioned earlier. For me as a President, it is very important and we are open for any future cooperation. We are ready to open a new page on cooperation in relations between the United States and Ukraine. For that purpose, I just recalled our ambassador from United States and he will be replaced by a very competent and very experienced ambassador who will work hard on making sure that our two nations are getting closer. I would also like and hope to see him having your trust and your confidence and have personal relations with you so we can cooperate even more so. I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine. I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us. I will make sure that I surround myself with the best and most experienced people. I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership. I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly. That I can assure you.

Zelensky isn’t exactly saying no to Trump here.

This is proof that Zelensky was already aware of Giuliani’s efforts. Those include both the Manafort angle and pressure to look at the Bidens. Giuliani did ultimately meet with a Zelensky confidant in Madrid not long after this call took place.

Trump asks for a favor. Zelensky said, essentially, “you got it.”

The President

Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. 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. Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.

Biden, many Ukrainians and other Western officials wanted the top Ukrainian prosecutor, Shokin, fired because he wasn’t prosecuting corruption. In Trump’s telling, he was “shut down and that’s really unfair.”

Trump specifically asks Zelensky to listen to Giuliani, his attorney who wants an investigation of Biden. The addition of Attorney General William Barr, the top prosecutor in the US, may be a new politicization of the DOJ beyond what we’ve seen.

Giuliani has said that his ongoing efforts to pursue Hillary Clinton took him to Ukraine. He has alleged that she and Democrats were behind the effort to discredit Manafort. “In the course of investigating that, I found out this incredible story about Joe Biden, that he bribed the President of the Ukraine in order to fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son,” Giuliani said on CNN last week, alleging a media coverup.

The President (cont.)

The former ambassador from the United States, the woman was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, here’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.

The US ambassador to Ukraine, a career diplomat named Marie Yovanovitch, was recalled in May after allegations against her in conservative media and also from the then prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko. In any case, this almost certainly proves her removal was politically motivated, as was alleged by the Democrats at the time.

Here is CNN’s Fact Check of Trump and Giuliani’s allegations about Biden.

President Zelenskyy

I wanted to tell you about the prosecutor. First of all I understand and I’m knowledgeable about the situation. Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament; the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate, who will be approved, by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue. The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case. On top of that, I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us, it would be very helpful for the investigation to make sure that we administer justice in our country with regard to the Ambassador to the United States from Ukraine as far as I recall her name was Ivanovich. It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%. Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new President well enough.

Zelensky promises to appoint a new prosecutor who will look into Hunter Biden’s former business interests, and makes sure to say it will have to be done honestly.

Trump has a history of complaining about ambassadors.

The President

Well, she’s going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out. I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor so good luck with everything. Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets. It’s a great country. I have many Ukrainian friends, they are incredible people.

If you’re counting, this is the fourth time Trump has brought up Giuliani.

Trump seems to be referring to the prosecutor, Victor Shokin, who many Ukrainians and Western officials did not think was rooting out corruption. Biden bragged in 2018 about his success in pressuring for Shokin’s outster.

President Zelenskyy

I would like to tell you that I also have quite a few Ukrainian friends that live in the United States. Actually last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower. I will talk to them and I hope to see them again in the future. I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington DC. On the other hand, I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation. As to the economy, there is much potential for our two countries and one of the issues that is very important for Ukraine is energy independence. I believe we can be very successful and cooperating on energy independence with United States. We are already working on cooperation. We are buying American oil but I am very hopeful for a future meeting. We will have more time and more opportunities to discuss these opportunities and get to know each other better. I would like to thank you very much for your support.

This is certainly further confirmation that foreign officials hope their patronage of Trump’s properties will win them points.

Exporting US oil and natural gas is a key issue for Trump.

The President

Good. Well., thank you very much and I appreciate that. I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call. Give us a date and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.

If Zelensky hasn’t gotten the message that he should talk to Giuliani, perhaps he does now.

President Zelenskyy

Thank you very much. I would be very happy to come and would be happy to meet with you personally and get to know you better. I am looking forward to our meeting and I also would like to invite you to visit Ukraine and come to the city of Kyiv which is a beautiful city. We have a beautiful country which would welcome you. On the other hand, I believe that on September 1 we will be in Poland and we can meet in Poland hopefully. After that, it might be a very good idea for you to travel to Ukraine. We can either take my plane and go to Ukraine or we can take your plane, which is probably much better than mine.

Trump claimed he had to cancel this trip to monitor developments for Hurricane Dorian. He also did some golfing.

Mike Pence went and met with Zelensky in Poland. Pence denied bringing up the Biden issue, but very much discussed US aid to Ukraine and the issue of corruption.

The President

Okay, we can work that out. I look forward to seeing you in Washington and maybe in Poland because I think we are going to be there at that time.

President Zelenskyy

Thank you very much, Mr. President.

The President

Congratulations on a fantastic job you’ve done. The whole world was watching. I’m not sure it was so much of an upset but congratulations.

President Zelenskyy

Thank you Mr. President bye-bye.

End of Conversation