It is surprising that the Democrats have zeroed in on President Trump’s “I want you to do us a favor though” statement in the July 25, 2019 phone call with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. The request for a favor, alone, is an ambiguous statement and it carries little freight in that conversation unless you back a few lines. Certainly, what follows is evidence of a corrupt act by Trump to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election by starting an investigation whose mere existence would smear Joe Biden. Bad as that is, the run up to the request also demonstrates the existence of a long running effort to make Ukraine indebted to the US and Trump in particular so that Zelenskyy would feel obligated to do Trump’s bidding.
It’s all in the writeup of the phone call–and we don’t call it a transcript because there are missing elements. Nonetheless, Trump and his Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, and Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland have already stipulated to the veracity of the discussion.
Let’s start with what leads up to the ask with the call in progress.
The President: Well its 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. 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 [italics 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.
All of this happens before Trump’s famous request, but it’s really the culminating moment of a well-orchestrated and months long, mob shakedown. Trump sets the hook telling Zelenskyy of his debt to the great and powerful United States, not once but twice telling him that the US “has been very very good” to Ukraine.
For his part Zelenskyy plays the part of the supplicant flattering the ego of the man who can make or break his country by withholding aid. This moment is suggestive that Zelenskyy already knew that aid was being held up and he was doing whatever he could to both flatter Trump and try to get away from the encounter with some shred of dignity intact. Watch Zelenskyy tell Trump he’s right about something.
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. 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.
But take a moment to realize that both Trump and Zelenskyy were wrong about the EU’s contributions to Ukraine. In a September 2019 post, FactCheck.org revealed that,
“According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, EU institutions top the OECD’s list of the top 10 donors of official development assistance to Ukraine, with $425.2 million contributed on average for 2016–2017. The U.S. was second with $204.4 million in assistance, closely followed by Germany, which contributed $189.8 million on its own, in addition to contributions it would have made through the European Union.
The same article quotes Ian King, a British diplomat who from 2016 to 2019, served as defense counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington D.C., where he oversaw defense policy and nuclear cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States saying, “Those are sizable numbers, but the EU has given more.”
“The European Union is the largest donor to Ukraine” King wrote, estimating that the EU has given almost twice as much on average per year than the U.S. since 2014.
No matter. The EU’s contributions to Ukraine are far from parsimonious and the real issue for Zelenskyy was where he could obtain Javelin anti-tank missiles and that road went through Trump’s Washington. That’s where part of Trump’s power come from, he is the vendor of only resort and he knows it when he says,
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. 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 said 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.
This passage reveals that Trump was barely listening to Zelenskyy and only pausing long enough to let Zelenskyy flatter him before continuing on with his ask. In fact, it you can excise Zelenskyy’s flattery, and see that Trump is making a run-on statement.
“the United States has been very very good to Ukraine [italics 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.
“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.
It’s all one thought.
Also note the ellipses, those “…” places where there should be words. According to a story in the New York Times,
The note-takers and voice recognition software used during the July 25 call had missed Mr. Zelensky saying the word “Burisma,” according to people briefed on the matter, but the reconstructed transcript does refer to “the company,” and suggests that the Ukrainian president is aware that it is of great interest to Mr. Trump.
That’s why the White House approved readout of the call was not a transcript.
In all of this, Trump is acting like a mob boss, a racketeer. Wikipedia offers a concise definition:
A racket, according to the current common and most general definition, is an organized criminal act in which the criminal act is some form of substantial business, or a way to earn illegal money either regularly, or briefly but repeatedly. A racket is therefore generally a repeated or continuous organized criminal operation. However, according to the more specific definition, racketeering constitutes extortion or criminal coercion. Originally and often still specifically, a “racket” referred to a criminal act in which the perpetrator or perpetrators fraudulently offer a service to solve a nonexistent problem, a service that will not be put into effect, or a service that would not exist without the racket. Conducting a racket is racketeering. Particularly, the potential problem may be caused by the same party that offers to solve it, but that fact may be concealed, with the specific intent to engender continual patronage for this party.
Translation: Nice place you have here. It would be a shame if it burned down.
The evidence compiled by the House Intelligence Committee shows a long running pattern of abuse to manipulate Ukraine into doing Trump’s bidding starting with the effort to remove US Ambassador Marie Yvonovich led by Rudy Giuliani which began in March 2019.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have made much of how the phone call itself was no big deal but the call was really the culmination of a months-long effort to tighten a vice around a vulnerable ally. An effort to extort and coerce.
The transcript can’t be retracted and what Trump sees as “perfect” most other people see as a situation in which he is “Hoist with his own petard.” It’s a phrase from Hamlet in which the bomb maker is blown up by his own creation or petard. It’s meant to be ironic.
But the real irony is that the Democrats seem to want to focus so much on the phone call because it seems well defined and therefore digestible by the general public. Republicans do too because it’s easier to show it was a very little thing. But Perhaps the more serious charge is that the president is a mobster, a racketeer. Ultimately, regardless of how the impeachment trial turns out in the Senate, Trump appears to have exhibited a pattern of behavior not only while in office but also throughout his career. It’s behavior that, in addition to what he did or tried to do with Ukraine, also violated the RICO (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations) Act and includes wire fraud, money laundering, bank fraud and insurance fraud.
What’s really dangerous for the nation is that if Trump is not removed in the senate trial and cruises to re-election, he could make himself president-for-life. The last time something like that happened, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with an army in contravention of Roman law. Caesar effectively conquered Rome and, in doing so, extinguished democratic government from the earth for 18 centuries. Caesar only had primitive weapons like swords, spears and shields. What hope would we have?